While away for a few days over the Christmas holiday, I read — devoured, actually — the Jon Krakauer book about Pat Tillman, “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” I’ll spare readers any politics about the many levels of cover-up there were regarding Tillman’s death by friendly fire. As we enter a new year and decade, however, it’s instructive to focus on the inspiring memory of a football player who was so much more.
I never had the opportunity to meet Tillman but heard about him through people who did, including a player we had on the Packers who knew him well from Arizona State, Grey Reugamer (a quality guy in his own right).
Perhaps the overriding message in reading about Tillman is that with so many opportunities we have to go beyond our comfort zones and take more risky yet rewarding paths, we too often settle for the easy choice.
Tillman had a comfortable life, an ascending career and escalating financial opportunities thanks to his growing prowess on the field. He was offered not one but two free-agent contracts to reap the benefits of playing his first three years under the most meager of wages possible for an NFL player, that of a seventh-round draft choice.
After playing his first three years with the Arizona Cardinals for minimum salaries and a signing bonus of $21,000, Pat was about to be one of the few players in the NFL to be rewarded as a restricted free agent, with a then-impressive offer from the St. Louis Rams. He said no to the Rams and the NFL and yes to the United States Army.
A year later, given the opportunity to leave combat again and join the Seahawks, he had the same answer. Tillman wanted no publicity for shunning the comfortable and lucrative life of an NFL player for the life of an entry-level soldier in training. Although unhappy in his chosen life and missing his wife terribly, he simply felt he needed to step up and do the right thing.
The more I read about Tillman, the more inspired I become. He was a true alpha male, naturally pulling in others to follow his lead as if drawn by a magnetic force. He was intensely curious, always challenging the status quo and interested in everyone, especially drawn to the weaker members of the clan. Moreover, Tillman appeared to be a great listener, soaking in knowledge about people, places and causes with a voracious appetite for learning more and being more. He dutifully kept a journal of his thoughts, something that turned out to be a fortuitous memory for those dear to him.
Tillman soared past the comfort zone of being a professional football player and the life it presented. Instead of asking “why,” he appeared to want to know “why not,” putting weeks of research into his decision to enlist and making sure it was not an emotional decision he would regret. While many NFL players said the right things about 9/11 and the atrocities of the day, Tillman lived his commitment through actions rather than words.
To so many who were interviewed for the book, Tillman’s enlistment was not a total shock. Again, in going beyond the comfort zone, he was one to do more than the average NFL player.
As another example, Tillman participated in triathlons in the offseason. NFL players have offseasons that are longer than their seasons and are afforded loads of time to make of them what they wish. Few, if any, would even think of competing in a triathlon, chalking it up to training that would not help their functionality as football players.
Perhaps true, perhaps not. Having done a few triathlons, I can attest to the fact that these athletes are not the rail-thin, concave-chested competitors that some images conjure; rather, many are built the same way Tillman was and are as finely tuned as any.
Perhaps the most enduring comment I’ve heard about Tillman came from his father on one of the many retrospectives done at the time of his death. He said that Pat sensed that many people — men, in particular — have lingering regrets concerning a time or times in their lives when they had opportunities to step up and – for whatever reason — did not. Pat didn’t want those doubts in his life.
As we enter a New Year with a flourish of hope for individual and collective enhancement, perhaps we can look to Pat Tillman for an enduring resolution to leave our comfort zones and step up when opportunities arise.
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