Last Thursday morning, as the NFL and its players sat through another sham of a mediation session unwilling to divide $1 billion between them, Jeremy Staat, once an NFL defensive end and United States Marine scoffed as he drove across the desert toward Tempe from his home in Bakersfield, Calif.
"If I could run the NFL, I'd take away these $80 (million) to $90 million contracts these young guys get," he said, spitting out the words as he spoke. "Unfortunately in the NFL these guys are making money, but they aren’t giving back. That left a bad taste in my mouth when I played -- the self-righteousness of these guys. They have this feeling of entitlement.
"You know, it's just a game."
That he was driving to his old college town where he would run in a race for his old Arizona State teammate, Pat Tillman, who walked away from a lucrative NFL life to give his in a mountain pass in Afghanistan made the irony all too clear.
As another one-time Tillman teammate, Zach Walz would later say:
"Pat never cared about the money."
Friday marks seven years since Tillman was killed in Afghanistan and nothing has changed, even if everything has changed. The official military announcement that he died in an ambush has proven a piece of grievous fiction replaced by a more unsettling truth that he was in fact killed by friendly fire. The wars in the Middle East that he so valiantly volunteered to fight have lost the attention of many people back home -- white noise to an impatient country that has already changed the channel. His name is a pawn now: Equally used by those who believe in the wars and those who despise them.
A book has been written, a movie made. His life has been cut open and dissected, all his complexities and contradictions parsed and yet in a world where heroes prove as cheap as the wind that blows through their paper-thin facades, Tillman remains as revered as the day he died.
After everything that happened he still matters.
Last weekend they ran the race they always do in Pat Tillman's name at Arizona State. They call it Pat's Run. And this time 28,000 people showed up at the school's Sun Devil Stadium to run the 4.2 mile race for the player who wore No. 42 there as an ASU linebacker. They made the loop across the Rio Salado, over the 202 highway and back down into the stadium finishing on the 42-yard line because the money raised for the Pat Tillman Foundation goes for college scholarships for returning soldiers, because this seems right and because as one runner, Jason Blakley, of Phoenix said: "Gosh, how many people walk away from a pro football contract?"
"To me, it's not how he died, it's how he lived," says Doug Tammaro, who is a sports information director at Arizona State and an organizer of Pat's Run.
Tammaro, in his role as a public relations man for the athletic department, deals with athletes in a way few ever see. He's the one who must endure private temper tantrums, beg kids to visit a hospital or talk to a fan who is just dying to meet them. He's the one who knows which men are genuinely kind and giving and which ones just put on a smile for the cameras. Tillman he loved. Tillman was real.
He thinks often about the last night he saw Tillman. It was in Seattle not long before the Tillman's death. ASU was playing a basketball game at the University of Washington, and Tillman was based about an hour away, outside Tacoma. Tillman had been up all night as part of his training, he was tired, but still he made the trip with his wife and brother to see the PR man he considered a friend. This was Pat, he said.
"There were probably 1,000 other people who wanted to spend time with him," Tammaro recalled. "But he gave to everyone."
And last Saturday when he looked at the throng gathering outside Sun Devil Stadium, Tammaro smiled. There were so many children running through the parking lot, children with T-shirts bearing the No. 42 and as he watched them all he could think was how they were barely alive when Tillman was killed and how at some point their parents would have to explain why they were at this race and what his life meant. And that made Tammaro smile.
"He was just very respectful of everyone he met," Tammaro said. "You judge a person on how they treat people who can't help you in return."
It's easy when people die to only see the good. This is especially true when the dead person is young and seemingly selfless like Tillman, who by all accounts, was so moved by September 11, 2001 -- watching the attacks and the World Trade Center collapse at the Cardinals headquarters -- that he quit football less than a year later to join the Army.
It is likewise probably unfair to juxtapose Tillman's sacrifice against the current NFL lockout. He would have been 34 now and had he returned from the war he might have come back to football and still be playing. Regardless of his feelings about the labor dispute he would have been forced to sit out like everyone else.
But everyone who knows him has said the same thing. He would have been impatient with the posturing. Tillman was terribly organized, Tammaro said and not one to suffer inactivity well.
"The decisions he made in life, not one was about money," Walz said. "He would be: 'Just let’s get this crap done, we're entertainers.'"
And the image of a player who turned down a $9 million contract with the Rams to stay with the Cardinals, who had taken a chance on him with the 226th pick in the 1998 draft, is too hard to ignore these days. So too is the fact he never came close to making that $9 million by staying in Arizona and threw away unknown millions by going to war.
Walz remembered how Tillman, early in his career with the Cardinals, rode a bicycle around Tempe for a season. When he finally got a car it was a used Volvo, which he drove with flip-flop covered feet dangling out the window.
"I don't think people focus on the war with Pat, they focus on what he represented," Waltz said. "He represented putting aside materialistic things that drive people today."
And as the lockout drags on into yet another week isn't that a lesson we could all stand to hear?
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