Throughout its history, the game of football has been filled with analogies to warfare and players have seen themselves as soldiers on a battlefield.
But in reality, only one player in the modern era of the game has embodied what it means to be a relentless player on the gridiron and soldier off it.
Pat Tillman left behind an NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army and become an Army Ranger eight months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He died April 22, 2004, in Afghanistan.
“We always say ‘let’s go to war, let’s go to battle,’” Shoemaker head coach Channon Hall said. “It’s not anything like what those guys are going through.”
Tillman was a standout linebacker for Arizona State, where he was the 1997 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and eventually had his jersey No. 42 retired by the school. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Tillman was drafted by the Cardinals in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL draft and had more than 200 tackles in a four-year pro career. He had his No. 40 jersey retired by the team and was posthumously inducted into the Cardinals Ring of Honor.
The annual East-West Shrine Game also awards the Pat Tillman Award to the player who best exemplifies character, intelligence, sportsmanship and service.
Current high school football players were in elementary school when Tillman died and may not remember him helping the Cardinals upset the Dallas Cowboys in the 1998 playoffs. But for Killeen head coach Sam Jones, the example he set still stands today.
“I think that relates to a lot of our kids here in Killeen,” Jones said. “Their parents are military parents, they may go away and our kids are here playing sports. We have a tremendous community, tremendous kids that are always giving and service for other people.”
Harker Heights head football coach Jerry Edwards remembers hearing about Tillman joining the military and leaving the Cardinals and a contract that would have paid him $3.6 million in 2002.
Edwards was still attending Texas A&M, one of six senior military colleges across the country.
“It was a big deal and I think it sent a real impactful message to the rest of the country,” Edwards said.
The NFL has had its share of star players like Roger Staubach, Rocky Bleier and even Tom Landry who served in the military, but in the age of rising salaries and exposure, Tillman’s actions stand apart.
This country has a history of citizens stepping in when they are needed and Hall said professional sports aren’t any different.
“I think if need be, I think that will happen again,” Hall said.