When the United States entered World War II in the 1940s, numerous prominent athletes, most notably in baseball, put their careers on hold to go overseas and fight.
When the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001, only one prominent professional athlete, Arizona Cardinals defensive back Pat Tillman, signed up to serve in the wars that followed. On April 22, 2004 – 15 years ago today – Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan, per ESPN. Dying at age 27, Tillman was the first American professional football player to die in combat since the NFL’s Bob Kalsu, who died in Vietnam in 1970.
Tillman, a California native who played college football for Arizona State, was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998 and played for four years in the NFL. After the attacks, Tillman turned down a lucrative football contract to join the Army Rangers, along with his brother Kevin Tillman, who was himself a minor league baseball player. The Tillman brothers both served multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan over two years.
Following his death, Pat Tillman was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and other honors. Sen. John McCain delivered the eulogy at Tillman’s nationally televised memorial service.
As demonstrated by reporting, Jon Krakauer’s biography Where Men Win Glory, and the 2010 documentary The Tillman Story, much of what was initially reported about Tillman and his death were false. While it was represented immediately afterward that Tillman had been killed by the enemy, later investigations revealed that Tillman had died in a friendly fire incident, and the Army actively covered up the circumstances of his death.
Tillman died after he was shot three times in the head as part of what was apparently a misunderstanding when his platoon separated into two groups, and Tillman’s half of the platoon was mistaken for Taliban forces.
Tillman’s brother, Kevin, later testified before Congress that the family had been “used as props in a Pentagon public relations exercise,” The San Jose Mercury News reported at the time.
In addition, per The Intercept, Tillman was an opponent of both the Bush/Cheney administration and the Iraq War. He was an avid reader of the anti-war academic Noam Chomsky.
“Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” Tillman said in a 2002 interview, shortly after he enlisted, per Biography. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is… It’s no longer important.”
A statue of Tillman stands outside the Arizona Cardinals’ home stadium in Glendale, Arizona.