Since Pat Tillman’s death from friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, a frequently-surfacing debate among his family, peers, sports commentators and enthusiasts has been centered around whether Pat Tillman, for his honorable service and ultimate sacrifice, should be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
No one can deny that Tillman’s decision to leave behind a $3.6 million free agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals to fight for his country was by far the most patriotic act of any professional athlete in the last decade (unfortunately, the NFL could really use more guys like him); but by definition, players are inducted into the Hall of Fame for what they did on the field and having the statistics to support their superior play. Tillman was a good safety, but in his four years in the NFL, doesn’t have the stats to be considered a great one. However if he’d had a 12-year career, that may have been different.
Among the supporters of this induction is Chris Collinsworth, former NFL player and current ESPN commentator. Recently, Collinsworth spoke openly on the Dan Patrick Show to discuss his stance that Tillman should be inducted into the Hall of Fame, not for his stats, but because he “represents something about all of us that we would want represented in Canton.”
Collinsworth feels there are others, commissioners and owners, that are in the Hall of Fame for their contributions to the game, “as they should be” he said, “this is no different.” And many say that Tillman wouldn’t want to be honored at all, because that wasn’t the kind of guy he was. When he chose to enlist after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 instead of pursuing a potentially lucrative free agent NFL career, Tillman and his brother (enlisted together) drove from Arizona to Colorado to avoid being grandeur, or a spectacle, and Tillman denied all requests for interviews, not wanting his decision to receive public attention.
On the other side of the fence, Peter King, senior NFL sportswriter, makes an interesting point. Stating that Hall of Fame induction is reserved for players that have phenomenal stats on the field. While he’s not denying Tillman’s heroism and uniqueness (he recalled his only interview with Tillman in 1998 and noted that Tillman was the only player he’d ever interviewed that showed up for work on a ten-speed bicycle), he feels if Tillman is inducted, the other 26 players who have died serving our country should be inducted as well.
“Should all 26 NFL players who have died in service to our country–either in World War II, Vietnam or Afghanistan – be enshrined in Canton? Is one NFL player’s service worth more than others?”
King goes on to add, “For instance, quarterback Eddie Lebaron was twice wounded in the Korean war, earned a Purple Heart, and came back to play in the NFL; he’s not in the Hall – should he be?”
While I understand King’s argument, I side with Collinsworth and feel Tillman does belong in the hall of fame. Not because his service is by any means worth more than the others as King notes, but the timing, meaning and the modern-day sacrifice it took make Tillman a heroic and relatable hero to the new generation of football fans.
Tillman did something that no other professional athlete of his day has done, or would do. Tillman is believed to be the only player since World War II to voluntarily enlist, and he reportedly did so because life just got too cozy.
Reporter Mike Bianchi writes in a recent article about an interview he had with NFL Hall-of-Famer Chuck Bednarik (also a WWII veteran), “…he told me once when I asked about Tillman: ‘He is the end of the line, the last of his kind. The professional athletes today are pussycats. They make too much damn money to fight for their country. You’ll never see another one like Pat Tillman.’”
Bednarik is right.
In my view, Tillman is a shining example of a professional athlete and beyond that, an American hero. There are criminals in the Hall of Fame (I’m looking at you OJ)! As sportscasters sit around and debate Tillman’s actions while sipping on choco-mocha latte’s, not paying $10 for a gallon of gas or fighting terrorists in their own streets, he is dead. Pat deserves to be recognized by the NFL for what he did. He truly sacrificed everything he had for what he felt was the safety and security of his family and all Americans. Like Ed Sabol, he should be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame as an honorary member for his sacrifice.