Editor's Note: This column was originally posted on April 17, 2003.
While Pat Tillman's former Arizona Cardinals teammates sweat and grimace their way through an off-season conditioning program -- a heavy rotation of weight lifting and aerobic exercises -- Tillman faces the prospect of the ultimate sacrifice.
A member of the elite Army Rangers, Tillman presumably is on the ground somewhere in the splintered country of Iraq. Deployed in early March along with the rest of the 75th Ranger Regiment, he and his comrades are working to liberate Iraq from the grip of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Tillman, at 26 years old, left a three-year, $3.6 million contract on the table to enlist in the Army with his brother Kevin after the 2001 season. Tillman will make no more than $17,000 this year. He is believed to be the first NFL regular to leave the game for military service since World War II, when 1,000 players served and 23 were killed.
Tillman's commitment has inspired shock and, quite frankly, awe.
"It touches you pretty deep," Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis said at the recent NFL meetings. "Pat Tillman is a guy that is full of fiber, full of fabric, everything that he does goes right to the core of what is good and sound in our country."
John McCain, the U.S. Senator from Arizona who was a prisoner of war for more than five years in Vietnam, lauded Tillman as "the quintessential definition of a patriot."
The Rangers are the Army's finest light infantry unit, whose standard weaponry are machine guns, mortars and grenade launchers. It was the Rangers who conducted a daylight raid in Somalia, an event upon which Ridley Scott based his 2001 film, "Black Hawk Down."
"They strike quickly, with great precision and lethality," said Carol Darby, the news media chief for the Army Special Operations command at North Carolina's Fort Bragg. "They break things open so other people can come in behind them."
After Tillman made his ground-breaking decision to serve his country in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some wondered if others in the athletic arena -- in many minds, a parallel universe to the crucible of war -- would come in behind him.
And while there has been an outpouring of support for the U.S. troops from athletes in all sports, no other high-profile professional athlete has followed Tillman's selfless example. In fact, former Cardinals teammate Simeon Rice, now a member of the Super Bowl champion-Tampa Bay Buccaneers, disparaged Tillman in an interview on Jim Rome's radio show last month.
"He really wasn't that good, not really," Rice said. "He was good enough to play in Arizona, [but] that's just like the XFL."
After several more promptings from Rome, Rice allowed, "I think it's very admirable, actually. You've got to give kudos to a guy like that because he did it for his own reasons. Maybe it's the Rambo movies, maybe it's Sylvester Stallone, Rocky, whatever compels him."
More likely, it was Tillman's love for America, not to mention his brother, who also enlisted. In the aftermath of the interview, Rice's remarks were seen as symptomatic of today's privileged, self-centered professional athletes who have been enabled from their earliest playing days.
"A professional athlete's career is self-indulgent almost by definition," said Alan Klein, professor of sociology and anthropology at Northeastern University. "Risking your career and your life is not an easy decision. They're content to wear a patch on the uniform for solidarity, but that's the easy way out. Really, we're all taking the easy way out.
"My parents were in [Nazi concentration camp] Auschwitz. All my life, I've heard about the acts of bravery and sacrifice. We would all like to think of ourselves as people who would do the right thing. But, deep down, how many of us would give up everything we have? Certainly, it's not a lock."
From Michael Moore -- the director of the Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine" who admonished the president ("Shame on you, Mr. Bush.") when he accepted his Academy Award -- to Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garofalo to the Dixie Chicks and Fred Durst ("I just really hope we all are in agreeance that this war should go away."), Hollywood has been critical of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Why hasn't the elite athletic community -- kindred spirits in the context of entertainment -- produced any notable conscientious objectors along the lines of Muhammad Ali, who faced a five-year prison sentence for refusing to enlist?
Klein, whose book on globalization and baseball, "Growing the Game," will be published in 2004, said the two cultures are, generally speaking, at opposite ends of the spectrum.
"Once you get past that thin veneer of deviant -- by that I mean guys like Dennis Rodman, Bill Walton and Bill Lee -- athletics has a rock-solid core of conservatism," Klein said. "The institution weeds out so-called deviants, people that don't fit mainstream views. In sports, there are a rule-bound set of behaviors. With coaching, it's very autocratic. In sports, you have an institution that socializes above and beyond what any church or family does."
King Kaufman, writing last month for Salon.com, pointed out that Toni Smith, a Division III women's basketball player who refused to face the flag during the national anthem, made the grandest anti-war statement in all of sports.
"The shocking thing," Kaufman wrote, "the real story here, is that an athlete, somewhere in America, has spoken out about politics, however innocuously. Athletes don't talk about things like this, even way down at Division III."
Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash wore a T-shirt with the slogan "No War, Shoot for Peace" at the NBA All-Star Game, but he is one of the few who have dared speak out. Ultimately, it's not really surprising, Klein said, that athletes aren't criticizing the war -- or running off to join it, either.
"Every impulse says to be self-centered and take care of yourself," Klein said. "Because they've always been taken care of. Their lives are good. Why throw it all away?"
A higher calling
Ted Williams, on the other hand, was willing to throw it all away. Twice.
The Boston Red Sox outfielder was one of the best hitters ever and, some argue, one of the best damn fighter pilots, too. Like more than 500 of his major-league peers, he enlisted in the military during World War II. Capt. Ted Williams flew Marine jets, usually the old F9F Panthers, for three years and then came back for another two-year tour in the Korean War.
Astronaut John Glenn, who flew with Williams for half of his 39 missions as part of the BMF-311 Squadron, said at his memorial service last year that he never heard Williams complain about his time away from baseball. According to Glenn, the three favorite songs of the best wingman he ever flew with were "The Star Spangled Banner," "The Marine Corps Hymn" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller was another future Hall of Famer -- one of 64 in all -- who joined the war effort. Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller became the first major leaguer to enlist. This despite winning 24, 27 and 25 games the previous three seasons -- all American League-leading totals.
Fifty years after Williams crash-landed his plane during a bombing run over North Korea, the United States is a very different place. The jingoistic flames fanned by dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini don't burn as hot today -- even in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The draft is no longer in use, though men who become of age must register for it; the 1960s cynicism of Vietnam lingers. Enlistments, which surged after the World Trade Center buildings fell, have begun to plateau. As a people, Americans are more comfortable than they were back then. It is easy to watch the war in Iraq on television with a detached fascination, knowing that the rationing of food and resources is unlikely. Sacrifice, both the word and the act, seems to be a foreign concept.
San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy and served a two-year military commitment before joining the NBA, is the exception today, not the rule.
Although Williams was handsomely compensated by the standards of the day for playing a child's game, today's professional athletes -- relatively speaking -- make far more money and, therefore, have more to lose than their predecessors. Economics, these days, is a major factor in the choice of many military enlistees. Minorities comprise 38 percent of the military, a figure well above their proportion in the general population. It is the non-elite athletes who find themselves joining, especially in a sluggish economy, as a way to complete their education and extend their athletic lifespan.
Jesse Thorpe and Gary Freeman are two such athletes. Members of the Division III football team at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., they are both on active duty with the Army Reserves. Freeman, an outside linebacker and Army Specialist in the Charlie Battery 111th Field Artillery has been assigned to the Air Force National Guard Station in Sandstone, Va., where he is part of the Homeland Security anti-terrorism detail. Thorpe, a defensive tackle and sergeant in the Bravo Company 5th 159th Aviation Regiment, left last Thursday for Iraq.
"He walked into the office last month and said, 'Coach, I've been told I can get a call any time,' " explained head coach Matt Kelchner. "He was very subdued, almost worried. A couple of our guys talked to him before he left. I think the kid is scared to death."
For many athletes, according to Kelchner, the Army Reserve is the only way to stay in school.
"I don't know that they wanted to put their lives on the line," Kelchner said. "When they enlisted, there was no thought or indication that, 'Hey, this could get down to serious business.' They're there to help their country, but -- whooo -- that's when it really hits you."
The prospects for Freeman are not quite as grim. He is a mechanic who works on helicopters, including the Black Hawk.
"Gary's going to a job," Kelchner said. "He's only an hour away so we'll see him on the weekends he's off. Jesse, you're not going to see. He's going to war.
"People talk about football being war ... Hey, this ain't war, this is a game."
Ed Reynolds, who has lived in both worlds, is surprised more athletes don't make the transition into the military.
"More athletes should take a look at it," said Reynolds, the NFL's assistant director of football operations. "So many of the skills are the same. You have to be physically and mentally tough and there's the team concept, the buddy system. If you don't function as a team, as evidenced in the disarray of the Iraqis, you're not going to win."
Reynolds, who describes himself as a Thomas Jefferson Democrat, is old school. He was a military brat, the son of an Army combat engineer, born in Stuttgart, Germany. He played linebacker for the New England Patriots and New York Giants from 1983-92 and served for 14 years in the Army Reserve, 2174 Headquarters, detachment 80th Division, where he was a weapons expert who trained recruits in the use of M-16 rifles. He believes in old-fashioned values like respect and discipline. He thinks the draft still should be in place. He likes his uniforms pristine and shoes polished.
In his NFL job, appropriately, he is responsible for enforcing the league's uniform policy.
"I grew up dreaming of being a military officer," Reynolds said. "Football just happened to win out."
Reynolds, who is also NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's liaison to the military, was put on alert twice in the mid-1990s but never got the call to go to Bosnia.
"When my Colonel took me off the list, I was upset," Reynolds said. "It was like I was practicing but not playing. I missed my opportunity.
"Military training prepared me for football. There was live fire, bayonet assault courses, you dropped down a 250-foot slide, undressed yourself under water ... If you make a mistake, you're dead. The worst you can do in football is get hurt. That's the difference between playing in a fantasy world and the real world."
Like Reynolds, Dennis Mannion has seen both sides. He is the associate head football coach at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prep school in Wallingford, Conn., and a former player at Notre Dame. He also won two Purple Hearts with the U.S. Marines for his heroic work in the 1967-68 Siege of Khe Sanh, in South Vietnam. Sixty of Mannion's fellow Marines died in that extended battle.
"The one major difference between football and war is that 99.9 percent of the time, everybody comes home," Mannion said. "The difference between the military today and yesterday is we're not drafting people. How many of those athletes were going to get drafted anyway? Everybody in the Middle East today is there because they want to be there. No one forced them to enter the Army. Maybe that's why you don't see the athletes."
The speed with which the U.S. forces have taken Baghdad, Mannion said, seems to have increased public sentiment for the war.
"I think there was such a backlash to those Hollywood a-- h----," Mannion said. "I mean, it took us three weeks to get it done over there and it takes, what, nine weeks to pick an 'American Idol' or vote somebody off the island? Maybe more people, athletes included, will decide to do their part.
"Saddam has been a tyrant, and we're the only people willing to deal with him. If Sean Penn loves him so much, let Saddam go live at his house."
A call to arms
The idea for "Jocks-to-GIs Direct" first crept into John Papanek's head in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The immediate thought was, how do we respond? What do we do?" said Papanek, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine. "It was a call to arms, which means young American males and, for the most part, young American males means sports fans. I got to thinking how other magazines went to war in the past: Life Magazine during World War II, Sports Illustrated during Vietnam. People might not realize that The Sporting News took off at the beginning of the century when it was distributed to the troops going off to fight World War I."
Eventually, thousands of free copies of the magazine went to the troops in Afghanistan but a second idea, an e-mail link between high-profile athletes and military personnel, languished -- a victim of too many obstacles of protocol and logistics -- until the drums of war started beating again this past winter.
"This time, I found there was a lot more focus and an instantaneous, positive response from the Defense Department," Papanek said. "In fact, what surprised me was their lack of oversight requirements. These guys were basically on their own."
That mission accomplished, Papanek then turned to convincing some big-time athletes to trade e-mails with the servicemen. He went straight to the top of the A List. Shaquille O'Neal, a self-described Army brat, was the first one to sign on.
Next, Papanek contacted Mark Steinberg of International Management Group, the agent for Tiger Woods. Within 24 hours, Steinberg -- who rejects far more requests than he approves -- called back.
"He said, 'I really want Tiger to do this,' " Papanek said. "And then I waited for the 'but ...' And after a pause, Mark said, 'Tell me what he has to do.' I never got the 'but ...' I was expecting."
Not a single athlete who was approached said no. The package was launched on April 1 on ESPN.com with commitments from Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, cyclist Lance Armstrong, NASCAR driver Jeff Burton and basketball star Chamique Holdsclaw, among others. There are 30 jock-GI relationships in all, each facilitated by an individual editor.
Last Friday, a harrowing e-mail from Lee Yarbrough, a 39-year-old Air Force airborne intelligence technician, to golfer Brad Faxon was posted. In it, Yarbrough described a five-hour air battle with an armored Iraqi battalion. Yarbrough described the result as "total carnage."
"I felt so alive, so proud of my crewmates, so confident in my abilities, but all that was tempered with a certain degree of personal contempt for the massive loss of life; and for what?" Yarbrough wrote. "Because of a diabolical megalomaniac."
When Yarbrough closed by saying he would monitor an E-ticker for Faxon's Masters scores, the most cherished of golf's Grand Slams almost seemed irrelevant.
Free agent Antonio Freeman has a brother named Clarence, a Marine Staff Sergeant, presumably engaged in Iraq. Detroit Shock guard Swin Cash has a brother, Steven Menifee, with the Army in Iraq. The cousin of Texas Rangers catcher Todd Green's wife, Army officer Ron Young, was taken prisoner when the Iraqis shot down his Apache helicopter.
These athletes are acutely aware of the dangers. Mark Bartelstein, of Priority Sports and Entertainment, who represents professional athletes such as Kurt Warner, Brian Grant, P.J. Brown and Kevin Mawae, said even athletes without such a stake in the war are paying attention.
"My clients and I have talked about it -- almost every conversation," Bartelstein said from his Chicago office. "They sit in their hotel rooms and watch CNN, but they've still got to do their job. They aren't doing anything different than anyone else. What's their choice, to boycott the games?"
Andy Lundbohm, a center with the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League, plays on like everybody else. He wonders when his call will come. He was born and raised in Roseau, Minn., only 10 miles from the Canadian border -- you can hear the proximity in his accent -- but he is a member of the Minnesota National Guard, with the 137th Infantry, stationed in Brainerd, Minn.
Earlier this season, when he was playing for the Austin Ice Bats, members of the 4th Infantry Division, stationed at nearby Fort Hood, came to see a fellow infantryman play.
"They were supposed to ship out to Turkey a few days later," Lundbohm said last week, after the Bucks lost in double-overtime in the fourth game of the Southern Conference finals. "They all reassured me they knew their jobs and they'd be OK. It was pretty tough."
Is he disappointed he hasn't joined them?
There is a long pause.
"I feel more guilty than disappointed," Lundbohm said.
Lundbohm played for three years in the San Jose Sharks organization and is now under contract to the Florida Panthers. He has seen time this season in San Antonio, Austin and Laredo. At 25, the NHL may be beyond his grasp.
"It's always a dream -- it's every kid's dream," Lundbohm said. "I'm just working to win a championship here in Laredo. It's a dream, too."
Through eight games, Lundbohm was leading Laredo with four goals -- three of them game-winners. Every day, almost every hour, thoughts of the conflict in Iraq race through his mind. When President Bush announced plans for war, Lundbohm called his commander.
"He said, 'We're close,' " Lundbohm said. "But we never got called.
"We're still ready to go -- as soon as the call comes."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com