When Bruce Snyder, Arizona State’s football coach asked Pat Tillman to redshirt his freshman year—a move that would have extended his eligibility, but would have required Pat to stay in college for an extra year—Pat reportedly explained to him that “in four years I’m gone. I’ve got things to do with my life.” He finished in 3 ½ years, and the things he would do with his life—tragically cut short this past week in Afghanistan—would surprise and amaze us all.
Pat had what was once called scrap. He worked hard, and he hit hard. At Arizona State, the critics said he was too small for linebacker, yet he won the PAC-10 conference defensive player of the year in 1997. The Cardinals selected him near the bottom of the NFL draft—226th out of 241 total picks. After proving himself on special teams, the critics then claimed he was too slow to be effective in the safety position. But he proved them wrong again, breaking the franchise record with 224 tackles in the 2000 season. His was a story of determination, and it was paying off. He had a $3.6 million contract, a new bride, and had received (and turned down) a far more lucrative offer from the St. Louis Rams.
But it was his next move that was the most surprising. After all his hard work to succeed in football, he chose to walk away from the league just when he was at the top of his game. This decision was not impetuous. He recognized that there was something bigger—something more important. On September 12, 2001, moved by the events of 9/11, Pat gave the press a rare glimpse into the deliberations leading up to his decision to join the Army: “My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that… And so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for.” In a conversation with Larry Marmie, the Cardinals defensive coordinator, he talked of the need to “pay something back” for the comfortable life he had been afforded.
And so Pat and his brother Kevin, who had been a minor league baseball prospect for the Cleveland Indians, joined the Army. They both made it through the rigorous training necessary to become Rangers, and both fought in the Middle East before Pat was sent to Afghanistan. In so doing, Pat not only gave up a lucrative job, but celebrity status to boot. He showed up to basic training riding the bus like everyone else. There was no Elvis haircut moment, and no interviews—period. He even instructed his family not to talk to the press.
There is a temptation to say that Pat Tillman demonstrated a courage and ethic belonging peculiarly to a previous generation—perhaps Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation—one in which athletes and movie stars served. But that would be a mistake. This generation should not be underestimated. The young men of today’s military have done something which the Greatest Generation did not have to do: they volunteered to serve after the Brokaws of the world lost faith in the American military. These soldiers have fought valiantly in Afghanistan after the press all but forgot them, and in Iraq after the press, yielding to unfounded accusations, forgot who they were. They have seen recent military victories cast as defeats. They answered the call to higher duty, only to have the elites question it as lower-class service. And despite politicians using the shameful rhetoric of “quagmire,” the number of volunteer soldiers is increasing.
While the success that Pat Tillman achieved prior to joining the Army makes his path unique, in many ways his story is repeated in the lives of countless other soldiers—soldiers who in varying degrees were athletes and scholars, with new families and bright futures; soldiers who after 9/11 walked away from established careers because they felt they owed something for the comfortable lives they had been given.
There is no need to get into a debate about which generation is “greatest,” for there are plenty of examples of courage and honor in each. But it is time to lay aside the recurring doubts about the conviction of this generation. This is Pat Tillman’s generation, and as he and his fellow soldiers have so ably shown, this generation has greatness of its own.
Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.