ASU's Ishmael Thrower (49) enters Ryan Field carrying a U.S. flag before the start of their game with Northwestern Sept. 11, 2004. As part of the pre-game activities, former Arizona State linebacker Pat Tillman was honored.
March 28, 2008
By Adam Caparell
Caparell is CSTV.com's football editor and national football writer.
It takes a different kind of player to march into the coach's office as a freshman, before fall camp has even started, and declare that he won't be red-shirted. It's a move made all the more audacious considering the player was one of the last recruits signed in the Class of 1994.
But that was Pat Tillman for you. He was different than your average freshman and different than your average college football player. It's cliché to say, but the guy was special, in so many different ways.
After all, how many people would give up millions of NFL dollars to fight the
Since then he's posthumously received numerous awards, accolades and tributes. There's a Pat Tillman Foundation, Pat Tillman scholarships, retired jerseys and a legacy of courage and sacrifice that spans sports and society. But before Tillman was an American hero, he was a football player. And now, as the four year anniversary of his death approaches April 22, Tillman's legacy could very well grow larger.
You see, Tillman is one of 75 former Division I-A players eligible for enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame next summer. Appearing on this year's ballot for the first time, perhaps no other name sticks out as much as his. After all, Tillman's story is as well known as any, but as famous as he has become after death it's easy to forget how good Tillman was when he was alive and leading the Sun Devils on defense.
"I coached close to 40 years, 20-some as a head coach," said Tillman's head coach at Arizona State, Bruce Snyder, "and this guy was remarkable, just a remarkable guy."
Named the 1997 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-American, Tillman manned the outside linebacker position like few others for two years, dishing out vicious hits, forcing fumbles, picking off passes and providing unquestioned leadership during one of the greatest two year stretches Arizona State has ever seen.
During Tillman's junior season, the Sun Devils went undefeated in the regular season, winning 11 games and making a run to the program's second Rose Bowl behind gun slinging quarterback Jake Plummer and the defense Tillman anchored. He led the Sun Devils in interceptions that year and finished second in tackles. His senior season, he led the team in tackles on their way to the Sun Bowl. From a special teams player his freshman season, to a full-time starter his junior year, by the time the 1996 season had concluded, Tillman was one of the most feared and respected linebacker's in not only the Pac-10, but the country.
"You'd go to head coaches meetings and they'd say, `How about that Tillman guy you got?'" Snyder said.
Tillman's deceptive speed and fiery intensity made him one of the premier players at his position. He was a ferocious tackler who would sniff out a play like a bloodhound. Only you never would have guessed it based on his off-the-field demeanor. Mostly quiet and reserved away from the game, Tillman would pick his spots when to speak his mind. And when he did speak, he wouldn't pull any punches - the passion was immediately evident, just like out on the football field where he went hard every play of every practice and every game.
"He was just one of those guys who came out and played," Tillman's four year teammate at ASU, Jason Simmons, said. "You'd be like, `Where did all this enthusiasm come from?' You asked him a question he was more reserved than people think. He wasn't always a rah-rah guy, but when he got onto that field he was the most intense guy I've ever seen."
For such a remarkable player, Tillman's college career started off rather unremarkably. Not highly recruited out of high school, Snyder and the rest of the Sun Devils had almost no idea who Tillman was before assistant coach Dick Arbuckle began to speak up during recruiting meetings about some kid from the
But Arbuckle, a long time friend of Snyder's, was insistent on this kid from
With the recruiting process winding down and Signing Day quickly approaching, Snyder had a slot for a visit and offered it to Tillman, based on the strong recommendation of Arbuckle. Snyder stressed, though, that they were not officially recruiting Tillman. But if he could visit, time would be set aside for a meeting.
Tillman took them up on the offer and visited the
An hour later, Snyder offered Tillman a scholarship. Snyder usually met with recruits for 20 minutes at most, using the time to try and get a feel for each potential player, but what Tillman had to say that day hooked Snyder instantly. As he stepped out of the office, Snyder knew why Arbuckle had been so adamant the Sun Devils recruit Tillman.
"Not only do I want Pat on our football team, I believe that we need him on our football team," Snyder said when he emerged from his office, with an eager Arbuckle waiting to find out how the meeting went.
So Tillman would be a Sun Devil and would return to campus when summer rolled around, at which time he entered Snyder's office again. Within his first eight days of being on campus, Tillman had declared two things to Snyder. For starters, he would not be red-shirted. He told Snyder he didn't have a year of his life to waste sitting on the sidelines. He wanted to graduate in four years and move on. Second, he was insistent that he did not need any academic advising, as was required of all freshmen. Tillman promised Snyder that day that he would never be a problem, whether it be academically or legally, and Snyder learned quickly that Tillman was a man of his word. He graduated in three and a half years with a 3.86 GPA.
And as impressive a student as Tillman was in the classroom, it didn't take long for his talents and drive to impress teammates and opponents on the field.
His freshman year he starred on special teams and saw spot duty at linebacker his sophomore season. By the time he was well into his junior season, Tillman was on his way to establishing himself as a big time player and big time leader. Tillman wasn't the most out-spoken person on the Sun Devils team, but when he talked people listened. More importantly, they followed his lead.
"He was the unsung leader on that team," Simmons said. "You had the Jake Plummers on that team, but guys followed Pat. Him holding the flag, leading us onto the field is one of those things you remember."
Tillman's conditioning was another thing to behold. No matter the situation, no matter the circumstance, he never tired. Forget about four, the guy could have gone six quarters. His decision making was as sharp in the fourth quarter as it was in the first and it was his quick decision making that made him the Sun Devil's second leading tackler his junior season and the leading tackler his senior year.
"It was one of those things like how was this guy continually making plays," Simmons said. "They say big time players step up in big time games, Pat was one of those guys. He always seemed to make the plays when they counted."
There's no doubt in Snyder's mind that he was one of the best - he designed specific defensive schemes around Tillman and his talents. And Tillman would not only prove Snyder right every Saturday, but maybe most memorably in practice every week.
After Snyder would insert the meat and potatoes of the game plan early in the week, he would throw in some trick plays to try and catch the defense off-guard.
"Pat was the guy who, if I fooled him, I knew I had something," Snyder said. "I know this for sure; I never fooled him twice with the same play.
"He would stop the play and on his way back to the defensive huddle, he wouldn't look at me - I think he wanted to - but there would be a little smirk on his face that said, `You're not going to get one on me.' And if I ever got him on one, he would come back to the huddle with a slightly different look on his face like, `He's not going to get that again.' And I think we were communicating even though there was nothing being said and very little eye-contact. But it was fun."
The Sun Devils had a lot of fun with Tillman because they were winning.
"People will question how a guy who was 5-foot-11, 200 pounds found a way to play linebacker," Simmons said. "Well he found a way to do it.
"People will say he was an overachiever. People underestimated, or under-evaluated him."
Kind of like how many may be underestimating his credentials for the Hall of Fame. Snyder hopes his military service doesn't play a role in getting him inducted - he's already been honored by the National Football Foundation, which oversees the College Football Hall of Fame, with its Distinguished American Award in 2006. Simmons thinks he's a Hall of Famer and hopes his credentials on the field speak for itself.
"Pat was the ultimate competitor, one of those people who said `If you can do it, I can do it, too.'" Simmons said. "That's what made him the best player he could be."
Tillman certainly marched to his own beat. He was an independent thinker who had his own priorities and values, but he was someone everyone respected and looked up to, in large part because he played with a different kind of purpose and fire that others only wished they could match.
Tillman was different, alright. It takes a different kind of 17-year-old to walk into a coach's office and demand - not defiantly, mind you - how his career is going to take shape. It takes a different kind of individual to give up what's easy for a life of service and duty. A life, in that situation, that isn't guaranteed from one day to the next.
And it takes a different kind of player to deserve immortal status among college football's greats. But Pat Tillman, as we know, was different from the rest. Different in a good way.