The bronze statue of Pat Tillman at Arizona State University is iconic: Hair mid-flow, helmet mid-pump, mouth mid-yell. That it replicates an actual image, not just an idealized one, makes it all the more special. The photo veil of Tillman at the opening of the Tillman Tunnel is symbolic. He's there, head up, arms out, ready to lead the team on the field. It's the picture every athlete now sees on his way into Sun Devil Stadium.
It's been almost ten years since Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, but his principles, his personality and his playing days still live on throughout Arizona State in general, and the football program in particular.
Kyle Murphy, ASU's starting left guard during Tillman's time on the team, says that while Tillman deserves all of the praise he gets, the attention afforded him is sort of the antithesis of who he was.
"Pat would tell you that football is a team game and that he was no bigger or better than anyone else on the team," Murphy says. "He wouldn't want to be singled out. He'd want to give praise to the team. I know he would say he was just doing his part and that he was successful because other guys were doing their part."
When talking about team success, Murphy is referring mostly to ASU's dream 1996 season, where they went undefeated until narrowly losing to Ohio State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl. While the team's early-season statement game that year was a 17-0 shutout of then No. 1 ranked Nebraska, it was the following conference game, against Oregon, where Tillman earned Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week, and may have had his best game as a collegian.
He was involved in a dozen tackles, with five of those being solo against the Ducks. He also had his first career interception, recovered a fumble and recovered an onside kick and had a sack late in the game.
"That game was right after we beat Nebraska," Murphy remembers. "The mindset was that we won, but now we wanted to do something better and Pat was going to do whatever we needed. He was everywhere. They had a running back named McCullough and he was catching him in the backfield. I remember on one tackle he had just a fist full of jersey and he held on for dear life and brought the guy down. The announcer just kept saying 'Pat Tillman for the tackle' over and over."
J.R. Redmond, a first-year running back on that 1996 team, remembers that Oregon game well because it was his birthday.
"That was a good game and I just remember watching Pat sell out on every play," he says. "He made plays all over the field that day. You'd see that maroon face mask and some gold hair coming right behind it and the next think you know, pop! It was good stuff. But to me, he had a better game a few years later against Stanford in Palo Alto. He had two or three picks and I don't know, 15 tackles. It was off the hook. Up until that point in my career, I had never seen a defensive player take over a game like that. He made almost every play there was to make. I remember being on the sideline in awe."
Redmond, who will be inducted into Arizona State's Sports Hall of Fame in early October, currently works as a trainer and mentor with young kids at Just Run Pro Training. He says that Tillman's work ethic, his loyalty to his teammates and his energy affected the Sun Devils not only in games, but during practices too.
"It's one of those things where when you see a teammate making plays, it excites you and you want to get your opportunity to make some plays," he says. "But he also practiced like he played. He understood how to practice. When it was time to go 100mph he would. And there were times where he had to throttle it down. He understood how to prepare. But the best thing about Pat was that he was always even-keeled and always upbeat. He always had a smile on his face and had something articulate to say."
Murphy echoes Redmond's words about Tillman in practice.
"In practice, he was hard as hell to block," he remembers. "Pat was our weakside linebacker, and he was fast and he was football smart. We used to do the Oklahoma Drill and he was one of the hardest guys to ever hit. A dude that small is not supposed to hit you that hard. He was solid muscle. In games, guys had a hard time against him because he used everything he had. He'd beat them with preparation and speed."
To this day, the way Tillman played has had an impact on Murphy, who uses him as an example when talking to his own players at Pacifica High School, where he is the offensive and defensive line coach, as well as the strength and conditioning coach.
"Pat always said, 'what do you need me to do and I'll do it,'" Murphy says. "I tell that to my football team. Pat was on every special team and most weeks he was the special teams player of the week on top of being a dominant defensive player. He was just a great teammate. If he was still here, he'd say the same thing about us and that '96 team. It was great because it was everyone pulling together to do what we needed to do to be successful."
"Pat was just an awesome guy and a good friend," Redmond says. "I believe he's a person to honor. I think he achieved greatness in every level of his life and every aspect of his life."
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.