Watching football on Thanksgiving weekend reminded me of younger days when the NFL was a passion of mine. In recent years it has become more of a diversionary interest, and I no longer know who is who, or which teams are the ones to beat. While the league is still blessed with some admirable players, the ones I tend to remember now, unfortunately, are those who behave notoriously off the field or insufferably on it. But sitting among family on the holiday, I happily remembered Pat Tillman, the best story the NFL has had in many years.
Pat Tillman was the starting strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals when the 9/11 attacks occurred. He played out the 2001 season and then with his brother Kevin, a former minor league baseball player, enlisted in the Army Rangers. In doing so, Tillman walked away from a three-year, $3.6 million dollar contract with the Cardinals for an $18,000 salary and plentiful opportunities to get his head shot off. That hasn't happened yet, and God willing it won't. But the pay cut kicked in right away.
Some Internet surfing revealed that the Tillman brothers are currently deployed somewhere in the Middle East with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. On the weekend before Thanksgiving, the brothers spoke briefly with their parents, who do not know where they are or what mission they are pursuing. They do know that their sons were in Iraq in the spring during the height of the fighting, and that this summer they were briefly stateside at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington.
Outside of an ESPY award earlier this year and the occasional column, Tillman's story has gotten little press, but it's not all the media's fault. For one thing, as Tillman's parents well know, there is precious little information. For another, the Tillmans have not granted a single interview since their enlistment. Apparently determined that their endeavor not be construed as self-aggrandizing or insincere, they have simply done what they said they would do -- leave behind the fantasy world of sports to serve their country.
It would be a remarkable story in any time, but in a more cynical age it is nothing short of breathtaking. Imagine a 26-year old American male, talented enough to play in the National Football League and earn millions of dollars, leaving because he felt he had more important things to do. What could be more important than riches and fame? Why sacrifice when our culture so often portrays sacrifice as the preserve of misfits and losers? For many observers, Tillman's decision had to have an explanation more rational, and less abstract, than mere nobility.
Certainly that was the attitude of Tillman's former teammate Simeon Rice, who now plays with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rice suggested that Tillman might be joining the army because he wasn't a very good football player anyway. While Tillman was not an All-Pro, he did set a Cardinals team record with 224 tackles in 2000. Even if Rice's charge were true, it takes an especially small person to voice such a thought publicly. But then the NFL happens to be densely populated with such men, including Rice's Tampa Bay teammate, the repulsive Warren Sapp.
In his inability to understand Tillman's patriotism, Rice no doubt spoke for many of his NFL colleagues. His incomprehension was further in evidence when, prompted by an interviewer, he acknowledged that his former teammate's decision was "admirable." Did Rice belatedly realize that it was patriotism -- one of the oldest virtues -- that had motivated Tillman? Of course not:
"Maybe it was the Rambo movies?" he asked. "Maybe it's Sylvester Stallone and Rocky?"
Right. If it isn't pure self-interest, then it must be unadulterated fantasy. Such is the mentality of a good portion of professional athletes today, particularly in the NFL, a once-proud league now overrun by exhibitionists whose constant preening is often difficult to distinguish from professional wrestling.
While media coverage of the Tillman story has been very positive, a subtle "wait and see" attitude prevails in some of the pieces that have been written, as if some revelation about a big-bucks contract, or perhaps a movie deal, will surface sooner or later to compromise his decision. The "mystery" some commentators see in Tillman's actions is almost certainly the result of his refusal to grant interviews; if he would only sit for a weepy tell-all, all of their doubts could be put to rest.
For most normal people, though, the story is pretty simple -- somewhere in the Middle East, Pat Tillman is serving the United States because he believes it is his duty. Meanwhile, back in the NFL, a contingent of helmeted narcissists -- Rice, Sapp, Jeremy Shockey, take your pick -- grow rich. The closest any of them will come to war is in the numbing military metaphors that have long been part of the repertoire of NFL players, coaches and broadcasters.
Pat Tillman knows where the real war is, which is why he left the fake one behind. If he decides to return to football when his three-year tour of duty is up, he would have the impact of a human disinfectant on the NFL. And his fellow players would owe him their gratitude -- even Simeon Rice, assuming he can reach that high.
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