He would be 32 years old.
Would Pat Tillman be playing this Sunday? In Super Bowl XLIII?
Only two Cardinals remain on the team from Tillman's final NFL season, 2001, and both were rookies that year. One of the pair, Adrian Wilson, has made the Pro Bowl two of the past three seasons at strong safety, which happens to be the same position Tillman played. Whether the 5-11 Tillman would still be on the Cardinals roster or even in the NFL is conjecture.
Imagine if he were, though ...
Just think of the frenzy that would have enveloped Tillman this week. The longest-tenured Cardinal, who had overcome being selected in the seventh round, 226th overall in 1998 to ascend to the NFL's grandest stage. He would've been the media darling.
The loyal employee who, in an age when you cannot go a day without hearing an athlete or pundit exclaim, "It's a business," turned down an offer that was double his salary in order to remain with the Cardinals. After the 2000 season, in which Tillman set a franchise record for tackles (144), he was offered $9 million over five years to sign with the St. Louis Rams.
"I'm not going anywhere, coach," Tillman told then-Cards head coach Dave McGinnis. "You guys took a chance on me. For me to leave for more money wouldn't be right."
The chisel-jawed patriot who in 2002 left the NFL, where a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Cards was on the table, to enlist for a three-year, $18,000 per-year deal with the United States Army. Honestly, has any photo ever better exemplified what a U.S. soldier should look like than this one?
And now he'd be back.
Can you imagine if the Cardinals won? Pat Tillman, America's most celebrated Iraq War veteran (that term would make him want to vomit), going to the White House to meet the president? And there's your Hollywood ending.
I get angry. Not at the manner in which Tillman died. It was a friendly fire fiasco, sure, but there are no guarantees in combat. I get angry because someone like Pat Tillman is no longer here, but ...
... The cover of the New York Post on Jan. 29 shows Bernie Madoff, the financier who allegedly bilked people out of $50 billion. Madoff is upset, according to a source, because he is unable to venture out of his $7 million home. "I'm a prisoner in my own house!" Madoff fumed, according to the source. "I'm stuck here all day!"
... On Jan. 29 the Chicago Tribune Web site leads off with a bold-face quote from embattled Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (Dem.), who tells an impeachment committee: "I have done absolutely nothing wrong."
However, a federal wiretap has Blagojevich discussing the vacated senate seat — vacated by the election of Barack Obama — and saying, "I've got this thing, and it's (bleepin') golden, and I'm just not giving it up for (bleepin') nothing." A few days later, when Blagojevich learned that Obama's people would not extend any more than their appreciation for a favorable senate appointee, he is heard saying, "For nothing? (Bleep) him."
Admittedly, that's a lot for me to place at Pat Tillman's feet. Cowards and crooks will never become extinct, after all. And the last man who died to save the world, well ...
But the reason we build statues to people — and how many Americans born after the bicentennial already have their own statue, as Tillman does outside University of Phoenix Stadium? — is so we remember never to forget them.
Tillman was not exemplary because he was an NFL athlete. Not even because he was an Army Ranger. Though, just by becoming either, Tillman already had elevated himself above most everyone by nearly every metric that matters in contemporary American life.
But those two roles simply made him more visible. Tillman was exemplary because of his character. Tim Layden, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who did a profile of Tillman when he was at Arizona State, wrote after Tillman's death, "There was a rare purity about him. I've not seen it since. I don't expect to see it again soon."
You collect the anecdotes of Tillman's life, the defining moments, and you understand what made him special. Extraordinary.
Over the course of their conversation, Layden asked Tillman if he had ever been arrested. Tillman did not have to reveal that part of his past — the minor juvenile arrest had already been expunged from his record — but he told Layden the entire story (he had been charged with aggravated felony assault after defending a friend in a fight).
And after the story appeared, Layden received a hand-written thank you note from Tillman. That almost never happens.
Another story comes from Zach Walz, a linebacker the Cardinals drafted the same year they did Tillman. During a mini-camp early in that rookie season, Walz was taped to a goalpost by some veterans in a hazing prank. The temperature was near triple-digits, and after about 10 minutes, Tillman decided that the joke had run its course even if the veterans did not agree. He walked into the training room, procured a pair of scissors, marched right past the vets as they warned him not to free Walz, and cut his teammate loose.
Nobody said a word.
I always found it bizarre that Tillman majored in marketing at Arizona State (graduating summa cum laude, by the way, with a 3.82 GPA). I could never imagine Tillman selling anything other than himself. He was almost genetically incapable of spinning something, be it the merits of a used car or his own life story. You look at a photo of his chiseled features, his stone-cold stare, and you can absolutely see it: Pat Tillman was one of the few utterly, completely straightfroward Americans you'd ever come across in modern America.
He didn't really care what you thought of him. He cared what he thought of himself. It was a lifelong examination of the self that simply ended too soon. Or did it?
His last moment was as much in character as all the others that preceded it. In an Afghani canyon at dusk, Tillman and a few others came under fire from confused, and likely panicked, American troops. Tillman, according to witnesses, sounded less frightened than he did pissed off.
"Cease fire! Friendlies!" Tillman shouted while seeking cover. "I am Pat (bleeping) Tillman! I am Pat (bleeping) Tillman!"
Moments later, he was dead. A few days after Tillman died, my brother, who also is an Arizona State alum, drove over to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe to a makeshift shrine erected in Tillman's honor. He had never met Tillman; like most of us, he just wanted to say thank you. And goodbye.
Thank you for your service. Thank you for your example.
Pat Tillman would be 32 years old.