It is not entirely uncommon to witness someone crying at the dentist’s office. Few if any, particularly enjoy a trip to the doctor and a recent Gallup poll lists it in the top ten amongst fears of adults. Generally though, that someone producing tears, will be from that of a child. On the 7th of May 2004, however, that someone was me.
At the time, I was a junior in college and had driven home to receive my biannual cleaning from the same family dentist I had been visiting since kindergarten. If one can remember back eleven years ago, you will recall that a limited number of magazines had a strong digital presence online. Nor did anyone have the internet on their smartphone and texting was scarcely used. What was one to do while they waited?! (People actually called one another back then — a scary time indeed for us all.) Therefore, if you didn’t have a personal subscription to a particular magazine, your only option was to read it at a store that sold it or hope that one of your friends was a subscriber. As a broke college student, a subscription to any magazine was not in my cards.
For me then, a trip to the dentist’s office wasn’t such a bad thing after all, considering I could catch up on the various magazines I liked — all kept neatly waiting for me on the wall. The elderly secretary was fastidious in re-racking copies left behind on chairs or coffee tables and made certain that the most recent copy was always in the front. It was no wonder then that the May 3rd edition of Sports Illustrated was the first to catch my eye. On the cover I found the intense image of Pat Tillman with the headline An Athlete Dies A Soldier. (If you haven’t seen it before, it is the featured image to this very article.)
Having no idea who this guy was, I was at once confused and certainly curious. The attacks of 9/11 occurred a few weeks after I entered college, and the Iraq War began during spring break of my sophomore year. Both events propelled myself, my friends, and much of the rest of the country, to take a keen interest in all things Iraq and Afghanistan. (Perhaps a separate article on that topic at another time.) So when I saw that an NFL star had been killed in Afghanistan, I was immediately intrigued.
Rapidly paging through to the headline article, I soon learned that Tillman had turned down a contract for $3.6 million from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army in June of 2002 with his brother Kevin — who also turned down a contract to play baseball with the Cleveland Indians. That one professional athlete alone would walk away from a sport to join the military was shocking to me — that two would do so, who happened to be brothers…well, I was speechless.
Excitedly continuing on with my mouth agape, I found that Tillman joined the elite 75th Ranger Regiment and had served several tours in combat before he was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan by the Taliban. I was incensed. The article went on to pay homage to Tillman as a national hero who had given his life to his country. I was devastated. When the nurse finally called my name to see the doctor, I had to quickly wipe away my tears and brought the magazine with me into the dentist’s chair. I asked the doctor if I could keep it so I could show my friends back at school, who were presumably also unaware a professional football player had just been killed by the Taliban. Or so we thought.
To get heavily into the details of what happened next would be trite on my part considering there is a New York Times bestseller devoted entirely to what occurred. Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory, lays out in painful detail how Tillman was actually killed by friendly fire and the great lengths the Army went to conceal this fact. A Congressional inquiry ensued and it was eventually revealed that Tillman’s unit had not been ambushed, there had been no firefight with the Taliban, and Tillman had accidentally been shot by a fellow soldier.
Many folks a lot more important than me got involved at this point and sadly, started to use the controversy to promote their own self-celebrity. The media couldn’t get enough and, as they always do, ran the story incessantly — each network having their own ‘spin’ on the type of hero Tillman had really been. Interest though eventually faded, as it always does, and the story of Pat Tillman began to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion. That is, until January 23, 2010, when a documentary on Tillman’s life and death (narrated by Josh Brolin) was shown at Sundance Film Festival. I wasn’t even aware that it had been in production much less shown at a festival until months later…as I was already in Afghanistan when it premiered, operating in the very same province in which Tillman had been killed.
And now to the point. I ended up working in Afghanistan for several years and people ask me all the time if I think it was worth it. My deflective response is always the same, “Yes, of course, the sushi was great.” Most get what I am doing and stop there. You see, like any undertaking, few want to engage in a conversation about whether or not their direct participation in something was a waste of time. I’m sure you too have experienced this at some point and agree. But while most will always ask if it was worth it, rarely will someone ask me why I volunteered to go in the first place. Fewer still have ever asked me if anyone ever inspired me to join. So rare in fact is that question that it has only happened once. Last evening.
While meeting with a group of collegiate seniors belonging to a particular university here in town, I was asked that exact question. My initial response was to ask whether I had to know the individual personally or have had to have met them previously. I was informed I could choose anyone. Thinking it was probably easier to deflect as usual with humor, I considered answering matter-of-factly with, “Katy Perry.” But alas, she only inspires me to sing. So I thought awhile longer and asked if any amongst them knew a man named Pat Tillman.
Not surprisingly, none did and I was not at all disappointed. How could I possibly judge them for not knowing who he was when, in their same shoes eleven years prior, I had no idea until he appeared on the cover of a famous magazine and subsequently became a gigantic media cause celebre? As they were ten years old back then, I promptly gave them a brief overview of who he was (much similar to the contents of this article) and suggested they should read Jon Krakauer’s book. I was certain it could be found at the university library and available for checkout.
Perhaps not wanting to wait, questions about Tillman continued to be thrown my direction, which I readily answered to the best that I could recall. I then again suggested they check out the book and read it on the beach this week during spring break. That is what one does on spring break, correct? Either way, the message that I left with them, and that which I wish to impart here, (and is the entire reason I chose to write this article), is that they should know they are intrigued if they ever find themselves pointing at something and say, “That. That’s what I want to do.” They are inspired, however, when they find themselves saying, “That. That’s what I have to do.”
A man I never met inspired me to do something I never thought I was capable of eleven years ago. Not just because he served his country and certainly not because he was killed, but because he decided to partake in something in which he believed he could make a difference. Not for fame (he never gave an interview about his decision and was already wildly famous), not for fortune (see above), but because he knew it was something he had to do.
When you find that something, pursue it at all costs.
Original article published via Georgetown University 2015. Video created by 2MW 2017 and can be viewed via YouTube here if the NFL has blocked the above link.