By: Eric Thomas
It’s been ten years since Pat Tillman was gunned down by friendly fire in Afghanistan. His story was already writ large in the NFL when he turned down a $3.5 million contract to fight in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. Most war watchers agree the days that followed his passing were among the most ignominious of the war: the government covered up the circumstances of the incident; his death was used as propaganda; the media jostled for position at his funeral. None of these factors or the circumstances of the war at all, can take away from that singular decision made by Corporal Tillman.
He deserves a bust in Canton. To deny him a place among football’s legends would cheapen the hall itself.
The contrary argument to Tillman’s consecration in Canton is based on his lack of “on the field accomplishments”; some seek to deny him entrance into the Hall of Fame because they hold a sheet of stats and don’t feel like he has met their criteria. It’s understandable, because there is some comfort in the numbers. The numbers are sacred, and the accomplishment that accompanies them color the landscape of fond fall memories from days gone bye. When you restrict the hall to what someone did on the field, you absolve yourself from that uncomfortable moment when you walk past a criminal’s bust. This idea, while I understand it, isn’t just ill-conceived. It’s bloodless, and ignores the contextual history that surrounds Tillman’s decision to join the Army on May 31, 2002.
Twenty-one NFL players were killed in combat. Most of them served in World War Two; two served in Vietnam. All of those soldiers should be honored in Canton some way. Tillman’s decision was different. When those players served in the army, men were conscripted—even Elvis had to serve. Tillman’s decision to forgo millions and go to war (not join the army, war) is unprecedented. No American athlete comes close.
He went to war. Americans overseas were engaged in fire fights and he ran toward the hail of bullets. Are we really saying that his bust doesn’t deserve to be honored alongside Lawrence Taylor and OJ Simpson?
Players can be denied the hall of fame because of their off the field behavior. It’s a different sport, but Cooperstown has been loath to allow steroid users into the Hall of Fame. If a player’s off-the-field malfeasance can deny him a spot, why can’t the reverse work? Why can’t a person’s off the field accomplishments elevate them?
Tillman’s bust in Canton wouldn’t lower the status of those who surround him, it would elevate them. The players around him may have achieved greatness through playing a game. Tillman is an NFL player who was a selfless and honorable human being, and his decision elevates him above any other.
History is context. An act, and its bravery, is dependent on the circumstances that surround it. Tillman entered the army to go to war. His act was singular, unique, and shockingly admirable in an era of the NFL dominated by dog killing and sex boats.
Pat Tillman deserves to be in the NFL Hall of Fame. His exclusion would negate the reason for having a Hall of Fame in the first place.