It is not how Pat Tillman died that makes him about as great of an American hero as we can possibly know.
It is how he lived.
It is not what he gave up, but how and why he gave it up. It's the fact that all those sports phrases that we casually throw around – like sacrifice and commitment and courage – actually meant something to him.
It is how an NFL player, living the American dream, chose not what his country could do for him, but what he could do for his country.
So not long after Sept. 11, 2001, he walked away from football, away from the money and glory of the NFL and, along with his minor league baseball-playing brother, took his considerable physical gifts to the Army Rangers.
Duty. Honor. Country.
Tillman, 27, was killed in action Thursday in Afghanistan, where coalition forces continue to search for Osama bin Laden.
Tillman is just one of hundreds of brave soldiers from around the globe who have given their lives trying to help make ours safer since Sept. 11. Sadly, there will be more.
Maybe most telling about Tillman is that he, it would seem, would be embarrassed about articles like this, ones that focus on his passing rather than that of Army Spc. Christopher Gelineau, 23, of Portland, Maine, who was killed in an explosion outside Mosul, Iraq, on Tuesday.
Or Marvin Camposiles, 25, of Austell, Ga., Jonathan Hartman, 27, of Jacksonville, Fla., Michael McGlothin, 21, of Milwaukee, Wis., or Robert Henderson II, 33, of Alvaton, Ky. – among six Army personnel and four Marines killed Saturday in Iraq.
No, Tillman isn't a hero for dying, but for living. For putting his morals where his mouth was and not just enlisting, but doing it in the most humble and honorable way.
When he and his brother arrived at Georgia's Fort Benning to begin their training in July 2002 he "came in like everyone else, on a bus from a processing station," the base's public information officer said then. Tillman promptly turned down hundreds of requests for interviews and went about anonymously being a soldier.
No press. No fanfare. No "look at me" publicity stunts.
His move shocked professional sports, populated by so many of our most able-bodied Americans. Tillman was the only one to enlist from the NFL, which is fine – there is no shame in not enlisting.
But it is difficult to cheer ever again for a knucklehead like Simeon Rice who went on Jim Rome's radio show and said about Tillman, "He really wasn't that good, not really. He was good enough to play in Arizona, [but] that's just like the XFL."
After Rome stopped him, Rice finally relented. Sort of.
"I think it's very admirable, actually," Rice said. "You've got to give kudos to a guy like that because he did it for his own reasons. Maybe it's the Rambo movies, maybe it's Sylvester Stallone, Rocky, whatever compels him."
Or maybe it was just serving his country. Maybe it was being a part of a cause greater than his own self-interest. Maybe it was trying to help in a seemingly helpless situation.
In actuality, what Tillman did was no different than what thousands of other American men and women have done. The country needs them and they answer the call. He may have been the only one staring at a $3.6 million contract, but that's money.
This, obviously, is something more valuable than that.
Tillman probably would cringe at the outpouring of attention and affection that his death will bring. He didn't get into this for that. But if his death can remind Americans about the sacrifices of our soldiers, rich and poor, famous and faceless, then maybe something positive can come of it.
Our volunteer military has performed brilliantly overseas. They've served with great skill and made great sacrifices.
Not just the NFL millionaire. All of them.
It seems that is all Pat Tillman wanted to be. One part of the Army. Part of the Army of one.
"The quintessential definition of a patriot" is how John McCain, the Arizona senator and former prisoner of war in Vietnam described him.
And he was.
An American hero not for where and when he died, but how and why he lived.
- Pat Tillman