If you look up the word “hero” in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, you will find two unique definitions of the term:
Looking at those descriptions, one can easily see how they fit for Pat Tillman.
The eldest of three sons, Tillman grew up in San Jose, Calif. Those who knew him always felt he was a natural leader and one you could count on to always push himself and those around him to try and excel.
Though undersized, Tillman excelled in sports, especially football. After helping to lead Leland High School to the Central Coast Division I championship in 1993, Arizona State offered him a scholarship. He went on to help lead the Sun Devils to a Rose Bowl win while earning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
His grit, determination, and off-the-charts intangibles had the NFL come calling in 1998. His critics and doubters were silenced almost immediately as he became a starter in his first season with the Arizona Cardinals. For the next four seasons, Tillman was a team leader both on and off the field.
At the height of his career, he walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract and football glory to follow another path.
The day after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Tillman told a reporter, “At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”
In 2002, Pat married his high school sweetheart, Marie; after their honeymoon, he informed the Cardinals he had decided to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother, Kevin. They were assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman would lose his life in the service of his country in Afghanistan in April 2004.
His legacy has impacted those he never even met.
“I never got the opportunity to meet Pat before he passed away, but I've gotten to know him through Marie and through his family members,” said Killjan Anderson, the executive director of the Pat Tillman Foundation. “Pat was a hero and Marie is my hero. This family is truly inspirational and I'm fortunate to be a part of this organization.”
His story stirred the emotions of millions and inspired countless more. If the story of Pat Tillman, the football star who gave up fortune and fame to serve his country, would have ended there, it would have been enough for a truly amazing story.
But that's not the end. Not even close.
Marie Tillman started the Tillman Foundation in 2004 with a $1.25 million pledge to Arizona State University to create the Tillman Scholars. The Scholars are post-9/11 military veterans and their spouses from across the country. Each year, up to 60 applicants are selected based on their strength of character and potential to literally change the world.
“We give out these scholarships every year,” Anderson said. “At the end of the day, these are really high-ceiling military veterans and spouses with proven track records that, through their life experiences, have unlocked causes that they truly care about. In their application, they have to articulate to us a problem that they want to fix.”
With this year's class, there will be more than 500 Tillman Scholars in the world. They come from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs and educators, to name a few.
Posthumously, Pat Tillman was inducted as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. His number 40 and his number 42 have been retired by the Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State, respectively. A bronze statue of Tillman, with his trademark long hair wildly flowing behind him, stands outside the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
These are all amazing accolades and honors and are truly fitting ways to honor Tillman's legacy. But thanks to the Foundation, that legacy is more. Much more.
“At the end of the day, I am absolutely certain that there will be a President of the United States as well as a president of a Fortune 500 company that's a Tillman Scholar,” Anderson said. “There will be community leaders that are Tillman Scholars. These are exceptional men and women. These remarkable people will be shedding a light on Pat's story for decades to come. I think that's the most appropriate way to honor his legacy.”