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Pat Tillman's legacy lives on 20 years after his death through Pat's Run

The former Sun Devil football star is remembered with the Pat Tillman Foundation and Pat's Run, which it hosts every spring

ASU football waits behind the Pat Tillman statue at Mountain America Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. ASU won 24-21.

Pat Tillman's legacy lives on in the memories and stories of those who knew him at ASU. Yet, the Sun Devil's life has touched even more after his death through Pat's Run and the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Before his military career, Tillman played in Tempe during the glory days of ASU football. His four-year college career coincided with the Sun Devils' historic 1997 Rose Bowl appearance against Ohio State and a pair of winning seasons under former head coach Bruce Synder.

Tillman stepped onto ASU's campus as a no-name player from Fremont, CA, and became one of the best in program history. By the 1996 season, he had become a standout defensive player and was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, making him the first Sun Devil to win the award.

"We bonded because he was an undersized guy from California overlooked by a lot of schools," former ASU quarterback Jake Plummer said. "I came in and was a skinny kid from Boise, Idaho, who wasn't supposed to be doing what I did. We just said, 'Hey, we're not going to listen to you. Y'all can suck it. We're going to go out here and play ball."

Plummer sat on the field at Mountain America Stadium this April after completing Pat's Run. He hasn't run many races honoring his former teammate, but he knew he had to return for the 20th edition. 

The former Sun Devil gunslinger wasn't lost on the significance of the finish line location. Plummer looked up at the list of ASU legends and smiled as he saw both his and Tillman’s names. As fans asked for pictures, Plummer said he sat wondering how he and Tillman ended up on that list.

"It's an honor to be here to represent his legacy and to help spread this awesome generational get after it, get it done mentality," Plummer said. "Step up to the plate, go be better, go do better. Do what you can to make yourself better first, and then go make the world better."

Pat's Run co-founder Christina Hundley was a friend of Tillman's when the two went to ASU. Hundley worked in the athletics department while Tillman practiced on the field and minored in business while Tillman majored in it. 

Hundley fondly remembers the long walks she took with him across campus, where they bonded over their common Northern California roots and dreamed about the future.

"He had an amazing knack for being in the moment but also, at the same time, looking forward to the next challenge or the next thing he wanted to do with his life," Hundley said. "He wanted to know the same about you."

After his college career, Tillman turned pro and was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. The former Sun Devil stayed loyal to the state and played all 60 of his NFL games as a Cardinal.

Nevertheless, the budding player decided to turn down a contract offer from the Cardinals following the 2001 season and the 9/11 attacks to enlist in the Army with his brother. 

Tillman's untimely death in the line of duty left those he knew looking for a way to carry on his life's work.

Eight days after his death, Tillman's family and friends created the Pat Tillman Foundation. The non-profit organization primarily supports its network of over 800 Tillman Scholars, who are military veterans or spouses going to college.

Pat Tillman Foundation CEO Katherine Steele is a scholar herself. Steele was part of the 2014 scholar class and feels called to always do more because of a sense of indebtedness "to Pat and who he was and how he lived."

Race co-founder Perry Edinger met Tillman when he was an athletic trainer at ASU. Edinger saw Tillman as an intelligent young man who would use his time off the field to study for his classes and learn about the world. He even trained Tillman for his first marathon.

"Marathon running and professional football just really don't go well together," Edinger said. "I told him that, you know, and I gently discouraged it. He goes, 'I'm doing this. Are you helping me or not?'"

Edinger knew Tillman better than most and wanted to find a way to remember his friend. In collaboration with Tillman’s friends and family, he decided to create an event inspired by Tillman's love of running.

"The 4.2 miles for a 5K person, that's quite a challenge," Edinger said. "4.2 miles for a person who doesn't exercise regularly is a huge challenge. So the desire was to develop something that gives people a purpose in life and strive for something bigger than they normally are."

Pat's Run is the foundation's most public-facing way to keep Tillman's legacy alive and support its scholars. The foundation hosts the run in Tempe every year in April, while around 30 other Tillman honor runs operate throughout the country.

Runners racing at the 20th Annual Pat's Run, honoring Pat Tillman, outside Mountain America Stadium on Saturday, April 13, 2024 in Tempe.

READ MORE: Video: 4.2 miles with the State Press

The first Pat's Run in 2005 was far different from this year’s event. Brian Webster has run all 20 editions and remembers being able to park across from the finish line at the much smaller race. 

Webster isn't from Arizona but enrolled in an ASU master's program largely because of Tillman. He moved to the area just two months before Tillman died and was immediately drawn to his story. Now, Webster believes Pat's Run is a time to look back at how much he's overcome while recognizing that others, like Tillman, gave far more for others.

Webster is an elementary teacher who says he aims to keep Tillman’s legacy alive in the next generation. Each year, he has his fourth graders write an essay about Tillman to "remember his name." The essay requires students to learn about who Tillman was and encourages kids to embrace his selfless approach to life.

"The fifth paragraph is, 'How can you make a positive difference in the lives of others like Pat Tillman did?'" Webster said. "So that's where I'm like, 'What are you going to do to make the world better?'"

Like Webster, longtime Pat's Run participant Lorin Oliver looks forward to the race each year. Oliver has watched the event grow from 5,000 participants to north of 28,000 this year. He may be focused on Tillman's past when he runs, but Oliver thinks it's just as important to learn from his life to make the future better.

Pat's Run is a time for Sun Devils past, present and future to honor one man's legacy. Thousands descend on Tempe wearing maroon and gold shirts with Tillman's famous No. 42. In a crowd packed with Tillman jerseys, some even run in their military fatigues, while others carry American flags. 

"What this means for his legacy is just creating a bunch of new people that understand who he is," Plummer said. "A lot of young people out here weren't alive when he was playing and when he was doing what he did for our country."

The Pat Tillman Foundation will now focus on honoring its namesake for years to come. It does that by adding 60 scholars every year who make an impact in all areas of society. Steele hopes that her organization can keep Tillman in people's minds for as long as possible.

"20 years is a long time for any organization to be around," Steele said. "So we're looking at the next 20 years. I think it's about continuing to share the story of who Pat was and the legacy that we have through this ripple effect now."

Edited by Walker Smith, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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