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Pat Tillman and Self-Sacrifice: A Different Direction

This Saturday, November 11 marks the U.S holiday of Veterans Day. Originally the holiday was Armistice Day, marking the anniversary of the day the Armistice with Germany that went into effect on November 11, 1918. The holiday was renamed Veterans Day in 1954, so as to honor veterans of all wars.

Throughout our history, millions of men and women have answered to call to serve in one of the largest volunteer militaries in history. American public opinion for service men and women remains generally strong even as support for global military engagements ebb and flow.

In our new resource, American Portraits, we profile Pat Tillman, former Arizona Cardinal, who lost his life as a soldier in Afghanistan. This brief narrative lesson gives the context for Tillman’s decision to leave the NFL and enlist. It asks students to grapple with difficult questions of honor, sacrifice, purpose, and justice.

Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students will read the poem “The Unknown Soldier” by Billy Rose and the American Portraits Narrative “Pat Tillman and Self Sacrifice: A Different Direction”. In this narrative they will learn about the life of Pat Tillman and his decision to leave the NFL to enlist in the United States military. In studying the poem and Pat Tillman’s life, they will learn about the idea of self-sacrifice and why we honor the lives of the brave men and women of our armed forces.


Before Class:

Have students read the poem The Unknown Soldier by Billy Rose. This poem was originally written to commemorate WWI veterans, but can be applied to many American military engagements. Have students consider the poets perspective on war and honor.


Have students read the background and narrative entitled, Pat Tillman and Self-Sacrifice: A Different Direction. While they are reading the narrative, have them consider the following questions:

  1. In what ways did Pat Tillman demonstrate self-sacrifice even before he enlisted in the Army?
  2. What motivated Pat Tillman to walk away from his NFL career?
  3. What did Pat Tillman sacrifice by enlisting?
  4. How does our society honor those who sacrifice on our behalf?
  5. How is this reflected in the poem “The Unknown Soldier” by Billy Rose?

Handout: Pat Tillman and Self-Sacrifice: A Different Direction


Pat Tillman was born in 1976, and was raised in an affluent suburb of San Jose, California. He excelled on the football field, helping to lead his team to a league championship during his senior year of high school. In addition to being a star football player, he also had a reputation for sticking up for classmates who were being bullied. He earned a scholarship to play for Arizona State University, and despite his smaller size for a college football player, worked hard to come to the notice of professional football teams. Arizona State played in the Rose Bowl in 1996, and Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998.

On September 11, 2001, the terrorist group al Qaeda stunned America with a coordinated attack, crashing airplanes into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and into the Pentagon. Another element of their plan to hit Washington D.C. was thwarted when brave passengers sacrificed themselves by crashing their plane into a Pennsylvania field. Within weeks, President George W. Bush and Congress responded by attacking Afghanistan, which had sheltered al Qaeda training camps and leaders. In March 2003, Congress authorized the Bush administration to take the war on terror to Iraq because of the belief that it had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) that might be sold to terrorists and threaten the lives of Americans. Some of President Bush’s advisers believed this was the right time to remove Iraq as a sponsor of international terrorism.


In the spring of 2001, Pat Tillman was enjoying life and a string of great successes. Tillman was the starting strong safety for the National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals and was winning great accolades for his hard-hitting style of play. He may not have been a household name or the NFL’s biggest superstar, but he had been named the best strong safety of 2000 by a Sports Illustrated ranking of the best players in each position. Other teams started to notice his excellence on the playing field. In fact, on April 13, 2001, the St. Louis Rams offered Tillman an impressive contract of $9.6 million for five years with $2.6 million paid up front. For a player that made the league minimum of $361,000, it was the offer of a lifetime that would give him financial security and would vindicate his hard work and excellent play. He turned it down without giving it much thought, however. He answered his agent’s incredulous response by asserting the importance of loyalty to the Cardinals. “They believed in me. I love the coaches here. I can’t bring myself to take an offer from the Rams.” His agent explained, “That’s unheard of. You just don’t see loyalty like that in sports today. Pat Tillman was special. He was a man of principle.”

On September 11, 2001, Tillman was sleeping in because it was his day off from his rigorous training and practice schedule before the Cardinals first game of the year coming up that Sunday. His phone started ringing and jarred him awake around 10:00 a.m. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he answered the phone to hear his brother, Kevin, frantically telling him to turn on the television. When he did so, he was horrified to see video clips of a jetliner crashing into the World Trade Center and footage of one of the buildings collapsing with unknown thousands trapped inside. Only twenty minutes later, the second tower crumbled to the ground as well. After days of shock had passed, he gave an interview to the press through the football team’s public relations office. He said, “Times like this you stop and think about just how-not only how good we have it, but what kind of a system we live under. What freedoms we’re allowed. And that wasn’t built overnight. And the flag’s a symbol of all that . . . My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor. And a lot of my family has . . . gone and fought in wars. And I really haven’t done a . . . thing as far as laying myself on the line like that. So I have a great deal of respect for those who have.”

Tillman had another good year playing on the gridiron despite the tumultuous world events and the start of the War on Terror. In April 2002, the Cardinals finally realized that they would need to pay Tillman what he was worth because of his outstanding play and to keep him from entertaining offers from other teams. The Cardinals offered him $3.6 million over three years. It did not equal the Rams’ offer, but it was still a lot of money. Tillman again turned the large offer down, but for a different reason this time.

As the football season wound down, Tillman began speaking with his brother about joining the U.S. Army. He also spoke at length with a family friend who was a former member of the elite U.S. Marines Force Recon. Tillman and his friend went rock-climbing together and spoke for hours about the commitment and what to expect signing up for some of the elite fighting forces in the American military. Tillman deliberated, discussing his plan with his wife; he had made his decision. He would leave professional football at the peak of his career and highest market value as a player to enlist in the U.S. Army for a base salary of $1,290 per month as he pursued becoming an airborne Ranger.

Tillman never gave a media interview about his decision because he didn’t want to be accused of grandstanding and trying to win praise for his sacrifice. But, he confided to his computer diary and wrote: “I’m not sure where this new direction will take my life though I am positive it will include its share of sacrifice and difficulty . . . Despite this, however, I am equally positive that this new direction will, in the end, make our lives fuller, richer, and more meaningful. My voice is calling me in a different direction. It is up to me whether or not to listen.”

Listen he did. He gave up the prestige of being a well-known professional athlete, and the comforts of being home with his wife, a lavish lifestyle, and financial security. The twenty-six-year-old patriot decided to sacrifice all of these to serve his country and dedicate himself to something he considered more important than material pleasures.

Tillman completed basic training that summer and went to Airborne school in the fall. He was deployed to Iraq during the 2003 invasion and completed some important missions before being assigned to patrol Baghdad once Iraq’s capital was taken. Technically, he might have been eligible to be released from his three-year military service commitment to return to the NFL, and he had several teams who wanted to offer him large contracts to return, but Tillman stuck fast to his duty and turned them down yet again.

In April, 2004, Tillman landed in Afghanistan for his second deployment and was stationed in the eastern Khost Province near the Pakistan border. For three weeks, his platoon patrolled in a Humvee and on foot but did not find the enemy. On April 22, his platoon was traveling to a village to clear out any enemy fighters when one of the vehicles in the convoy broke down. After an interminable wait discussing how to proceed over the radio with headquarters, the convoy finally continued with the help of locals while twilight was approaching. They traveled along a riverbed in a valley when suddenly they were hit by mortar fire from an unseen enemy. Tillman and some rangers fanned out to return fire behind some boulders. As the two sides exchanged much small-arms fire for about thirty minutes in an increasingly confused situation, Tillman was killed by friendly fire despite warnings to his fellow Rangers that he was an American.

Although all Americans who were deployed to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sacrificed being away from their families, and many made the ultimate sacrifice, Tillman is an exemplar of self-sacrifice. He consistently sacrificed the allure of wealth for doing what was right. Because of his gratitude for the liberties America affords, he was committed to sacrificing for the ideal of loyalty and then patriotically serving his country after it had been brutally attacked. He gave his life in a tragic event fighting for his fellow Americans.

Pat Tillman and Self-Sacrifice: A Different Direction