(Reuters) – The word hero is overused in sport but it truly applies to Pat Tillman, who bravely traded a successful multi-million dollar NFL career to enlist in the U.S. Army in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
For Tillman, his comfortable existence in the United States made little sense to him following 9/11 and he felt compelled to do something that mattered and so, along with his brother Kevin, chose to enlist.
“Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful: courage, toughness, strength etc., while at the same time the attention I received reinforced its seeming importance,” Tillman said in 2002.
“However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I've come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. I'm no longer satisfied with the path I've been following… it's no longer important.”
That thinking is what led Tillman in 2002 to turn down a three-year, $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals, the team that selected him 226th overall in the 1998 NFL Draft.
With Arizona, Tillman earned a place as a starting safety and broke the team's franchise record for tackles in 2000 with 224. In 2001, he even turned down a lucrative contract with the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals.
Tillman went on to serve in the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, becoming one of the U.S. military's most high-profile service members.
He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. The U.S. military initially said the 27-year-old Tillman was shot in an ambush, but a subsequent investigation determined he was killed by friendly fire.
Tillman's memorial service was broadcast on national TV, and in addition to the Purple Heart and Silver Star medals that were posthumously awarded from the military, a statue of him stands outside the Cardinals' stadium in Glendale.
The day of the Sept. 11 attacks, a Tuesday, was normally a day off for the Cardinals but Tillman was among a handful of players who showed up at the team facility to work and watched the news unfold.
The next day in an interview with the team's website Tillman spoke about his love for the United States and the debt he felt he owed.
“My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbour, and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that,” said Tillman. “And so I have a great deal of respect for those that have, and what the flag stands for.”