Spirit of Pat Tillman lives on

OTL: Living By The Letter (4:15)

Ten years after the friendly fire incident that killed her husband, Marie Tillman reflects on how her life has changed and how she has kept Pat Tillman's legacy alive. (4:15)

PHOENIX -- Jeremy Staat hung up the phone after talking to his agent, Frank Bauer, and dialed a number almost immediately.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Staat had thought of joining the military. Friend and former teammate Pat Tillman actually did. Now, Bauer wanted Staat to talk Tillman out of leaving millions on the table as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals to finish his four-year commitment to the Army. Bauer said he found a loophole that would allow Tillman to be discharged because he had already seen combat.

Staat was in the middle of offseason workouts with the St. Louis Rams when he called Tillman, who was in Seattle getting ready to go back to the Middle East. On that call Tillman, who was usually tight-lipped about his experience as an Army Ranger, told Staat he wasn't cutting his tour short.

"He said, 'I signed up for four years, and I'm going to do my four years and then I'll come back,'" Staat remembered. "I said, 'I'm just letting you know Frank's worried about you again.' He said, 'Tell Frank not to worry. I got it all under control.'"

Staat hung up the phone. It was a valiant but futile effort, as Staat had known it would be. Tillman was the type who believed in loyalty and dedication, whether it was to his wife, Marie, his family, his friends, his teammates, his sport, his school or his country.

It was a done deal. Tillman was heading back to the Middle East.

"The guy was very dedicated to things he believed in," Staat said. "That was basically the last time I ever talked to him."

About a month later -- on April 22, 2004 -- Tillman was killed in action.

To most of America, Tillman is symbol of patriotism. To others, he is a hero. He is the man who followed his heart, which swelled with pride yet overflowed with questions on Sept. 11, 2001. It led him from the desert of Arizona to the mountainous terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan. To some, he might have seemed naive for trading the riches of a professional football career to chase Osama bin Laden.

To those who knew him best, however, he is just Pat -- the loud, foul-mouthed free spirit who loved to read books about religion and business as much as his playbook.

"They broke the mold with Pat Tillman," Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said.

Ten years have passed since Tillman was killed in Afghanistan; his legacy across the United States has grown. There's a flourishing foundation in his name that helps veterans attend college, and there's a race, Pat's Run, that started with 5,500 runners in 2004 and will have about 28,000 this year.

But, Tillman's friends will tell you, if he were here, he'd shake his head at the attention. He wasn't one to seek the spotlight.

"He'd smile," said Perry Edinger, a former Arizona State athletic trainer and co-founder of Pat's Run. "I think he would be appreciative knowing that people are out there with the concept of trying to change who they are and be better in spite of [the circumstances]."

Arizona State's assistant director of media relations Doug Tammaro said Tillman would laugh at the life-size picture of himself inside the school's athletic center. But he would embrace the larger message.

"He'd understand it, and he'd respect it," Tammaro said, "because it's helping a lot of people out."

During his football career, Tillman always cooperated with the media. But Staat said he and Tillman never liked talking about themselves. In college, Tillman's media responsibilities were minor compared with those in the NFL.

"Dude, they're everywhere," Tillman told Tammaro during his rookie season with Arizona.

By the time Tillman enlisted in the Army in 2002, after four years in the NFL, he understood how the media worked. Still, he decided not to talk to any of them about his decision to enlist.

Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis asked Tillman how he was going to announce leaving the NFL for the service. Tillman's reply, according to Tammaro: "I'm not. You are."

Tillman didn't want to talk about it, not even to his hometown paper. It wasn't about him, he'd tell people. He wouldn't let ASU use a military photo in its media guide. The last time Bidwill saw Tillman was on Dec. 21, 2003, when the Cardinals played at Seattle. He invited Pat, Marie and some friends to sit in his suite during the game. Afterward, Tillman went to the locker room to visit former teammates. They sneaked him in and out before the media were allowed in.

Even after his first stint in the Middle East, he wanted to remain quiet. "Nobody saw Pat Tillman," Tammaro said. "It was like a ghost. He was like some mythological person who went to the Army and no one saw him."

Tillman has been honored countless times since he was killed in a friendly fire accident in the mountains of Afghanistan.

His jersey number is emblazoned on the necklines of Sun Devils football players. He's in the Cardinals' ring of honor. He's eternalized in a statue in front of University of Phoenix Stadium. He even has a sandwich -- roast beef, mozzarella sticks and mushrooms -- at a sandwich shop that started in the Bay Area (Tillman is from San Jose, Calif.) and recently opened a store in Arizona. Despite all the sports connections, though, to those who knew him, Tillman was never your typical jock.

He was well-read, took his education seriously and was fiercely loyal to his family and friends. He had a dry sense of humor and was stubborn.

Tillman wasn't going to let others dictate his path. He had to figure it out on his own. There are stories about him scaling a light tower above Sun Devil Stadium to read or hanging upside-down from a tree to see what it's like to be a monkey.

Tillman would do handstands in the middle of a party, said childhood friend Bob Vossoughi. Tillman once jumped from a second-story balcony to a palm tree and slid down instead of using the stairs, Staat said. Tillman would go to Sedona, Ariz., and, while everyone hiked, he'd try to skip rocks across the length of the stream without getting his feet wet, Edinger remembered. During two-a-days in college, he'd hike a mountain or cliff dive in between practices.

He also read the Quran, the Bible and the Book of Mormon in college, Bidwill remembered. Tillman showed up for conditioning with The Wall Street Journal under his arm.

Understanding the world and how it worked was important to him.

"Pat always had something other than football," Edinger said. "He could talk religion; he could talk business; he could talk history. I didn't join because I didn't want to make an ass of myself.

"He knew things. He'd be talking with someone and someone would make a comment, and he would not provoke things but he'd try to get someone's opinion and bring about facts either about the Bible or the Quran and what it says. I'd hear him talking and talking and talking, and I'd be like, 'Jeez, shut up,' but it was so interesting you didn't say that. I'd be like, 'Where'd you get all this information?'"

Tillman knew football wasn't going to be the end game; he wasn't going to spend his life patrolling the secondary. He had finished his business degree in three-and-a-half years. When he went to the NFL, he started dabbling in the stock market and was working on his master's degree in history in the offseasons.

Tillman and Staat would spend hours talking about how they were going to be successful, whether through football or in other ways.

"Tillman didn't care what he had to do to be successful, he would do it whether it would be sacrifice his time by not watching TV and reading a book and educating himself or spending an extra 45 minutes to an hour in the gym getting stronger or trying different things to improve his ability as an athlete," Staat said.

"That's what was great about him. He didn't live by fear. He just did it." That's why his death was even harder to grasp.

"You thought Pat would walk out of a cave with Osama bin Laden," Tammaro said. "And that's what you just pictured -- him just draggin' [bin Laden's] ass, [saying] 'I got him.'

"You knew there was always the possibility [of Tillman dying], but you just didn't think that was going to happen."

Tillman's conversations with Staat usually came over a Guinness beer. And their friendship grew stronger by the pint.

"It was a way to pass the time and have those moments that most people take for granted," Staat said.

"Yeah we had a couple beers, yeah we got a little tipsy on them, but the thing about it is those are the times I'm going to remember most about him because we got the deepest and most personal about the things we cherished. And one of the biggest things he cherished was his family."

A story about Tillman usually includes the F-word. He'd sling it around like he did quarterbacks, but Tillman knew the time and place. He could impress by joking with his teammates one minute and charming ASU alums the next. He knew how to clean it up.

Although it didn't happen often, his friends remembered, Tillman would trade in his flip-flops for dress shoes. At one ASU football banquet Staat remembered, Tillman laced up a pair of black leather shoes and tightened the knot on his tie.

"He wore ties. ... He didn't look very comfortable in it, but he would wear it," Staat said with a laugh. "Not for very long. By time the ceremony was over, I think the tie came off and the shoes were probably untied."

Tillman's loyalty also ran deep.

One day off while he was with the Cardinals, Tillman was asked to sign 300 books about ASU's history. He made the short trip and signed them. But ASU lost all 300. Hesitant, the school asked Tillman whether he could sign another batch of books.

"He didn't even think twice," Tammaro said.

Tillman's desire to fly under the radar didn't just develop when he decided to enlist. In his pro career, he'd visit schools on his days off. At the first Pat's Run, in 2004, what seemed like an entire elementary school showed up.

"I'm like, 'Hey, glad you guys came, but who are you?'" Edinger said. "Then they start telling me their story, and I'm like, 'You're kidding me.'" That's who Tillman was before he was an American hero. He wasn't in it for the fame or the fortune. He did it to improve himself.

"Salt of the earth," Staat said. "You always knew where you stood with him. He wasn't afraid to hurt your feelings if you were a true friend, and you always knew where you stood with him. There were no smoke and mirrors. He called a spade a spade."