Pat Tillman: From the NFL to the U.S. Army

Former NFL Safety for the Arizona Cardinals turned U.S. Army Ranger | Courtesy of Sporting News

Patrick (Pat) Tillman, a former NFL football player with the Arizona Cardinals, left his career in football to join the military. Enlisting in the Army shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, he selflessly left fame and fortune to serve his country. This is the story of a man who left one team to join an even bigger, more significant team.

In 1998, Patrick Daniel Tillman was the 226th draft pick to the Arizona Cardinals, a National Football League (NFL) team. Before Tillman was drafted, he started his football career at Arizona State University as a linebacker. During his time there, he helped his team go undefeated, leading the team to the 1997 Rose Bowl his junior year against the Ohio State University Buckeyes. That year he was also voted 10-Pac Defensive Player of the Year.1 After being drafted to the Arizona Cardinals, he switched positions from linebacker to safety. As a rookie, he started ten of sixteen games and caught the attention of other teams. He was offered $9 million dollars to play for the St. Louis Rams, but he chose loyalty over money and stayed with the Cardinals.2 This is one of the many actions that showed Tillman’s character.

Former Arizona Cardinals safety | Courtesy of Wikipedia

During Tillman’s time with the Arizona Cardinals, the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001 by a militant Sunni Islamic extremist group known as Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden.3 On this infamous day, Tillman, like many other Americans, felt the need to protect and serve his country. Tillman finished the remainder of the 2001-2002 season with the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted in the Army eight months after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

After the September 11 attacks, Tillman told a reporter,

“At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”4


September 11, 2001 will forever be engraved in American History. On this tragic day, Al-Qaeda committed a series of airline hijackings and suicide attacks on the United States.5 On this day, nineteen assailants from Al-Qaeda boarded four different flights taking off to different parts of the United States.

The first plane to land its attack on the United States was United Airlines Flight 11. This flight originally departed from Boston, Massachusetts and was supposed to arrive in Los Angeles, California.6 Fifteen minutes after take off, at approximately 7:59 AM EDT, five hijackers forced their way into the cockpit, and took over the plane. Forty seven minutes after take off, the unimaginable happened. Flight 11 it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York. On board the plane were 81 passengers, 11 crew members and 5 hijackers.7 Flight 91 crashed into floors 93-99. Killing everyone on the plane and on the floors on impact. Unfortunately for those on floors 94-110, there was no way to flee the tower due to the damage cause by the floors below them. The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 AM.8

World Trade Center, September 11, 2001 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The second plane hit its targeted location at United Airlines Flight 175. This flight departed from Boston, Massachusetts and was also scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles, California. 9 The second plane to take off from Logan International Airport, departed at 8:14 AM EDT. At 9:03 AM, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. On board were fifty-six passengers, nine crew members and five hijackers. Below, thousands spectators in New York and spectators around the United States, via the media, froze in fear as they were hit with the realization that the United States was under attack. At approximately 9:59 AM, the South Tower collapsed after crashing into floors 75-85.10

The third flight, American Airlines Flight 77, departed from Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, bound for Los Angeles, California.11 This flight crashed into the Pentagon, located in Arlington County, Virginia, at 9:37 AM. On board the plane were fifty-three passengers, six crew members, and five hijackers. All aboard the plane were killed on impact including 125 people in the Pentagon building.12

The final flight target to take off that day was United Airlines Flight 93, which departed from Newark, New Jersey, bound for San Francisco, California.13 United Airlines Flight 93 was speculated to target either the White House or the United States Capitol Building. However, whatever the intended target was, the destination was never reached. During the hijacking of the aircraft, flight crew members and passenger’s fought not only to regain control of the aircraft, but also to fight for their lives. Their great efforts led to the plane crashing in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 8:42 AM. Aboard the plane were thirty-three passengers, seven crew members, and four hijackers.14 Despite the valiant actions of some of the passengers and crew to take back the plane, the were no survivors.

The total casualties from the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, reached a number over three thousand. In New York, it’s estimated that over 2750 civilian casualties occurred. In Virginia, at the Pentagon, around 184 casualties occurred, and there were approximately 40 casualties in Pennsylvania. Finally, many brave people rushed to the scene of the attack and died trying to save the lives of others, including over 400 police and firemen who died that day as well.15 More than 3000 lives were lost this day, and Americans will forever remember it.


On May 31, 2002, Pat Tillman enlisted in the United States Army, and in September 2002, he graduated from basic training. He completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program, which all new soldiers complete before they are assigned to a battalion. Once completing the eight-week course, Tillman joined the 2nd Ranger Battalion stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington.16 

Corporal Patrick Tillman | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Around March 2003, Tillman was deployed to Iraq to participate in the initial Iraq invasion. This invasion was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was a military conflict between Iraq and the United States to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, and to stop the Iraqi government from producing weapons of mass destruction.17

After eight months in Iraq, Tillman returned to the U.S. and was immediately sent to Fort Benning, Georgia to attend the United States Army Ranger School. On November 28, 2003, Tillman graduated Ranger School and was redeployed to Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan, Tillman and his platoon were one of the many platoons that were part of Operation Enduring Freedom. This operation was another militaristic launch by the United States to send troops to Afghanistan to control the Taliban, a known Islamist extremist group, who refused to surrender the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks on the United States, Osama bin Laden.18

In April 2004, Tillman and his platoon were sent to patrol in Khost province near the Afghan border with Pakistan. During the mission, one of the patrol vehicles broke down so the platoon had to split. One half of the platoon continued on to the nearest village, and the other stayed with the broken vehicle. Tillman was part of the platoon what went on to the nearest village. As they made their way to the village the group that stayed behind came under fire by enemy ambush. As Tillman’s group rushed back to aid their fellow soldiers, there was a lack of communication between the two groups that resulted in Tillman being killed by friendly fire.19


Osama bin Laden was the leader of militant Islamist organization Al-Qaeda. He was the mastermind behind several terrorist attacks against the United States and other Western powers including the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Virginia near Washington D.C.20

Bin Laden founded the extremist group Al-Qaeda shortly after the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Bin Laden saw this invasion as an attack on Islam, which led him to form a resistance group against the Soviet Union. He began traveling to meet with other Afghan resistance leaders and raise funds for the resistance and recruit members. Bin Laden developed his reputation as a military leader, and more people began to follow him. By 1988, Al-Qaeda had formed. A year later the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan due to a scarcity in resources, and bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia.21

As a result of the support bin Laden accumulated, he requested the Saudi Arabian government allow him to use his forces to fight against the potential threat of Saddam Hussein from invading Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden’s request was denied due to his new label by the Saudi government as a radical and potential threat. The Saudi Arabian government, instead, called U.S. troops for help, which did not sit well with bin Laden. Outraged, bin Laden fled to Sudan with his resources and a growing hatred toward the United States.22

Osama bin Laden | Courtesy of Wikipedia

In Sudan, bin Laden and his forces formulated a plan to attack the United States. By 1994, he expanded Al-Qaeda and began military combat training for his recruits. Soon he fled to Afghanistan, where he was under the protection of another Islamist extremist group known as the Taliban. There he continued his training of recruits while he formulated his plan for a “Holy War” against the United States.23

Al-Qaeda funded attacks against the United States included simultaneous 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the 2000 bombing on U.S. warship USS Cole, and the 2001 attacks in New York, Virginia, and in Pennsylvania on U.S. soil. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, bin Laden went into hiding and spent over a decade on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) “Top 10 Most Wanted” list.24

After years spent in hiding, the U.S. finally located bin Laden in a secure compound in Pakistan near Islamabad. On May 2, 2011, a group of U.S. forces raided bin Laden’s compound and killed him. His body was removed from Pakistan to be identified using DNA technology. After his identification was confirmed, he was buried at sea. Hours after the identification of bin Laden, former President Barack Obama gave a televised address the the citizens of the U.S and the world about the death of Osama bin Laden.25


During a mission for Operation Enduring Freedom, Tillman was killed in action while returning to aid his fellow soldiers during an ambush attack by Taliban militants. After reports of his death came out, the media shared that he was killed by enemy fire. However, questions arose about the true events that led to his death. Several accounts of what happened conflicted. Despite the uncertainty of how his death happened, Tillman being killed in action became the official story of his death. Months after his death, questions were still being asked, especially by his family, about the real story of his death. These questions led to the Department of Defense launching an investigation, which resulted in the truth being uncovered. Tillman’s death was the result of friendly fire. After this news broke, many people questioned why the government described his death falsely. Some of the accusations toward the government involved the Bush Administration and the Army, accusing them of covering up the true story of his death to keep a good name for themselves. Facts were uncovered that Army commanders and members of the Bush Administration destroyed Tillman’s clothing, notebooks, and even some parts of his body. To this day, Tillman’s family are still unsure whether his story is true or whether or not they will ever hear to real reasoning behind their beloved family member’s death.26

On May 3, 2004, Tillman’s televised memorial included Senator John McCain delivering his eulogy, and he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Years after Tillman’s death, friends and family came together to form the Pat Tillman Foundation, which aims to “unite and empower remarkable military veterans and spouses as the next generation of public and private sector leaders committed to service beyond self… the program supports active-duty service members, veterans and their spouses with academic scholarships, a national network, and professional development opportunities, so they are empowered to make an impact at home and around the world.”27 The Pat Tillman Foundation is dedicated to helping military veterans and active duty members, as well as their spouses. More importantly, it is dedicated to ensuring that Tillman’s legacy and the memories of him as a professional football player and as an Army Ranger are never forgotten. 

  1. Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), 18.
  2. Mike Towle, I’ve Got Things To Do with My Life: Pat Tillman-the Making of an American Hero</em (Illinois: Triumph Books, 2004), 10.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Al-Qaeda.”
  4. Pat Tillman Foundation, “Our Mission,” Pat Tillman Foundation, September 18, 2018, http://pattillmanfoundation.org/our-story/.
  5.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, s.v.September 11 Attacks,” by Peter L. Bergen.
  6.  New York Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Planes,” by Eric Benson.
  7.  New York Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Planes,” by Eric Benson.
  8.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004, s.v. “September 11, 2001.”
  9.  New York Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Planes,” by Eric Benson.
  10.  New York Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Planes,” by Eric Benson.
  11.  New York Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Planes,” by Eric Benson.
  12.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004, s.v. “September 11, 2001.”
  13.  New York Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Planes,” by Eric Benson.
  14.  New York Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Planes,” by Eric Benson.
  15.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, s.v.September 11 Attacks,” by Peter L. Bergen.
  16. Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), 55-75.
  17.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012, s.v. “Iraq War.”
  18.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012, s.v. “Operation Enduring Freedom,” by Judson Knight.
  19. Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), 300-356.
  20.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Osama bin Laden.”
  21.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Osama bin Laden.”
  22.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Osama bin Laden.”
  23.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Osama bin Laden.”
  24.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Osama bin Laden.”
  25.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018, s.v. “Osama bin Laden.”
  26. Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), 18.
  27. Pat Tillman Foundation, “Our Mission,” Pat Tillman Foundation, September 18, 2018, http://pattillmanfoundation.org/our-story/.
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1 Comment

  • It’s always refreshing to read about someone with such patriotism that they would give up a wealthy and easy NFL lifestyle for an opportunity to serve their country. Even twelve years after the September 11 attacks it was still one factor that made me want to enlist myself. To be able to go from the NFL to an Army Ranger who would eventually give his life for his country. No matter the circumstances of his death this man was still a hero.

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