Pat Tillman...The Ultimate Servant Leader

By Scott Addis, CEO

While there are many servant leaders who come to mind, I suggest that Pat Tillman belongs at the top of the list.  In May, 2002, eight months after the September 11th attacks and after completing the 15 remaining games of the 2001 NFL season, Tillman turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million over three years from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army.  He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.  The official story is that he was shot by enemy forces during an ambush, but it was later revealed that he may have been killed by friendly fire. 

Born on November 6, 1976 in San Jose, California, Pat Tillman was the oldest of three sons.  He excelled at football in high school and helped lead Leland High School to the Central Coast Division I football championship.  Tillman’s considerable talent landed him a scholarship to Arizona State University (ASU) which he attended after graduating from high school.  At ASU, Tillman thrived on the field and in the classroom.  As a linebacker he helped his team achieve an undefeated season and make it to the 1997 Rose Bowl game.  He won Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and was selected as the ASU Most Valuable Player.  Tillman also earned awards for his performance as a student, winning the Clyde B. Smith Academic Award in 1996 and 1997; the Sporting News Honda Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1997; and the 1998 Sun Angel Student Athlete of the Year. 

Pat Tillman was selected by the Arizona Cardinals as the 226th pick in the 1998 National Football League Draft.  Tillman moved over to play the safety position in the NFL and started 10 of 16 games in his rookie season.  Of interest, he turned down a 5-year, $9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals.  Sports Illustrated football writer Paul Zimmerman named Tillman to his 2000 NFL All Pro Team after Tillman finished with 155 tackles (120 solo), 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 9 pass deflections and 1 interception for 30 yards.  He excelled in the NFL despite being relatively small for his position at 5’ 11” tall. 

He and his brother Kevin enlisted on May 31, 2002.  Kevin gave up a career in professional baseball as he already had signed to play for the Cleveland Indians.  In September, 2002, one year after the World Trade Center attacks, they completed their basic training together.  The two brothers completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program in late 2002 and were assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Fort Lewis, Washington.  After participating in the initial invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom in September 2003, Pat Tillman entered Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia and graduated on November 28, 2003.  Tillman was subsequently redeployed to Afganistan. 

Tillman was very close to his family and high school friends.  He repeatedly mentioned in his journals during wartime service that he drew strength from, and deeply valued, his closest friendships, parents, wife and family.  He was very committed to his high school sweetheart whom he married just prior to enlistment in the Army Rangers, Marie Ugenti Tillman. 

He was a gifted athlete and scholar whose priority was serving his country.  When asked why he decided to put his professional football career on hold and join the U.S. Military, Tillman stated “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful, however, these last few years, and especially after the September 11th attack, I have come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is…It is no longer important.” 

Pat Tillman… the ultimate servant leader.

Learn more about the author, Scott Addis.