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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

SPORTS SCOPE

Could Tillman have made greater impact on different path?


It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman last week in a firefight in Afghanistan.

Jack Gallagher

A native of my hometown of San Jose, Calif., Tillman was only 27 at the time of his death. After starting 39 games in four seasons for the Arizona Cardinals, he had temporarily given up a career in pro football to serve his country.

The announcement of his death was followed by a stream of tributes from just about every corner of American society. Former teammates, coaches, friends, media and even politicians were effusive in their praise of Tillman, who made the ultimate sacrifice.

It was clearly well deserved, but it gave me pause. Whenever I see everybody writing or saying the same thing, I instinctively take a step back and try to reflect on the issue.

What Tillman, who starred at Leland High School and Arizona State, did was both admirable and courageous. He walked away from a $3.6 million deal in the NFL to join the U.S. Army, for a salary of approximately $17,000 a year, at a time he felt America needed him.

But the question I keep asking myself is, was it wise?

News photo
Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative career in the NFL to join the army and serve his country in a time of need. He died after being wounded in combat in Afghanistan on April 22.

Was this the best way for a young, vibrant man, who had so much going for him, to show his patriotism?

Could he have not had an even greater impact by joining the army and helping with recruiting?

That's what many prominent athletes of yesteryear did during past wars. Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays, to name just a few.

They joined the military and had great impact by using their name and fame to help boost the spirits of the troops and recruitment.

Sure, there have also been many prominent athletes who served on the front lines.

Ted Williams probably being one of the greatest examples. He was an outstanding fighter pilot for the U.S. in both World War II and the Korean War, and returned to play for the Boston Red Sox following both stints in the military.

I guess what intrigues me the most about Tillman's case is the fact that he was a professional athlete who wanted to make a difference for his country and thought the best way to do this was by enlisting for combat.

Nothing wrong with that, but I just wonder if somebody shouldn't have said to him: "Your heart is in the right place, but . . . "

The Army Rangers, the elite unit that Tillman and his brother Kevin were both serving with, are often in the toughest of battles at the forefront of conflicts.

I wonder if only two years of experience is enough for someone with no previous background in the military to be fighting at this level?

Tillman reportedly informed a friend around April 1 that he was heading to Afghanistan. On April 22, less than three weeks after setting foot in the war-torn nation, he was dead.

A very wise businessman once said of changing careers: "Stick with what you know."

I have remembered this over the years and found it to be very true.

Pat Tillman was a football player. While clearly a warrior on the field, I just don't know if that translates, exactly, into the same thing on the battlefield.

Over the past year, when I have seen the roll call of those Americans who died in battle in both Afghanistan and Iraq, on the television news, I often think about how every one of these individuals had families, friends and dreams for the future.

It is heartbreaking to see how young some of these people are. Any time a young person dies it is a tragedy.

Tillman leaves behind a wife, parents and a brother. He lived more in his 27 years than most people would in 77, but he had so much more to give to the world.

True, it was his life, and he went out doing what he wanted to. But I feel regret that a kid who was lucky enough to grow up in the South Bay and make it all the way to the NFL, became a statistic in the desert of Afghanistan.

A few years ago I was asked for my take on life by somebody.

I thought about if for a few seconds and said:

"At 25 you think you know everything. At 35 you know you don't."

It was the realization that with maturity comes wisdom.

Pat Tillman was 25 when he joined the army. Sadly, he won't have the chance to look back on his youth.



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