Since at least the Challenger exploded, I’ve hated the word hero. Too often it simply means “died in a highly visible manner,” visibility for the news media being more important than any actual heroic activity. When Pat Tillman died I braced myself for the usual nonsense and was not disappointed. Just to be clear at the beginning, I am not diminishing the life or death of Pat Tillman, I just hate the media circus that accompanies it. Admittedly, I resent the fact that an athlete’s death is valued more in our society than any of the other nearly eight hundred sons and daughters who came home in a box, but I don’t blame him.
In death, Pat Tillman has been given awards and a promotion. The infotainment media has pulled out the hero script and checked off the hero boxes for Tillman while putting on the hero show. But Tillman won’t cooperate.
What does the script demand? A hero must be brave—no problem. Check. Strong—he was a pro athlete. Check. Humble—he went to another town to enlist so he wouldn’t be recognized. Check. Selfless—he died for his comrades and country. Check. Pious…
Tillman's youngest brother, Rich, wore a rumpled white T-shirt, no jacket, no tie, no collar, and immediately swore into the microphone. He hadn't written anything, he said, and with the starkest honesty, he asked mourners to hold their spiritual bromides.
"Pat isn't with God,'' he said. "He's f -- ing dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f -- ing dead.''
Okay, but that’s just one thing. Let’s see, what was next? Oh yes. Manly…
His brother-in-law and close friend, Alex Garwood, described how Tillman handled his duties when he became godfather to Garwood's son. He came to the ceremony dressed as a woman. Not as a religious commentary. He was doing a balancing act.
"We had two godfathers, no godmother,'' Garwood explained. And what NFL player turned Army Ranger wouldn't don drag to make that math work?
He was the same person who often talked late into the night with his linebackers coach at ASU, prying apart stereotypes about college football players and future soldiers.
"He talked about gays,'' Lyle Setencich, the former ASU assistant said. "He asked me, 'Could you coach gays?' " Setencich told Tillman yes. He could, and he had.
So Pat Tillman was a human being. He refuses to fit into our script for a made for TV movie hero. In death he continues to be his own person. His memory belongs to his family, teammates, and friends. He refuses to let infotainment executives and politicians steal his image and make it a tool to sell their products. I suppose there is only one word for a person like that. The word is hero.