Monday, March 21, 2005
Updated: June 1, 4:53 PM ET
Nose for the Football
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
Sept. 28, 1996 - A week earlier, linebacker Pat Tillman had been a relatively stationary figure in Arizona State's defense, stuck with eyeballing Nebraska's pitch play to star running back Ahman Green in a 19-0 Sun Devils' upset of the nation's top-ranked team.
But today against Oregon, also at Tempe, Tillman was free to roam and the junior played all over the field. He was in on 12 tackles (five solo), two for losses, and recovered a fumble on a fourth-down play. He made his first career interception, recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarter and had a 15-yard sack late in the game that clinched sixth-ranked Arizona State's 48-27 victory.
"Pat is very athletic, very smart and recognizes what offensive people are trying to do to him," coach Bruce Snyder said. "He likes open spaces so he can interpret different routes."
Tillman was chosen as the Pac-10's defensive player of the week as Arizona State went 4-0 for the first time in 14 years.
Odds 'n' Ends
In 1993, Tillman led Leland to the Central Coast Section Division I title as a senior and was the section co-player of the year. He averaged 10.9 yards per rush and 25.7 per reception.
Three Division I colleges showed recruiting interest in him -- BYU, San Jose State and Arizona State. He became Snyder's 25th and last signee after the 1993 season.
He had long hair starting with his senior year at Leland and wore it that way as a player at Arizona State and with the Arizona Cardinals.
Tillman had one start in his first two Arizona State seasons, at inside linebacker in a 20-11 victory over Oregon State during his sophomore year. He played mostly on special teams during that time with occasional action in the secondary.
During mid-day breaks between two-a-day drills at the Sun Devils' preseason camp, Tillman liked to dive off 40-foot cliffs into a nearby stream.
He was an avid reader and enjoyed debating subjects such as politics and religion.
In Arizona State's shutout of Nebraska in 1996, Tillman had only two tackles as his main duty was covering the pitch play to Green. Tillman recovered a Green fumble at the Arizona State three with 1:39 remaining.
Arizona State went 11-1 that season, likely losing the national championship when it fell to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, 20-17, on a TD reception by the Buckeyes' David Boston with 19 seconds left.
Tillman received Pac-10 all-academic honors three times.
As a pro with Arizona, he quickly gained the reputation as a tough practice player. On his second day of training camp in 1998, he leveled fullback Cedric Smith on a short pass play. Smith suffered a season-ending injury.
Tillman started at free safety as a rookie, but was inconsistent on pass coverage and lost the job in the 11th game.
Arizona went 9-7, its first winning season in 14 years, then beat Dallas in a wild-card game before losing to Minnesota.
Although Tillman was a backup in 1999, he made his first two NFL interceptions and led the Cardinals' special teams with 20 tackles. Arizona went 6-10.
Because of an injury to Tommy Bennett, he started at strong safety in 2000 and broke linebacker Ronald McKinnon's franchise tackle record of 223 by one. The record was partly the result of a weak defense by the 3-13 Cardinals.
Tillman made Sports Illustrated's all-pro team that year.
After 9/11, Tillman said, "In times like this, you stop and think how good we have it."
He missed four games in 2001 with a sprained ankle, but still finished with 124 tackles in Arizona's 7-9 season.
Tillman and Marie Ugenti, his longtime girlfriend, were married on May 4, 2002 and spent two weeks in Bora Bora on their honeymoon. Shortly upon his return, Tillman and his brother Kevin enlisted in the Army.
After Tillman finished a three-month basic infantry course in the fall of 2002, he went to a three-week basic airborne course and a three-week Rangers preparation course.
In 2003, the Tillmans did a tour in Iraq, a secretive mission.
The Tillman brothers won ESPN's Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYs in July 2003. Although they were back in the U.S., they didn't attend the ceremony and younger brother Richard accepted the honor for them.
Pat and Kevin returned to Fort Benning in September 2003 to go to the nine-week Ranger School.
Before Tillman, the last NFL player to die in combat was the Buffalo Bills' Bob Kalsu on July 21, 1970. Kalsu was the only professional football player killed in the Vietnam War.
After it was revealed that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, Lt.-Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. said the results of the investigation "in no way diminish the bravery and sacrifice displayed by Cpl. Tillman."
The Pat Tillman Foundation was established in 2004. Marie helps run it.