Walk around the Tempe campus, join an organization or attend a sporting event. Chances are, a name familiar to the ASU community will somehow get mentioned.
Virtually everyone remembers his story — he is the former ASU football player who briefly played for the Arizona Cardinals before joining the Army just months after the 9/11 attacks. Tillman’s subsequent death in Afghanistan eventually spawned a controversy about how the U.S. government handled the reports regarding his death.
It’s been nine years since Tillman passed. Yet, the legacy he left behind is far from forgotten. The Pat Tillman Foundation has a strong presence on campus, specifically working with military scholars, and the 4.2-mile Pat’s Run marathon is held annually in Tempe in late April.
Prior to the start of the football season, the Tillman Tunnel at Sun Devil Stadium received a makeover. The most notable addition was a door bearing Tillman’s portrait, which generated national attention when it was unveiled.
Many major universities have historic icons that represent and cultivate their identity. Some have statues of famous alumni. Others have significant buildings. A few celebrate certain spots on campus. The list goes on.
ASU has Tillman.
His family remains thankful for the many tributes that have honored Tillman — including Alex Garwood, Tillman’s brother-in-law who was the original executive director of the foundation.
“When Pat was killed, it was hard to imagine anything beyond grief,” Garwood said. “However, the initial outpouring of support from the Sun Devil community and the Nation showed what was possible. It’s powerful to see it continue.”
Tillman would have turned 37 on Wednesday.
Dr. John Eaton remembers when he taught Tillman in a class at ASU.
In 1997, Eaton was a doctoral student in the marketing department at the W.P. Carey School of Business. He facilitated an introductory business course where Tillman had enrolled in his weekly breakout section. Part of the curriculum of the course was centered on leadership, and that’s when Tillman began to speak up.
“There were times when I agreed with him and there were other times when I debated him,” Eaton said. “It made some memorable and fun class experiences.”
Eaton admitted he was just passing on a fixed lesson plan at that point and said that even he didn’t always agree with the lessons. He said Tillman worked harder to “prove a point” when he didn’t think a lesson was valuable or effective and encouraged his classmates to follow suit.
Eaton once brought up a topic on leadership that was outdated at that time. Tillman interjected.
“He just tore it apart and said, ‘That’s not what leadership is today. That’s not leadership in football. That’s not leadership in the real world. Those models are outdated,’” Eaton said. “And that’s why we hold to those values today, and many of us admire those characteristics.”
Tillman’s views on leadership and his tendency to judge questionable ideas are some of the several traits that people who remember him want to promote in today’s tributes to his memory.
His academic accomplishments have been a staple of the business school, specifically in the marketing department. Tillman graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a 3.86 grade point average in three and a half years and wound up with a number of academic awards, including the Clyde B. Smith Academic Award. Eaton believes Tillman’s attitude in the classroom has shaped the program.
Dr. Michael Mokwa has been teaching the Leadership Through Action Program, which is hosted by the Carey school. The Tillman family designed it with a foundation on active leadership and engaging the community in mind — both reflections of Pat’s character.
“We don’t spend much time studying Pat, because the family wants us to learn about all kinds of other leaders, not just about Pat,” Mokwa said.
Very few people at ASU today embrace Tillman’s legacy more than ASU coach Todd Graham.
“Todd has become a great spokesman, not just for football but for the ‘Sun Devil Way,’ by having strong values and acting on those values,” Mokwa said. “Whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field.”
Now in his second year as head coach of the Sun Devils, Graham emphasizes the values that Tillman stood for and has converted them into some of the football team’s central values. He said he holds his players accountable to those standards both on and off the field.
Graham said he never met or knew Tillman, but he wishes he had. Upon arriving at ASU, Graham researched Tillman extensively and has closely consulted with Tillman’s family.
“I have so much respect for Pat as an American for one,” Graham said. “But as the coach for ASU, he’s the one guy that’s on every single wall.”
There are very few things around ASU’s football facilities that aren’t labeled with “PT42.” Most of the players and coaches wear “PT42” wristbands as well as having the initials stitched on the collar of the uniforms.
The team even rewards its leaders with honorary camouflage jerseys of Tillman’s No. 42 in practice. A handful of players have worn it over the past year, but redshirt senior defensive back Osahon Irabor has held it for the longest, keeping it on in practice since the beginning of the season.
“I never forget what this jersey represents,” Irabor said. “PT42 — everything that he stood for. He was a great teammate, he was a great person and he loved his country. Whenever I put this jersey on, I represent everything that Pat Tillman’s memory stood for.”
According to the ASU sports information department, Graham spearheaded the idea of redesigning the Tillman Tunnel with senior associate athletic director of football Tim Cassidy, adding the door that led the players out of the tunnel as well as installing an overhead television that would show Tillman’s highlights. A private donor supported the renovations at an undisclosed price.
Before ASU’s home football game against Wisconsin on Sept. 14, Graham gave Pat’s brother, Kevin, a tour of the renovated Tillman Tunnel.
“He was emotional,” Graham said. “He told me, ‘Pat would love this, Coach.’ That made me feel good.”
And there is still a lot more Graham would like to learn from Tillman.
“I’d ask how he brought it every day with that kind of energy,” Graham said. “They talk about how he practiced and how he played, how he did everything he did, I’d like to see how could I bottle that up. That’s also how I am. I believe in that.”
The Man vs. The Myth
Not all tributes to Tillman can be beneficial, even in good spirit.
Mokwa argued Tillman is often portrayed as a mythical person, which sometimes hides his overall personality that he and the Tillman Foundation want to display. He said that often happens from people who have never met Tillman or spoke with his family or his close friends.
“I always want to remember Pat as a genuine person, not as an icon or some heroic movie character,” he said. “We never forget that this is a real guy, not something on your jersey.”
“It’s not like he died in action and then all of the sudden became immortalized because of the fact he died in action,” he said.
Garwood, however, isn’t as concerned with how Tillman’s legacy is interpreted. He believes people should use his example for positive actions and making the correct choices.
“That’s part of the beauty of Pat,” Garwood said. “You get to decide for yourself what you want to take away from his example. I remember that he made me embrace life more when he was around and that he inspired others — in life and death— to do their own level best. That influence is contagious and you do see it continued in others.”
The Tillman Foundation will most likely handle any major work carrying on Tillman’s legacy, at least away from Graham’s football field.
For now, the Tillman Foundation will continue to support veterans nationwide — especially with Veteran’s Day approaching — and Mokwa will continue to oversee the leadership program, which he has done since 2005.
MBA student Efraim Ruthenberg is a beneficiary of the Tillman Scholars Program. A self-proclaimed lifelong ASU football fan who watched Tillman play, Ruthenberg served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq as an Army officer. Upon returning to the U.S., Ruthenberg was diagnosed with a bone cancer in his right leg, requiring amputation and the need to wear a prosthetic leg.
Thereafter, the Tillman Foundation named Ruthenberg as a Tillman Military Scholar, giving him a partial scholarship as he is set to complete his MBA at ASU in Spring 2014.
It was a big honor for Ruthenberg, considering Tillman was one of his inspirations to join the Army.
“I don’t consider myself a hero or special in any way whatsoever,” Ruthenberg said. “I’m just a regular guy who used to be in the Army. But I’ll try my best to live up to Pat’s legacy and the ideals of the foundation.”
Eaton, now a full-time marketing professor at the Carey school teaching his own courses, usually dedicates the last PowerPoint slide of his online class content to Tillman.
Eaton called Tillman one of the best students he has ever taught and asks his students to research Tillman’s story as a personal favor, especially those who aren’t familiar with it.
“He made me better at my job,” Easton says in the slide. “He made everyone better. I think that’s the best we should all aim for — to make those around us better.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion