TAMPA, Fla. -- It would be difficult to find an Arizona Cardinals player who doesn't understand what former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman still means to that organization. There are pictures of Tillman all over the facility. There are fans who still wear his jersey as much as any current player's.
"He's like a legend around here," said Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson. "You don't have to say much to the young guys about him. You can see his impact all around us."
It's been nearly five years since Tillman died -- he was killed on April 22, 2004, while serving in the Army in Afghanistan -- and there's no question the Cardinals still feel his presence as they prepare to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. In May 2002, Tillman left the Cardinals and a chance to sign a $3.6 million extension to join his brother in the military. Enlisting was his response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He became a symbol of the purest kind of sacrifice. He also gave a beaten-down franchise a reason to hold its head high. For all the losing that has occurred in Arizona over the 21 years since the franchise moved from St. Louis, there was at least one Cardinal who could convey a positive image to the world.
Of course, there was no way of knowing what Tillman could have meant to the Cardinals at that time, especially because his decision had significance that went far beyond football. But now we can see how he factored into the Cardinals' rise from obscurity. By leaving football to pursue his convictions, Tillman gave future Cardinals an example of what real character is all about.
"Pat Tillman epitomized toughness, commitment and pride," said Cardinals general manager Rod Graves. "And in many ways, that's what this team has evolved into. We have guys who are committed, tough and proud."
Those same players -- and Wilson and long snapper Nathan Hodel are the only ones who were on the team's roster before Tillman quit football -- are quick to point out that they don't want to trivialize Tillman's memory by suggesting that his life choices had some unexpected benefits to them. They just know how important it was to have a strong symbolic figure in an otherwise weak organization. Even when Tillman was part of the Arizona team that made the playoffs during the 1998 season, there wasn't a great sense that the Cardinals had the qualities that would make them annual playoff contenders. The general sentiment in those days was that any team could get lucky sooner or later.
Those Cardinals teams were mired in a losing environment characterized by constant coaching changes, disappointing personnel moves and basic ineptitude. But Tillman's departure inspired some players to think long and hard about what they believed and why they believed.
"We really needed an infusion of positive energy at that time," Wilson said. "The organization wasn't trying to piggy-back off what Pat was doing, but we were trying to find some reasons to be confident about ourselves. I definitely believe that Pat's presence changed the whole mentality for the better."
Some people might think it's a coincidence that the Cardinals started building the foundation of this year's team shortly after Tillman quit. Whatever the reason, the franchise did start moving in a more positive direction. The 2003 draft brought Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Gerald Hayes and guard
Reggie Wells. The next year the Cardinals selected another Pro Bowl receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, along with linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith.
Suddenly, the organization was acquiring more high-character players who'd been accustomed to winning in college. Gradually, they started to vanquish the bad habits of a losing franchise while replacing those with the ideals that made a guy like Tillman so special.
"The dedication of the players obviously was a problem when most of us got there," Dansby said. "And at the end of the day, it comes back to how far you're willing to go to succeed. That attitude wasn't here when I got there."
The Cardinals know that attitude is there now. They also understand that Tillman's death came at a time when their progress was slowly gaining some momentum. It was impossible to see that growth in the midst of that tragedy and all the ceremonies and tributes that followed it. But that reality is undeniable once we look back on those years: The Cardinals really were creating an identity that had plenty to do with Tillman's approach to life.
It took a few more personnel moves and the hiring of head coach Ken Whisenhunt in 2007. It also took a team willing to push through all the ups and downs that came this season. Remember, the Cardinals aren't just in this year's Super Bowl because of all that talent they accumulated finally found a way to click. They're here because they also had a belief in themselves when very few people --even some of their own fans -- saw little reason to think this could be a championship-caliber squad.
What people can see now is that many of us overlooked a lot of things about these Arizona Cardinals, including how much Tillman's life meant to where they are today. As Graves said, "We refuse to let his legacy die around here, because we've been riding on that for a long time."
That's a good sign for a team that easily could be looked upon as a one-hit wonder this season. It means the Cardinals really are honoring Tillman in the best way possible: by the way they've handled themselves on the field.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.