Pat Tillman will forever be remembered for his story off the field. Yes, he was an All-American safety in college and became an All-Pro safety for the Arizona Cardinals despite his 5-foot-11 frame. But Tillman is remembered each year for his sacrifice to his country.
Tillman put his NFL career on hold in 2002 and walked away from a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to join the United States Army following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Two years later, he was killed in a friendly fire accident in Afghanistan.
While Tillman is generally revered as an American hero today, he was a gifted football player. As a long-haired studious kid at Arizona State University, he played linebacker for the Sun Devils and won the 1997 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Tillman maintained a 3.85 GPA before graduating and becoming a seventh-round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.
It was in Tempe, Arizona, that Tillman put together the game of his life and ultimately propelled his NCAA career.
Arizona State End Nebraska’s Win Streak
The 1996 Arizona State football team was special. Led by Jake Plummer, the Sun Devils went undefeated throughout the regular season before losing to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
No game was bigger than the one against No. 1 Nebraska on September 21, 1996. Quarterback Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers were back-to-back champions and looking for a third straight title that season. They demolished ASU, 77-28, the year prior but failed to even score in ’96.
Tillman was a large reason why.
The Friday before the game, Tillman was one of the team leaders to ask coaches to leave a team meeting. They spoke about what this game meant. It worked.
The Sun Devils linebacker was instrumental in stifling Frost and future Pro Bowl running back Ahman Green. Tillman flew all over the field, making tackles and recovering fumbles. On that day, he was a mad man when chasing after Cornhuskers players.
As his ASU bio states, he “played the game with reckless abandon.”
“He was hard as hell to block,” former ASU left guard Kyle Murphy told The Post Game. “Pat was our weakside linebacker, and he was fast and he was football smart. We used to do the Oklahoma Drill and he was one of the hardest guys to ever hit. A dude that small is not supposed to hit you that hard. He was solid muscle. In games, guys had a hard time against him because he used everything he had. He’d beat them with preparation and speed.”
Arizona State shut Nebraska out, 19-0. The lasting image? Pat Tillman, who had just recovered a fumble, holding the football.
Tillman’s college career was much of the same. He played an even better game the next week against Oregon, making numerous tackles as well as recording an interception, fumble and a sack en route to winning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week.
In 1997, Tillman led ASU with 93 tackles, including 47 unassisted stops. He posted 15 tackles for loss, four sacks and three interceptions. Arizona State then won the 1997 Sun Bowl, marking the first time in a decade they’d played in consecutive bowl games.
Beyond the gridiron, Tillman showed his prowess in the classroom. He won the Clyde B. Smith Academic Award in 1996 and Sporting News Honda Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1997. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Pat Tillman Is Immortalized at Arizona State
Tillman played four seasons in the NFL, tallying 340 tackles before enlisting in the U.S. Army Rangers in 2002 and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After his death in 2004, he was immortalized at Arizona State University. The school in 2017 unveiled a 6-foot, 400-pound bronze statue of the hero outside of Tillman Tunnel, where players run out onto the field at Sun Devil Stadium. Another statue of him sits at State Farm Stadium (formerly University of Phoenix Stadium) in Glendale, Arizona.
The Pat Tillman Veterans Center at ASU is also named after him. The center honors the football star and military veteran’s legacy while supporting Arizona State the military and veteran community.
And as an NFL military partner, the Pat Tillman Foundation is dedicated to supporting veterans and their families through opportunities like scholarships. The organization holds an annual Pat’s Run, which attracts more than 30,000 people and raises money for the Tillman Military Scholars.
Pat’s legacy will never be forgotten. He was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart for his military service. But let’s make sure it includes his incredible ASU football career and time in the NFL as well.