|Sunday, May 26
Updated: May 27, 12:59 PM ET
Some choose country over football
By Len Pasquarelli
You never know what will touch a nerve but, for Arizona Cardinals strong safety Pat Tillman, the terrorist events of last Sept. 11 and the insidious sense of fear they engendered in all of us clearly were the equivalent of applying a cattle prod to an open wound.
And so, rather than allow his sense of duty-bound responsibility to expire in a graveyard of good intentions, Tillman did something about it by depositing his football career in layaway for the next three years and enlisting in the U.S. Army, aspiring to become a member of the elite Special Forces group.
It was, for most of us hearing of his intentions last week, an inexplicable decision. The free-spirited but still consummately disciplined Tillman turned his back on a three-year contract proposal worth $3.6 million for a gig that pays roughly 18 grand a year. Then again Pat Tillman, a man whose carefully sketched blueprint for life was altered by the arrival of terrorism on our shores, is not most of us.
There is, it has been said, nothing sadder than the death of an illusion. But happy is that occasional man who thumbs his nose at convention, who clings to nonconformity as if it were the last piece of driftwood floating past a sunken ship, and who answers to his heart and not his wallet.
Freshly back from his honeymoon in Bora Bora last week, Pat Tillman apprised friends and relatives and the Arizona Cardinals coaching staff that there were more significant things in his life right now, that his conscience would not allow him to tackle opposition fullbacks when there is still a bigger enemy that needs to be stopped in its tracks.
"This is not," cautioned Tillman's agent and friend, Frank Bauer, "some kind of publicity stunt or anything. This is Pat Tillman, through and through. It wasn't some wild thought that just occurred to him. Believe me, he thought this out, and he's clear about it. This is something he feels he has to do. For him, it's a mindset, a duty. For him it isn't as big a deal as it is to the rest of us. He figures, 'Hey, I'm not the first, you know?' "
Indeed, while Tillman's decision registers as incongruous for most who would sacrifice everything for a shot at the kind of celebrity he enjoyed, his own sacrifice is reminiscent this Memorial Day weekend of those made by other professional athletes. The baseball record books, in particular, are filled with examples of star players -- Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, among others -- whose incredible feats would be even more prodigious had they not trudged off to war.
More recently, Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach served time in Vietnam, as did Rocky Bleier, the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back who nearly had his foot blown off by a land mine, but came back to win four Super Bowl rings. And then there's the case of Bob Kalsu, the only active NFL player killed in the Vietnam conflict.
Another former NFL player, Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Don Steinbrunner, was killed in Vietnam in 1967 when the C-123 Provider he was piloting was gunned down by enemy anti-aircraft forces. His loss certainly was no less a tragedy than that of Kalsu, but Steinbrunner was 10 years retired at the time of his death, his ties to football then defined by a coaching stint at the Air Force Academy.
Bob Kalsu, conversely, had just one year of NFL seniority when he opted not to contest his call-up to active service after his 1968 rookie season with the Buffalo Bills. Chosen in the eighth-round of that year's "other" draft, Kalsu started eight games at guard.
"As solid a player and more important, as solid an individual, as they make," recollected Billy Shaw, the Hall of Fame member who played the other guard spot for the Bills, two years ago. "He would have been a great player, believe me, and not because he was the best athlete. He just wanted to be good, that's all, and wanted it so badly that it would have been enough."
At a time when it was acceptable for professional athletes to defer military service, Kalsu felt obligated to honor the ROTC pledge that had been as much a part of his life at the University of Oklahoma as had his All-American role on the football team.
And so Kalsu left his pregnant wife and young daughter to fulfill what he deemed to be a responsibility he could not ignore.
In writing of Kalsu for a column two years ago, when the Buffalo Bills organization chose to honor him on its "Wall of Fame," this columnist spoke to family and friends and former teammates and gained some sense of the man. Noted sportswriter William Nack was far more eloquent than yours truly in a Sports Illustrated piece on Kalsu last summer. Doubtless many readers recall that feature, a narrative that thrust Kalsu into the public consciousness, if only for a too-brief time.
First lieutenant Kalsu died on July 21, 1970, on a stretch of desolate Ashau Valley mountaintop known as "Firebase Ripcord," where his 11th artillery unit of the 101st Airborne Division had been pinned down for weeks by relentless enemy fire. The legend was that he was shot as he sprinted across an open field to a helicopter, one he felt was delivering news of the birth of his second child.
His colleagues and family have debunked the legend, but Bob Kalsu Jr. was born within 24 hours of his father's death, and took years to accept that the dad he never knew would perish in a war that seemed to mean so little. Years later, the junior Kalsu claims to have heard his father's voice during a reception for the wedding his sister, Jill.
The voice, Kalsu Jr. suggested, was his father telling him to substitute for him during the wedding dance. "It was clear and unmistakable," Kalsu Jr. said.
And so, apparently, was the voice that spoke to Pat Tillman in recent weeks.
Since he has deflected all interview requests and seems intent on allowing his actions to speak for themselves, it is difficult to precisely define Tillman's motivation. But on the weekend reserved for honoring those who sacrificed careers, lifestyles, relationships -- and, yes, even their lives -- one of Tillman's teammates offered a pithy but profound explanation for his reasoning.
"He is," said Cardinals free safety Kwamie Lassiter, "a man who loves this country."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.