In Decmber 4th's online edition of The American Spectator, writer Paul Beston has reminded me of the guise in which you will find true heroism, pure valor and plain-speaking patriotism. Many of us may have, for lack of a better expression, forgotten about former NFL player Pat Tillman. A starting strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman left the cardinals at the conclusion of the 2001 football season and enlisted straightaway in the Army's elite 75th Ranger Regiment. He and his brother, Kevin, enlisted at the same time and are both currently serving somewhere in the Middle East. The article doesn't interview Tillman; gaining access to him would likely be impossible. Even if the most intrepid reporter attempted to do so, in all likelihood Tillman would refuse to highlight himself. There's too much to do, and interviews are a silly distraction. As Beston writes, "Apparently determined that their endeavor not be construed as self-aggrandizing or insincere, they have simply done what they said they would do -- leave behind the fantasy world of sports to serve their country."
It would be a remarkable story in any time, but in a more cynical age it is nothing short of breathtaking. Imagine a 26-year old American male, talented enough to play in the National Football League and earn millions of dollars, leaving because he felt he had more important things to do. What could be more important than riches and fame? Why sacrifice when our culture so often portrays sacrifice as the preserve of misfits and losers? For many observers, Tillman's decision had to have an explanation more rational, and less abstract, than mere nobility.
Not that the NFL's resident thugs "get" guys like Tillman. Simeon Rice, Tillman's former teammate at Arizona, posited that Tillman's decision was based more on a lack of talent than a sense of duty. More recently, Rice (perhaps realizing the folly of his earlier statement?) clarified his gaffe, saying Tillman's motivation was "admirable", and likely inspired by ...
"Maybe it was the Rambo movies?" he asked. "Maybe it's Sylvester Stallone and Rocky?"
I kid you not. While that statement is likely to boil your blood, the rest of Beston's essay is truly inspiring, and will remind you of what constitutes heroes. We need a reminder that heroism involves courage, stamina, iron will, and above all, sacrifice. The Tillman brothers, and many lesser known individuals who serve in the ongoing War on Terror, embody these qualities. Actors, sports stars, musicians, writers, journalists, and activists are merely entertainers and aparatchiks, and when it comes to lasting impact they are as ephemeral as the smokey haze in a run-down bar.
While many of us spend our Sundays worshipping gridiron heroes like Rice (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and are able to cite their playfield heroics with enthusiasm, people like Pat Tillman are out there, in places where there are no sideline air conditioners, heated benches or catered skyboxes. They're slogging through sandstorms, demining village soccer pitches, and patrolling in neighborhoods where Fedayeen Sadaam and Taliban sympathizers lurk in the shadows. You will not find heroes hot-footing it to the goal line, shaking their booties, and retiring to gentlemen's clubs to celebrate.
It's no wonder the NFL, and us, have forgotten about Pat Tillman.