On This Day: Pat Tillman, Who Quit NFL to Join Army After 9/11, Was Killed 17 Years Ago

by Josh Lanier

Pat Tillman, the NFL star who walked away from a nearly $4 million contract to join the military after September 11, died 17 years ago today.

The Arizona Cardinals defensive back became an instant celebrity when he announced he was leaving football to fight the War on Terror. Though he eschewed the limelight as much as possible.

He spent several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before dying in a firefight. Later investigations discovered friendly fire was the cause of his death. Tillman was only 27 years old.

The Cardinals retired his jersey and placed a statue of him outside of the State Farm Stadium. His locker was kept as it was when he last used it and placed as a shrine inside the building.

JJ Watt, who recently joined the Cardinals, posted a photo of Tillman’s locker on Twitter.

Watt said it was an honor “to be walking the same halls that he walked and to see his locker was special for me.”

Pat Tillman Was a Born Leader, Passionate Player

Pat Tillman was an undersized linebacker at Arizona State, but he was a passionate playmaker. He threw himself headlong into everything he did, and lead fully with his heart. Even before he stepped away from the game he was beloved.

Jon Krakauer documented Tillman’s life and death in the book Where Men Win Glory. In his private journals, given to Krakauer by Tillman’s widow, he felt he couldn’t live any other way.

“Passion is what makes life interesting, what ignites our soul, fuels our love and carries our friendships, stimulates our intellect, and pushes our limits,” Tillman wrote in his diary. “A passion for life is contagious and uplifting. Passion cuts both ways… Those that make you feel on top of the world are equally able to turn it upside down … In my life, I want to create passion in my own life and with those, I care for. I want to feel, experience, and live every emotion. I will suffer through the bad for the heights of the good.”

Subsequently after his death, his friends and family formed the Pat Tillman Foundation. The charity provides scholarships to recipients who are making improvements to their communities and the world.

“As the next generation of private and public sector leaders, the Tillman Scholars are tackling challenges across national security, healthcare, technology, civil rights, education, and more. They believe their best years of service to our country are still ahead of them, and they are committed to strengthening communities at home and around the world.”