Pat Tillman Foundation aids student-athletes
Hillary Bach had never heard of Pat Tillman before she enrolled at Arizona State University in 2008. On the first day of freshman orientation for student-athletes, the softball player from Oklahoma went to hear Pat's mom, Mary Tillman, speak.
"I had been searching for what it meant to be a Sun Devil," Bach said. "After hearing Pat's story, I found the inspiration I'd been looking for."
Pat Tillman had been a standout student and linebacker at ASU and was voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997. Despite having atypical height for a pro football player -- 5-foot-11 -- Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and, in 2000, was named to Sports Illustrated's All-Pro team. What should have been the beginnings of a solid NFL career for Tillman took a different turn. Deeply moved by the events of Sept. 11, he turned down a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to enlist with his brother Kevin in the U.S. Army in early 2002. When he was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004, he became a national symbol of heroism, and when his family insisted on full disclosure of the circumstances surrounding his death by friendly fire, the Tillman name came to represent the true cost of war.
"Pat's mom stressed that people need to look beyond the larger-than-life 'war hero' descriptions," Bach said. "She said he was just like us. He went to the same classes, worked out in the same gym, played on the same field. I knew I wanted to be like him -- giving 100 percent no matter what I'm doing."
After his death, family and friends created the Pat Tillman Foundation to honor his legacy of leadership and service. Pat's Run, a 4.2-mile fundraising race held every April in Tempe, Ariz., has grown to 30,000 participants and has spawned shadow races across the country. The races help fund the Tillman Scholars-ASU program, which pairs extraordinary students with mentors in the business community and encourages them to create social change through community leadership. "He was a rock star, both on and off the field," the 21-year-old Bach said. "When I heard about the Tillman Scholar program, I knew I had to be a part of it."
During her junior year, Bach was accepted into the program and thrived in her role as a scholar-athlete. In 2011, her softball team won the College World Series; she finished her undergraduate degree a year early and was accepted into ASU's MBA program; and she laid the groundwork for a nonprofit that brings outstanding female athletes into schools as speakers and presents programs to empower and inspire young girls. She's exactly the kind of student-athlete the Pat Tillman Foundation strives to inspire. In 1997, Tillman graduated a semester early from ASU's school of business with a 3.8 GPA.
Since 2004, the Pat Tillman Foundation has been so successful that it has expanded its focus beyond the ASU community. In 2008, the Tillman Military Scholars program was created. Marie Tillman, Pat's widow, founder and chair of the foundation, saw the need for more educational resources in the military community. "When one member of the family enlists to serve, the entire family upholds the commitment and makes the sacrifice," she said.
That is where the Tillman Military Scholars program comes in. Sgt. Maggie Smith, who joined the Army two months after Tillman was killed in 2004, understands the pressure of being in a military family. As if balancing her roles as a sergeant, a military wife, a marathon runner and a mom to 3-year-old Emily wasn't enough, the 31-year-old recently added graduate student to the list. After seven years in the Army, Smith decided to pursue a graduate degree in public policy, but because of recent changes in the GI Bill, paying for the tuition at Georgetown University would have been impossible. Smith received a scholarship from the Tillman Foundation that nearly cuts her loans in half and gives her the freedom to study full-time for the next two years, and to continue her marathon training.
Smith started running after her daughter was born to help beat postpartum depression and has logged nine marathons, including Boston (3:24) and the Marine Corps Marathon (a personal-best 3:22), which she ran after having a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy after testing positive for the potentially fatal BRCA2 gene. "Running is so important to me," she said. "It is the only time I have to myself during the day and it gives me the space to find peace and clear my head."
Smith is planning on continuing her military career after graduate school and is proud to represent an organization that carries on Tillman's legacy. "When you go to basic training, the Army's values are drilled into you," she said. "Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Pat embodied those values and the foundation is creating a community of people who are striving to carry that on."
To learn more about the Pat Tillman Foundation, visit pattillmanfoundation.org.