The way the Pentagon announced the news—a simple headline: “Army Ranger Killed in Afghanistan”—is probably the way Pat Tillman would have wanted it. When Tillman, 27, walked away from a lucrative NFL career to join the Army’s elite Rangers two years ago, he did so as a gesture of post-9/11 patriotism. He gave no interviews, posed for no pictures, passionately avoided publicity—and made headlines anyway. After he enlisted, his name faded from the news, and he became what he wanted to be: a soldier like hundreds of thousands of others, on active duty, trying to make whatever difference one soldier could make.
And so it was that his death in an Afghanistan fire-fight on April 22 touched so many people so deeply. Posthumously promoted to corporal, Tillman was nominated for a Bronze Star. His family—wife Marie, 27, the high school sweetheart whom he married just before he entered boot camp; father Pat Sr., 49, a lawyer; mother Mary, 48, a teacher; and younger brothers Kevin, 26, who was serving in the Rangers with Pat, and Richard, 23, an aspiring actor—declined all interview requests. But others who knew him shared their memories of a remarkable man with PEOPLE’s Jason Bane, Vickie Bane and Ken Lee.
BRUCE SNYDER, who coached Tillman for four years at Arizona State University, heard about his death almost immediately: I was working out, and when I looked at my cell phones both of them had 10 to 12 calls. I thought, “My God, the world must be coming to an end or something.” When I heard, it was like somebody kicked me in the stomach.
TERRY HARDTKE, who has been friends with the Tillman family for 20 years, coached Pat in baseball and football when he played at Leland High School in San Jose, Calif.: I thought of Pat as Superman. Never in my wildest dreams did I think something like this would happen to him. This is a tragic loss, but he wouldn’t look at this as the ultimate sacrifice. Pat would see himself as the blue-collar guy who went to work and did his job and something bad just happened.
What I’ll miss most about Pat is his personality. He was a very positive person, had a strong conviction on everything. That comes from his family, the way he and his brothers were brought up. The area where they live, New Almaden, is out in the country. Pat’s a throwback from yesteryear. The Tillmans had a very simple life, all family-oriented. They were brought up to be individuals. They never had to impress anyone. Their parents encouraged them to be themselves.
PAT MURPHY, the baseball coach at ASU, coached Pat’s younger brother Kevin and got to know Pat: At ASU it was a kind of Clint Eastwood thing—Pat kind of just arrived. He totally did his own thing, and then you could hear the music as he rode out of town his own way. Forget how he played on the field, which was spectacular. It was his whole MO: “I’m doing it my way.” He treated everyone with respect, but he was always going somewhere. Pat wasn’t a guy you called up and said, “Hey, come on over.” He had a place to go. He was dancing to his own music, and dancing like no one was watching.
Quarterback JAKE PLUMMER, now with the NFL’s Denver Broncos, played with Tillman at both ASU and on the Arizona Cardinals, and became one of his closest friends: A lot of kids in college liked to go out and party. Pat would do some of that, but he would also spend a lot of time by himself doing things that he really enjoyed doing. A lot of that was reading.
MURPHY recalls how Tillman liked to climb the 200-ft. light tower at the ASU football stadium to find some solitude: He’d be up at the top of the stadium hanging his legs over the edge and reading. It was like he was a wise man going to do some thinking.
At 5’11” and about 200 lbs., Tillman was small for a linebacker, but he was a ferocious tackler who also, SNYDER recalls, brought key intangibles to the locker room: He had very long hair as a player, and he talked like a surfer dude. In some programs there could have been a movement to get him on the reservation, so to speak, but we didn’t do that. I liked the fact that he would question. He forced us coaches to be dead-on perfect with whatever information we were giving him, because you knew Pat would say, “Excuse me, coach….” That’s fun. I really admired that, in him, I was coaching a man who didn’t need my approval.
PLUMMER: Everyone will remember him as a war hero—and he is. But the people who were close to him will remember him for the fact that he was real. He was a real person—there was no facade, there was no fakeness. It was all real when it came to Pat.
DOUG TAMMARO, who works in public relations for ASU, still marvels at how Tillman could combine such intensity in his life with such a gentle, un-assuming nature: He once did a marathon and realized that it wasn’t tough enough, so he did a triathlon. He was unbelievable, he was so special. On Jan. 30 I had dinner with him in Seattle [Tillman was stationed nearby at Fort Lewis], and it was just a fun evening. He probably asked me more questions about me than I did about him. To him, anyone else was just as important as he was. It was just an amazing night. You kind of wish it was Groundhog Day and you could do it all over again.
Tillman graduated from ASU as a marketing major in 3½ years, with a 3.84 grade average. Drafted by the NFL’s Cardinals, he became a standout defensive back. When he told friends he had decided to quit football, at least temporarily, and join the Army, many were surprised, but not shocked.
PLUMMER: Something hit him close to his heart when 9/11 happened, and being the type of free thinker he was he decided that his way to justify his life would be to go fight for our freedom. I can see myself thinking that, but I don’t think I would be strong enough to actually make that commitment like he did.
His agent FRANK BAUER recalls Tillman’s annoyance at all the press coverage of his decision: He called me and said, “What’s all the attention about? There are thousands of American men and women in the service. What makes me so special?” He had movie offers with a million-dollar contract, book offers with $250,000. He wouldn’t take anything—he didn’t want it.
I had the contract from the Cardinals on the table when he told me what he was doing. I said, “Why don’t you hold off?” He said, “No, I’ll be too old. I can’t get into Special Operations past 28. I’ve got to go now.” He always said, “Hey, I’ve got my life planned out. Don’t worry about me.”
MURPHY: The story I got from close friends was that Pat was the second to get the idea about going into the Army. His brother Kevin was first. And Pat said, “Well, I’m not letting you go alone.” He didn’t want Kevin over there by himself.
LARRY MARMIE, who coached Tillman on the Cardinals and remained in touch with him after he entered the Army: I know that Pat had thought about being killed. But Pat didn’t live his life in fear. He didn’t live his life thinking about the danger.
HARDTKE: Everything you’ve heard, everything that’s been said about Pat Tillman is true. Everyone’s made him out to be a hero, but I’m sure there are people out there saying, “This guy’s too good to be true.” In Pat’s case, he isn’t. But the last thing he’d want is for this to happen—all the adulation. He wouldn’t be comfortable with it.
PLUMMER: I know that he has touched a lot of people’s lives with the decision he made. I think Pat showed people that there’s more to life than reality TV and sitting on your a– and letting things go by. The guy never did that, ever. With him it was about living your life to the fullest and standing up for what you believe in. He was one of a kind.