From ASU to the NFL to Iraq, Staat finally graduates

May, 14, 2009
5/14/09
12:10
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The downward spiral that left former Arizona State All-American Jeremy Staat working at Walgreens in 2005 wasn't terribly spectacular and perhaps that was part of the problem. There was no lurid self-destruction, no juicy gossip fodder that would generate a searing episode of a sports equivalent of VH1's "Behind the Music."

 
  ASU Media Relations
  Former Arizona State lineman Jeremy Staat was hit hard by the death of teammate and friend Pat Tillman in 2004.
What Staat felt after he washed out of the NFL and the Arena Football League and suffered through the death of good friend Pat Tillman after a controversial friendly fire incident near the Afghanistan border in 2004 was mostly malaise.

He'd won the "Morris Trophy" as the Pac-10's top lineman after the 1997 season. He'd been drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He'd become a millionaire in his mid-20s.

And all he could think was, "Is this it?"

"The fame had come and gone," he recalled thinking. "So what's next?"

He asked himself the typical big questions -- "What's the meaning of life?" and such. He listened to sad songs. He got angry. He felt sorry for himself. And he looked in the mirror.

"I wasn't living for anyone but myself. I was selfish in a lot of ways," Staat said. "What do I want to leave behind? What kind of person do I want other people to say I was? Do I want to be known as a party animal? Or a football player? Or a great individual?"

With President Barack Obama in town to deliver the Arizona State commencement speech, Staat will finally earn his college degree this week, 11 years after he left the school thinking education was meaningless for an NFL player.

It's the latest development for Staat, who decided while working at Walgreens four years ago that the cure for his malaise was enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corp.

Staat's joining the Marines and now earning his college degree might surprise some who knew him during his Arizona State days. Suffice it to say that Staat's reputation for having a good time was as big as his 6-foot-6, 300-pound frame.

"I enjoyed myself," he said. "There are plenty of stories out there of my younger days. When I watch highlights from [Arizona State] games, I am amazed at how we played. I used to be a little out of control."

Like the time he and Tillman and a couple other guys after a long, boozy night out slept in a truck outside Sun Devil Stadium to avoid missing fan day.

Or the time he and Tillman and a couple other guys, after a few adult beverages on Tempe's landmark "A Mountain," broke into the stadium. Tillman proceeded to climb one of the light posts, where he remained for hours.

It wasn't just revelry that bound Tillman and Staat, who roomed with Tillman's brother Kevin for a semester. They engaged in plenty of lengthy conversations. Some were just shooting the bull. Some grew heated. It was a complicated relationship.

In fact, Tillman talked Staat out of joining the military in 2001. Staat had been cut by the Seattle Seahawks, and he said he seriously considered enlisting after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But Tillman swayed him with the argument that he needed to play in just three more games to earn his NFL retirement benefits.

Staat would eventually earn his benefits after a 2003 stint with the St. Louis Rams, but he was playing for the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena League a year later when he learned that Tillman had been killed in action. That body blow only further drained his desire to play football.

Staat continues to have strong feelings against the Army about the events that led to Tillman's death and the subsequent investigation. He, like Tillman's family, believes the accurate and complete story has yet to be told.

"The fog around his death was thickened by lies," he said.

Staat's subsequent divorce from Avengers was messy. "They basically kicked me off the team," he said.

So the 41st pick of the 1998 NFL draft was out of football. A buddy got him the job at Walgreens.

"I did a lot of soul searching, wondering what was going to be the next step in my life," he said. "And I said, 'You know, I've always wanted to be a Marine.'"

In March of 2007, Lance Cpl. Jeremy Staat was deployed to Haditha, Iraq as part of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. He was an infantry machine gunner and drove around in seven-ton armadillos, armored trucks used to transport soldiers in the Middle East.

Things were fairly quiet, though. According to Staat, his unit only suffered two injuries and no one was killed in action.

"It wasn't a blood fest, like some people make it out to be. It was pretty controlled. We had a pretty good sense of security," he said. "My eyes were opened up. They [the Iraqis] were just people. I expected to see guys running around with AK-47s, shouting about Allah and shooting into the sky."

His seven-month tour ended and he returned to the Kaneohe Bay base in Hawaii. Then his body started breaking down. He suffered back, hip and heart problems. He was put on light duty and he began the process of seeking a medical discharge, which he expects to be completed within a month or so.
Again, his life was changing. He decided his future would be better with a college degree.

After graduating this week, he and his fiancée, Janelle Hamilton -- they plan to marry in October -- will return to Staat's hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., where Staat wants so pursue a master's degree in theology or public administration.

He's been working with a nonprofit, the "Veteran Tickets Foundation" -- www.VetTix.org -- that tries to provide veterans free and discounted tickets to concerts and sporting events.

He's not exactly sure what the future holds. Maybe politics.

"I'm tired of people lying to the American people about what's happening," he said.

But he's rediscovered his faith -- he and Tillman used to frequently and heatedly debate religion -- and his life has found its moorings.

Does he have regrets about his football career? Sure. But he appears to be living up to a decision he arrived at back in 2005 when he was stocking shelves in a drug store, feeling frustrated and lost.

He then decided, "I don't want to live an ordinary life."

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