Special Report

Tillman the Great

An American hero for the ages, not just ours.

By 4.26.04

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"They're all Pat Tillmans," Rush Limbaugh said on Friday, referring to our troops overseas in general and the flag-draped caskets in particular. And he's right in many ways. Our troops deserve to be celebrated in life the way Tillman has been in death. They come from all segments of our society, and all of them are putting on hold the lives they would be living here.

Even so, there is no denying that Pat Tillman's was a story apart. He had attained at the age of 26 what must be the dream of almost every American male: success and wealth as a professional athlete. To join the U.S. Army Rangers, he left a 3-year, $3.6 million dollar contract from the Arizona Cardinals on the table. After September 11th, life as a pro football player was not enough. Instead, Tillman listened to an inner voice that directed him to a destiny of classical heroism: he gave up everything and laid down his life for his country.

It doesn't make his life any more precious than those of his fallen comrades, but it does make him unusual, and history tends to remember the unusual.

Tillman has been compared to other American athletes who served in our wars, particularly World War II: men like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller, as well as lesser known athletes who actually died in combat. But while their service should always be celebrated, it is important to distinguish between them and Tillman. Those men answered the call of a country fully mobilized for war. Millions were in uniform and few families were not directly affected by the conflict.

The only call Tillman answered, on the other hand, was the one that came from his own heart. No one demanded this of him; no one even asked. But he saw the war, in a time when many find it hard to see, and he went out to meet it. In doing so, he walked across what has become a chasm between the civilian world and the military world. He crossed it as anonymously as he could, avoiding the Biblical sin of pride. He refused every interview request, every opportunity to gain renown.

Tillman's story should be taught in our schools as a contemporary example of patriotic sacrifice. It seems as if he sprang out of the pages of Homer to remind us that the ancient virtues never die, and yet he came from our own age. His sacrifice for America is worthy of an honored place in our history.

That he was a mere football player, as opposed to a general or statesman, should not detract from his standing. On the contrary: few professions in American life are more synonymous with power and prestige than professional sports. Few countries place such a premium on athletics as an expression of national character and an arena for heroic aspiration. Tillman's choice -- service to his country over a life of fame and pleasure -- is a case study of great moral character in action.

On the football field, Tillman threw down running backs with the same gusto in which he lived. In death, he throws down a challenge to all of us. What are we willing to sacrifice for what we believe?

For Tillman's old colleagues in pro sports, the concept of sacrifice often seems utterly foreign. (Witness this weekend's melodrama of Eli Manning and his refusal to play for the team that drafted him, the San Diego Chargers.) While no one is expecting today's athletes to emulate Tillman, his life offers them, at the least, a challenge of another kind: In a country that asks you for nothing, might you at least act honorably on the field and off?

For me, Pat Tillman's story comes down to two words: nobility and beauty. A New York Times columnist wrote on Saturday that Tillman's mission with the Rangers had "ended unhappily," but I can't imagine Tillman putting it that way. He understood so well what he was doing. He lived the truth that the Roman philosopher Seneca taught: "Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man's power to live long."

I hope Pat Tillman's nobility will live long in every American heart. As somber as the news was on Friday, the character of his sacrifice is truly a thing of beauty.

When it comes to beauty, I always defer to the experts. So I'll give last word on the fallen Tillman to John Keats and his time-honored lines:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Paul Beston is a writer in New York City.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.