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Pat Tillman is the website’s selection as it’s 2004 American of the Year, the first-ever such designation in what we hope will become an annual tradition. This wasn’t really a difficult choice at all.

President George W. Bush was the only real contender for the honor who came close. But Tillman’s ultimate sacrifice for his country pushed him to the top of the list of great American’s for this past year.

Pat Tillman was an athlete, an acknowledged football rat. The guy simply loved to play football. Getting him out of a game was a difficult measure at any level.

Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden, in selecting him as his Sportsman of the Year, reported a story from Tillman’s high school days when he continued to sneak back into a blowout game after being removed by the coaches, to the point where the only way they could keep him on the bench was to take away his helmet. He wasn’t trying to show up the other team, or rub salt in their wounds, he simply couldn’t stand not playing.

Tillman helped lead his college team, Arizona State, to the 1996 Rose Bowl. A year later he was voted the Top Defensive Player in the Pac-10, one of the nation’s elite football conferences.

When he graduated from Arizona State and became eligible for the NFL draft, his college coach, Hugh Snyder, was asked if Tillman could make it in the NFL. His reply was “If you don’t want him on your team, don’t draft him, because he won’t let you cut him.” The Phoenix Cardinals made Tillman their 7th round selection in the 1998 draft.

Tillman started his NFL career as many players do, making his mark with outstanding play on ‘special teams’, the kickoff-team kamikazes who throw their bodies around in their efforts to both preserve territory for their team, as well as set the tone for the rest of the game.

His outstanding play led him to win the starting Free Safety position with the Cards, and in 2000 he broke the team record for tackles in a season. The coaches  in Arizona repeatedly had to slow him down in practice, so that Tillman wouldn’t hurt any of his teammates. It wasn’t that he was mean or overly aggressive, you just couldn’t slow the guy down.

He was offered a free agent contract by the St. Louis Rams, a winning organization coming off a recent Super Bowl win, but Tillman turned it down to stay in Phoenix out of loyalty to the team that had given him his chance to become a pro athlete. He then turned down a lucrative $3 million contract from the Cardinals for an even nobler reason.

When the United States was attacked by radical Islamic terrorists on September 11th, 2001, something began to stir in the soul of Pat Tillman. Along with his brother Kevin, a minor leaguer with the Cleveland Indians baseball organization, Tillman resolved to personally do something to protect and defend his country.

The Tillman brothers decided that they were going to join the military, and traded in their football helmet and baseball cap respectively to become members of the elite Army Rangers. Pat Tillman walked away from millions of dollars and the perks that come with being a young, good-looking, popular professional athlete to fight for America.

Bob Ferguson, the Cardinals General Manager when Tillman was drafted, was quoted:

“Pat represents all that is good with this country, our society and ultimately the human condition in general. In today’s world of instant gratification and selfishness, here is a man that was defined by words like loyalty, honor, passion, courage, strength and nobility. He is a modern-day hero.”

Not only did Pat Tillman join the military to fight for his country’s security, but he did so without fanfare. As an NFL star, his enlistment could have been a big deal. Tillman didn’t want that, he wanted to simply be an American soldier.

So, rather than enlisting in the Phoenix area, which would certainly have gotten out in public, Tillman went to Denver to enlist in an area where he was more anonymous. He requested that the Cardinals keep his enlistment as private as possible for as long as possible, and then to play it down with simplicity once it got out.

Tillman became a specialist in the 75th Ranger Regiment, out of Fort Benning, Georgia, and served in many operations and missions for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

After serving an initial tour, Tillman returned to the States in 2003, and was the Cardinals guest at a game in Seattle last December, before which he spoke to his teammates in the locker room, telling of his pride in serving with the Army Rangers. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Iraq for another tour of duty defending his country.

On April 22nd, 2004, after coming under fire at around 7pm on a road near Sperah, 25 miles southwest of the U.S. base at Khost, Tillman’s patrol got out of their vehicles and gave chase, moving toward the spot of the ambush. This was an area where many U.S. military personnel had come under fire, and been killed or wounded, by al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

The fighting was reported to be sustained, lasting about 15-20 minutes. Nine enemy fighters were killed in the confrontation, and two Americans wounded. An Afghani fighting with the U.S. forces was killed, as was the heroic football player-turned-soldier, Pat Tillman.

Though at first believed to have been killed in action by enemy fire, an investigation has revealed that Tillman was likely a victim of ‘friendly-fire’ during the intense, confusing fire-fight, adding more tragedy to the loss of his life.

(Note: video added to story on later website update)

The Phoenix Cardinals will retire Tillman’s uniform #40, and plan to name a plaza outside their new stadium the ‘Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza’. Arizona State has retired Tillman’s college uniform jersey #42, and placed his name in the team’s ‘Honor Ring’ surrounding their stadium. The Cardinals and ASU are getting together to organize a scholarship fund in Tillman’s name.

A statement of sympathy from the White House stated that Tillman was an inspiration both on and off the football field. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was quoted: “Pat Tillman personified all the best interests of his country and the NFL. He was an achiever and leader on many levels, and always put his team, his community, and his country ahead of his personal interests.”

Phoenix Cardinals Michael Bidwell, the son of the team owner, was quoted: “In sports we have a tendency to overuse terms like courage and bravery and heroes, and then someone like Pat Tillman comes along and reminds us what those terms really mean.”

I could not possibly have said it any better than Mr. Bidwell. For all of these reasons, the selection of football player, soldier and American hero Pat Tillman as the 2004 American of the Year is an easy one.