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The Truth About Pat Tillman’s NFL Career

“Passion is kind of an important word for me.”

The real truth about Pat Tillman's NFL career and the untold story of an American hero, published ahead of Memorial Day 2024
Credit-The Pat Tillman Foundation/ASU/Arizona Cardinals/Joker Mag

“Somewhere inside, we hear a voice.”

“It leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow.”

Memorial Day is dedicated to honoring those who lost their lives while defending our nation.

In NFL circles, Pat Tillman’s name comes up often this time of year.

Eight months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract offer from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army and fight for our country.

Less than two years later, he was killed in combat at 27 years old.

Posthumously, Pat was awarded the Silver Star “for gallantry in action while serving with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, during action in Afghanistan.”

“He is a hero,” said Michael Bidwill, then-VP of the Arizona Cardinals.

“He was a brave man. There are very few people who have the courage to do what he did, the courage to walk away from a professional sports career and make the ultimate sacrifice.”

And while he’ll always be remembered for the sacrifice he made for our country, Tillman’s life – both on and off the field – showed us the power of indomitable will.

Often lost in the story is Pat’s unlikely rise to the NFL.

Pat Tillman quote that reads: "Whatever you're gonna do, in my opinion, you should be passionate about it, or else why do it?"

Born in the Bay Area city of Freemont, California, Pat Tillman was the oldest of three sons.

After he didn’t make the varsity baseball team as a high school freshman, he decided to concentrate on football as a sophomore.

Despite being undersized for the linebacker position, Pat earned a starting spot.

And after being told he was “too small to ever play football”, he helped lead Leland High School to the Central Coast Division I Football Championship.

“Passion is kind of an important word for me,” he said in a 2002 interview.

“Whether it’s playing sports or whether it’s just living. Whatever you’re gonna do, in my opinion, you should be passionate about it, or else why do it?”

Despite earning first-team all-sectional honors on defense, Pat was considered undersized for top-tier college football programs.

Only three Division 1-A colleges reached out to the 5’11” 195-pound linebacker.

But when it came to his dream school – nearby Stanford University – it was radio silence.

So in August of 1994, he enrolled at Arizona State University, where he was offered the last available football scholarship.

When asked about the recruiting process, Tillman was honest:

“It stinks. Nobody tells the truth.”

ASU coach Bruce Snyder asked Pat if he’d be open to redshirting his freshman year.

“I’ve got things to do with my life,” he replied. “You can do whatever you want with me, but in four years I’m gone.”

Tillman made the most of those four years, thriving in the classroom and on the field.

After his freshman season, he went under the knife for shoulder surgery.

Despite the doctor’s orders to wear a sling for 6 weeks, Tillman refused. Instead, he made tackles with one shoulder during spring practices.

He was a top reserve who earned more playing time as a sophomore but dialed it in as a junior.

That summer, Pat shaved his head, ramped up his training, and became a bonafide team leader.

In 1996, he started every game and led ASU to an undefeated season, a Pac-10 championship, and a Rose Bowl appearance.

“He was the most ferocious hitter I’ve seen,” said former coach Robin Pflugrad.

“He would bring his entire body on each and every play.”

As a senior, he ​​earned Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors and helped lead his squad to a Sun Bowl victory over Iowa.

All this while maintaining a 3.84 GPA in the classroom and graduating Summa Cum Laude from ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business in just three and a half years.

But despite being everything a student-athlete should be, the NFL had its doubts.

Pat wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine and barely made it onto any teams’ draft boards.

“He was the classic tweener,” then-Cardinals defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis told The Athletic.

Too small to play linebacker, not fast enough to play corner, and not experienced enough to play safety.

“Look,” Pat’s agent Frank Bauer said, “you probably won’t get drafted but you’ll get signed as a free agent.”

By the time the 1998 NFL Draft came, Tillman had done everything he could to win teams over.

Even after a grueling private workout with Arizona, not everyone in the Cardinals’ brain trust was convinced.

Late in the 7th and final round of the draft, one scout said: “Why don’t we pass on him and sign him as a free agent?”

That’s when head coach Vince Tobin stepped in.

“If we don’t draft him,” Tobin said, “there’s no chance we’re going to get him. Someone is going to come in and offer him more money.”

So with pick #226, the Cardinals selected Pat Tillman – the undersized, hard-nosed kid without a position.

Some execs weren’t sure he’d make the final roster. The only guarantee was his $21,000 signing bonus.

An iconic quote from Pat Tillman: "Somewhere inside, we hear a voice. It leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow.”

Bauer called Pat to deliver the news:

“I told him, ‘You’ll make it in the league because of special teams.’”

“He said, ‘Frank, f*ck that. I’ll be starting.’”

Two days later, Tillman rode his bike to the Cardinals’ facility to meet with defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis.

“Hey, Coach, I know why you guys drafted me,” Pat said.

“You think I’ll come in here as the local kid, sell some tickets, and play special teams for you. Let me just tell you this. If you’ll spend some damn time with me, I’ll be your starting safety.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

After learning his new position and memorizing the playbook front-to-back, he adjusted to the NFL with the grit and tenacity he became known for.

Tillman started ten games at safety as a rookie.

He helped lead Arizona to one of their best seasons in franchise history, where they won their first playoff game in over 50 years.

“We were still having trouble filling the stadium [at the time],” said McGinnis, “but I promise you, when Pat Tillman made a play, you would’ve thought there were a hundred thousand people in the stands.”

Two years later, Pat broke the Cardinals franchise record for total tackles (224) and was named to Sports Illustrated’s All-Pro team.

But the success never went to his head.

Per The Pat Tillman Foundation: “He still drove to games in the same beat-up truck he had in college. He had no cell phone. He chose to read voraciously and develop, debate, and discuss his ideas with eager listeners, family, and friends.”

When he got bored with Arizona’s offseason workouts, he challenged himself by running marathons and triathlons.

In the 2001 offseason, he turned down a $9 million offer from the Rams to stay loyal to the team that drafted him.

After the attacks on September 11th, Pat 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 as far as laying myself on the line like that.”

Eight months later, he turned in his cleats for a pair of combat boots.

After committing to the Army for a 3-year term, Pat immediately stopped talking to the press.  He never wanted it to be about him.

He was just doing what he thought was right.

Today, The Pat Tillman Foundation has invested over $34 million in scholarships and leadership programs for active-duty service members, veterans, and military spouses.

“While the story of Pat’s death may have been the most publicized in the War on Terror, it is Pat’s life, principles, and service that are his true legacy.”

For more inspiring stories like this, join our free Underdog Newsletter – delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning 👇

Written By

Division III baseball alum (McDaniel College) and founder of Joker Mag. Sharing underdog stories to inspire the next generation.

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