Pat Tillman died five years ago today. Five years is a long time. Five years ago I was sitting in a cubicle, in the midst of a first job. Yet I was also wanting to do more, to be more, to find something better that I could do. That’s not to say that I didn’t like where I was at — the people, the company, the business are still very successful — but I just felt as if I hadn’t found what it was that I really wanted to do.
I have purposely neglected to look back at Tillman’s life before writing this. I prefer to remember Pat Tillman the way he rests in my head. I can’t look back and recall the wonderful memories I had of Tillman trolling the secondary as an Arizona State Sun Devil. I had probably only seen a few games of his, never being much of a Pac-10 football fan. Any memories of Tillman as an Arizona Cardinal are probably residue from the highlights of his career after he announced he was leaving the NFL to join the Army Rangers after the terror of 9/11. Tillman spoke of wanting to do more, of never having proved himself. His grandfather, his uncles, his father, they all fought for their country. Tillman… he had done nothing.
The tragedy of losing a man like Pat Tillman is that it makes us dig. When searching for the why, we end up finding truths that become unnecessary and confusing when trying to make peace with a situation. The Army certainly didn’t want to learn that its most important recruit was killed by friendly fire. Fratricide couldn’t explain to us why a man who turned down a multimillion dollar contract extension to play football on Sundays was gunned down when his elite team thought he was the enemy.
Losing Pat Tillman like that didn’t make sense. But to take a step back, to look back at what we thought we’ve known and believed for generations and lifetimes, sometimes when we dig too deep and search too hard, we adjust our belief systems. Growing up, I always thought I was born on the night of an important Yankees game — playoff baseball at its finest — when my dad rushed my mom to the hospital. Whether I heard that story more than a handful of times was irrelevant, I’d turned it into an epic battle of Reggie Jackson — Mr. October — ushering in my life with postseason heroics. Today, I can look back at one of many online databases and see that the Yankees weren’t even in the playoffs. Learning that doesn’t change my love for baseball or my parents, it simply forces me to reconcile what was happening at the time of my birth. In this case it’s clearly not a big deal.
Yet sitting in Easter Vigil, following along with scripture as Moses miraculously parts the Red Sea and escapes to the promise land, it dawned on me that any religion started today would be impossible to implement. It would be decried like Scientology or simply lost to the skeptics that shatter the logic of a belief system without proof. The Catholic Church doesn’t want us to inspect the floor of the Red Sea, in search of scientific proof that Moses’ miracle happened. It simply wants us to believe. Books like The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons capitalize on the search for proof that our beliefs exist, yet there is something very noble and philosophical about simply believing without the need of empirical truth.
There will always be inside stories. For generations, a select few have protected the masses from the truth, often times taking the opportunity to use rare individuals to teach us life’s maxims. George Washington and his cherry tree. Babe Ruth calling his shot. The beloved treatment of JFK. It’s convenient and easy to put Pat Tillman in that pantheon and feel very resolved about the tragic death of an American hero.
But today we know terrible things about Pat Tillman’s death. We know about Army generals, men who are supposed to hold the ideals of George Washington and his cherry tree, telling lies to a grieving family and painting a false picture of a heroic man engaging with the enemy. When I think back on the days after his death, sitting on the couch in my starter house, tears filling my eyes as person after person stood up and spoke of Pat Tillman like he was someone different. Someone unique. Someone exceptional. It was all, and still is, truth.
I don’t feel cheated that his life was lost differently. While Tillman’s mother still fights to see that the men responsible for covering up Tillman’s death are punished, she really just fights for peace. A peace she might not find, as simply adding up the facts of his life will never be the true sum of Tillman’s importance. Pat Tillman’s death was a big reason I moved west, not sure exactly what it was I wanted to be, but sure that it was something noble and strong, something deserving of approval from a man I never met.
Five years later, I’m still searching for a career and a purpose. Five years later, I’m still dealing with the uncertainty that life brings. Yet as I look back on the five years that have passed, five years where we’ve seen so many of our sports heroes fall from grace, so many of our financial pillars and political leaders crumble to temptations, the mere details of Pat Tillman’s death don’t seem to matter as much as the life that he gave up. And while we’ll never be able to tie a perfect bow around his tragic end, having never known the man, I am certain of one thing:
Pat Tillman would have never wanted to be a cliche.
Filed under: Pat Tillman | Tagged: American Hero, Heroes, Pat Tillman, Tribute