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Ex-NFL Player Tillman Killed in Combat

Tillman and his brother refused publicity after making the decision to enlist. They felt it would detract from the families and stories of other soldiers serving overseas, and were so adamant that they admonished immediate family members not to speak with the media. His brother, Spc. Kevin Tillman, joined the same Rangers battalion as Pat. The Tillman brothers deployed several times with the batallion and took part in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among other awards, Pat Tillman earned the Purple Heart, according to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

The tree-lined street in San Jose, where Tillman grew up, was lined with American flags yesterday. An officer from the Santa Clara County's sheriff's department parked in the driveway of the Tillman family home and politely turned away reporters while friends stopped by to deliver flowers and offer condolences.

Pat Tillman, 27, told the Cardinals after returning from his honeymoon in May 2002 that he was joining the Army with his brother in the hopes of becoming a Ranger. (Randy Reid - AP File Photo)

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"The family believes that everyone who has given their lives in the war deserves equal recognition for their sacrifice," Robert Setterlund, the assistant principal at San Jose's Leland High School said. "They don't want one person singled out."

The White House released a statement calling Tillman "an inspiration both on and off the football field." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) described himself as "heartbroken" over Tillman's death in a prepared statement. He added, "The tragic loss of this extraordinary young man will seem a heavy blow to our nation's morale, as it is surely a grievous injury to his loved ones."

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said: "Pat Tillman personified all the best values of his country and the NFL. He was an achiever and a leader on many levels who always put his team, his community and his country ahead of his personal interests."

The Tillmans followed other professional athletes into wartime service, including baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays and the late Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg, and Rocky Bleier, the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back who was wounded in Vietnam. More than 600 NFL players served during World War II; 19 were killed.

On July 21, 1970, James Robert Kalsu, an offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills and a former Oklahoma all-American, became the only U.S. professional athlete to die in combat in Vietnam.

Kendall and other teammates and friends of Tillman recounted stories of the rambunctious safety, who during his rookie year dropped a fullback weighing 50 pounds more during a routine drill. His tale of perseverance seemed borrowed from a Frank Capra script.

Bruce Snyder, Tillman's coach at Arizona State, told Tillman while recruiting him out of Leland High School in San Jose that he wanted to redshirt the walk-on linebacker his first season.

"You can do whatever you want with me," Tillman said. "But in four years, I'm gone. I've got things to do with my life." Tillman was not redshirted and would become the Pacific-10 Conference's defensive player of the year his senior season. He carried a 3.84 grade-point average through college, graduating with high honors in 31/2 academic years with a degree in marketing.

A long shot to make an NFL roster when the Cardinals plucked him in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, Tillman made himself into a 5-foot-11, 200-pound hellion. He competed in a 70.2-mile triathlon to ready himself for his last NFL training camp.

He became such a ballhawk and was so revered for his intensity the next several years, the St. Louis Rams offered Tillman $9 million over five years in 2001.

Tillman married his high school sweetheart, remained spare and fussy with his money even after he began making hundreds of thousands in the NFL and never thought twice about joining the military.

At the Cardinals' somber practice facility yesterday, his No. 40 jersey rested on one table, aligned in a black frame, along with a Cardinals helmet, and a glass vase with flowers, with a small American flag protruding. On another table, fans could write messages for the Tillman family on a broad swath of white paper. "I watched you ride your bike to practice," one read. "My thoughts were, what a humble guy. Prayers from across the street."

"I really had looked forward to buying him another beer somewhere down the road," his teammate Kendall said.

Staff writers Leonard Shapiro in Washington, Mark Maske in New York, Steve Fainaru in San Jose, and special correspondent Jack Magruder in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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