It’s not often that Pat Burrell felt helpless in an athletic competition, especially during high school when he was the all-American slugger and All-Star quarterback at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, Calif., but there he was faced with the near impossible task of trying to tackle Pat Tillman.
In addition to being the quarterback for Bellarmine, the alma mater of at least 13 former major leaguers and a pile of NFL players, Olympians and pro soccer players, Burrell was the team’s kicker, too. That meant he usually hung back as the last line of defense if a returner broke through the wedge and the defensive coverage and was on the way to the end zone.
So in a game against Leland High, Burrell kicked off to running back/linebacker/kick returner, Tillman, and waited with the sense that it was going to come down to him preventing a touchdown. And sure enough, he was right. In a matter of seconds all that was left between Tillman and the end zone was Burrell.
“I thought, ‘Oh, bleep,’” Burrell remembered Thursday afternoon before the Giants beat the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Burrell said he stopped Tillman from scoring a touchdown, but only because he approached from an angle and tripped him. Technically, it wasn’t really a tackle, but it got the job done.
It’s interesting, though, that two kids from San Jose, Calif. born exactly a month apart during 1976 are involved in two very different things this Friday. Burrell likely will bat cleanup for the Giants in St. Louis where his team tries to make up some ground in the playoff race. Tillman, the ex-college and NFL star who enlisted to become an Army Ranger only to be killed in Afghanistan six years ago, is the subject of a documentary to be released Friday.
The film, called The Tillman Story, directed by Amir Bar-Lev, took the Sundance Film Festival by storm and opened it up to an audience that might not have been seeking it in certain parts of the mainstream media or from best-selling author, Jon Krakauer. In fact, renowned journalist Charles P. Pierce called the tale that emerged after Tillman’s death, “extraordinary,” and “the greatest sports-related story of my lifetime.”
The more I think about it, the more I believe that Pat Tillman's life and death is the greatest sports-related story of my lifetime. It had extraordinary sacrifice, that led, horribly, to the ultimate sacrifice. It had tragedy and heartbreak. It had lies and deceit. It had a family honoring its lost son by forcing the institution that sought to hide the truth about his death to come clean in the light of day. And, in the middle of it, was someone whose writings before his death indicate, had he survived, that he would have come out of his experience a different, brilliant man. It is every bit an epic. It needs a Homer to tell it.
I mention this only because the man who was most responsible for fudging the truth about Pat Tillman's death is going to have a very bad Wednesday. The Tillmans have been, and are, unrelenting. They honor us all just by being our fellow citizens and doing their duty as such.
Obviously, the Tillman story wouldn’t be as compelling if it weren’t for the man himself. He was, after all, a man who believed in honesty and integrity above anything else. He was a pro football player who turned down a $9 million deal from the Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals. The Cardinals were the team that gave him a chance when no other team would — to Tillman there was no price on that.
Sadly, Tillman’s sense of loyalty and righteousness was seen as kooky and weird. Since the world is a rat race, the conventional wisdom indicates that it’s OK to be a rat. But not to Tillman. For some reason no one could believe that someone could challenge every convention and mean it. It was further baffling to folks that Tillman would trade a $3.6 million contract from the Cardinals for the salary of an enlisted man in the Army.
Was he crazy?
No, not at all. He was just real. Dignity, honor, loyalty and truth weren’t throwaway words to Tillman. Life was short, he reasoned, so why should he always do what was expected instead of challenging himself.
Maybe the military and the government underestimated these qualities when they lied about him after his death. As Krakauer wrote, they stole his honor and rewarded him by using him as a propaganda tool. Wars were ugly business and as one of the men who was part of the initial wave of soldiers into Iraq in 2003 and viewed the action as “criminal.”
Perhaps that’s why the government lied about him and why his belongings were destroyed, including his diary. Here was a man living his life by a code of ethics and morals and they used him for their own selfishness.
Tillman’s story is complicated and further exasperated by the fact that he could not be pigeonholed in life or death.
Burrell and Tillman. Both from San Jose who took similar and divergent paths. When asked if he was familiar with Tillman’s posthumous story, Burrell just looked forlornly and shook his head slowly, as if to express how unbelievable life can be sometimes.