Company to return jersey to family

The back room in an office in Arlington, Texas, is the place where game-used jerseys are momentarily stored until they're brought to the cutting room. The jerseys are then diced and sliced into little squares that are attached to Donruss cards.

In the past three years, more than 20,000 jerseys have left the room ... and yet Pat Tillman's Arizona Cardinals jersey, one that arrived in the room shortly after the 2000 season, never made it out.

Monday, it was found lying in the very same place where a company official put it more than three years ago.

"We cut up 4,000 jerseys every four months," said Bill Dully, president and chief operating officer of Donruss. "For a jersey to still be there for that period of time is nearly impossible."

In fact, it's almost impossible to find a Tillman game-used jersey anywhere. Dully believes no more than six of them exist.

Dully said that he believed that one game-used jersey could sell at auction for at least $25,000, and if inserted into packs as a lure to collectors, the Tillman game-used cards could lead to as much as $4 million in incremental sales over a three-year period.

Instead, as a tribute to what Tillman stood for, company officials decided Monday to donate the jersey to his family.

Tillman, the five-year NFL veteran who died on Thursday while fighting in Afghanistan, gave up a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer to join the Army in 2002. Talk of his sacrifice has filled the airwaves since his death and some people are clamoring for Tillman memorabilia. Non-game used jerseys featuring Tillman's name and number and claiming to be authentically tailored are currently selling on eBay for more than $1,000 apiece.

The move to give away the jersey might come as a surprise since Donruss opted to purchase a Babe Ruth jersey for $264,210, then cut it up and insert it into packs last October. These cards have since sold on the secondary market for more than $1,000 each.

"Babe Ruth defined baseball, but Pat Tillman has defined the value of freedom, bravery and unselfishness," Dully said. "We were sitting around talking about how we should put this into our product and then we ultimately decided we just couldn't."

Dully called Tillman's agent, Frank Bauer, and told him of the company's intentions. Dully is waiting to hear from the family to determine what they want to do with the jersey. Donruss received one game-used jersey of every Cardinals player in 2000 in exchange for purchasing signage in Sun Devil Stadium.

Meanwhile, jersey makers have already begun to think about striking licensing deals with Tillman's family in order to legally use his name on retro jerseys. One company that makes authentic replicas of college jerseys, 29*34 Vintage Sportswear, is interested in making Tillman's No. 42 Arizona State jersey.

"He's a hero to a lot of people and they would want to wear his jersey with pride," said Steve Johnson, chief operating officer of the company, which recently obtained the rights to use the names of Len Bias, Pete Maravich and Hank Gathers on their respective college jerseys from their estates.

Peter Capolino of Mitchell & Ness, one of two companies licensed to make authentic NFL throwbacks, said he was very interested in producing Tillman's 1998 Cardinals No. 40 rookie jersey.

"It's not proper to contact them yet, but when the time is right, we'd be very interested in working with the family and if they wish, steer the profits into some sort of fund or charity," Capolino said. "There's not a big rush. I think Pat Tillman jerseys will have legs for the next five years. His story is not going to go away. It's too heart-wrenching."

Bauer did not return calls seeking comment about the future potential of licensing Tillman's name.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.