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*** PAT TILLMAN ***

Reno Gazette-Journal, Saturday, May 25, 2002
Mike Lopresti

There are times we do not need a scoreboard to know who the champion is. Nor a television highlight to find the hero.

At such a moment, someone stands tall, too gallant to miss.

Here is one of them. His name is Pat Tillman.

Until this week, he was a pro football player. One facemask among the hundreds. A safety for the Arizona Cardinals, with a new contract waiting on the table that would pay him millions.

Now he is unique. A professional athlete standing alone. He will not take the contract. He will not play. He will pass on the fame, the fortune, the charter jets, the Sunday roars. The comfortable and lavish and glaring life.

He's joining the Army.

He wants to serve his country. He wants to be a Ranger. He is 25 years old, so it is now or never.

Some will look at this in wonder. Some will look and wonder about his sanity. But whatever the special force within that calls Pat Tillman, the NFL took second place.

I am trying to think of another case in recent years to match this. A young, established professional athlete, with much of his career ahead, walking away from it all to put his life on the line.

Army Rangers die, in dark and dangerous places. Several of them have, just lately.

I can think of none.

But to study Tillman's past is to sense someone extraordinary.

He is only 5-foot-11.

But he was determined enough to be a linebacker for a Rose Bowl team at Arizona State, accomplished enough to be drafted by Arizona.

He was a big-time college athlete.

But he was an eager student, too. Enough to graduate in 3 1/2 years with a 3.84 grade point average.

He was an NFL rookie with new money.

But he rode his bicycle to that first training camp because he did not own a car.

He was offered a $9 million, multiyear contract last year by the St. Louis Rams.

But he turned it down for less money because he thought he owed his loyalty to the Cardinals.

Now he has other plans. Whether it was Sept. 11 or something more, Tillman is driven by a sense of duty.

The last months of terror and warnings have been stark reminders of how deadly a world is out there.

Someone has to protect us.

Someone may have to save us.

Pat Tillman, who just came home from his honeymoon, wants to help do it.

We do not cheer those people nearly often enough. We cheer for quarterbacks, for home run hitters, for jump shooters, for goalies. We pay them baskets of cash, and then additional baskets of cash when they demand even more.

But those who stand guard and occasionally give their lives usually serve to silence. We assume they are there, often take them for granted. Even now.

Oh, there is a holiday for those who have fallen. It is a nice weekend for picnics and auto races. Tillman announced his decision just before Memorial Day.

Maybe he gets back to the NFL one day. Maybe not. He is risking so much. So very, very much.

I will think of Tillman the next time an athlete or owner oozes greed. The next time they want more and more still, wishing to be treated as if they are bastions of the republic.

They are not. Men and women like Pat Tillman are.

The nominations for man of the year in the sports world are now closed. We have a winner, even if it is not yet June.

He is not going to training camp. He is going to boot camp. And after that, well ... God be with him.

Mike Lopresti is a columnist for Gannett News Service.