April 28, 2004 09:00 AM

When Pat Tillman walked away from a lucrative NFL career to join the Army’s elite Rangers two years ago, he did so quietly and as a gesture of post-9/11 patriotism, PEOPLE reports in its tribute to the football star turned soldier, who was killed in an Afghanistan firefight on April 22.

Posthumously promoted to corporal, Tillman, 27, was nominated for a Bronze Star. And while his family – wife Marie, also 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 – have yet to speak publicly about Pat, some in his private circle have shared their memories of this remarkable man.

Jake Plummer, now with the NFL’s Denver Broncos, played with Tillman at both Arizona State University and on the Arizona Cardinals, and became one of his closest friends. “Everyone will remember him as a war hero – and he is,” Plummer says. “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.

“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,” Plummer adds. “I can see myself thinking that, but I don’t think I would be strong enough to actually make that commitment like he did.”

Pat Murphy, the baseball coach at ASU, coached Pat’s younger brother Kevin and got to know Pat: “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.”

Bruce Snyder, who coached Tillman for four years at Arizona State University, heard about his death almost immediately. He recalls: “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.”

Larry Marmie, who coached Tillman on the Cardinals and remained in touch after he entered the Army, reveals: “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.”

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