Opinion: Pat Tillman was killed 20 years ago. Let's remember him and ponder the nation's lost opportunity

Closeup of statue of former Arizona Cardinals player Pat Tillman
A statue of former Arizona Cardinals player Pat Tillman outside State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Tillman left the NFL to enlist in the Army and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. (Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

For many of us who knew about Pat Tillman, April 22 remains a day of deep sadness. On that day 20 years ago, he was killed by friendly fire at a rocky outcropping in a place called Spera, Afghanistan.

Now it’s a day to remember him and to ponder a nation’s lost opportunity.

Tillman wasn’t just a soldier serving his country. He was also a national symbol of patriotism. The lead-up to his death was the stuff of national headlines. The aftermath was the stuff of national disgrace.

He was 27 when he died. He had been a linebacker at Arizona State, a kid out of Fremont, Calif., who was undersize for his position. That, and his long hair in what was then a sport of crew cuts, attracted the attention of sportswriters. But hard tackle after hard tackle quickly dispelled the notion that he was too small to be a linebacker.

This would not be the first time Tillman would defy normal standards.

Read more: Getting to the truth of Pat Tillman's death

He was an All-American in 1997. Also an honors student. He went on to play four seasons with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Before his fifth season, two things happened: He was offered a new contract worth $3.6 million and the United States was attacked by terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Those events would not have presented a choice for most of us. They did for Tillman, who came from a family of military service and was outraged by the attack. He said no thanks to the $3.6 million and enlisted in the Army. It was a can’t-miss story of patriotism. Americans applauded from the safety and comfort of our homes and communities.

I took particular interest in the story because I had dealt with Tillman a couple of times in post-game interview situations. One in particular set the tone. I approached him as he was walking off the field after a UCLA-Arizona State game. From the press box, I had noticed Tillman in a heated conversation with one of the ASU coaches. I wanted to know what had transpired, whether it had resulted in changed strategy and if so, whether that had affected the outcome of the game.

So I stumbled into a watered-down, hem-and-haw question about how much coaches listen to players during a game. About halfway through my babble, Tillman stopped me and said something like, ask it again, get to the point. I did. He responded that he had disagreed with a defensive alignment and had told the coach that. And no, it had little to do with the game’s outcome.

Read more: Granderson: Pat Tillman's sacrifice an important reminder of what Memorial Day is all about

No other player ever did that. Others seemed to want to be intimidating to us, which allowed them to be as unclear and noncontroversial in their answers as we were in our questions. That was not Pat Tillman, then or ever. I was a veteran sportswriter and I had gotten schooled by a college kid with long hair. I never forgot it.

After his enlistment, I followed every Tillman story with special interest. The aftermath of his death was horrifyingly awful. The Defense Department, in what the Tillman family believes was an attempt to avoid bad press and a decrease in recruitment, lied for more than a month about what really happened on that rock pile in Afghanistan. The admission that he had been killed by friendly fire, held until well after his memorial service, did a terrible disservice to the family and the entire country. The stench it left behind from the people we trust to run our country keeps one overwhelming thought in my mind.

What if Pat Tillman had lived?

He would be 46 now. Instead of football fields named after him, plaques and statues commemorating him and fundraisers held in his name, might he have carried on into public service? Would his sincerity and passion for doing the right thing, the unselfish thing, still be making headlines? Could he have become the kind of leader we so badly need now, as our country twists itself into a pretzel of disagreement and disenchantment?

Imagine taking direction from a rock-jawed, smart-as-a-whip former jock and military man without a phony bone in his body, instead of today’s band leaders who seem to wave the baton disingenuously every day.

April 22, 2004. Twenty years ago. A sad, sad day for this country.

Bill Dwyre is a former sports editor of The Times.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.