To: Specialist Pat Tillman, 75th Ranger Regiment, Ranger Training Brigade, Fort Benning, Ga.

Dear Pat, They say that soldiers, between duress and boredom, look forward to mail call, so I thought I would write. While I don't know you personally, I know of you: how you left your career as a strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the infantry, with the intention of becoming a Ranger.

Congratulations on your graduation from Airborne School this week.

I wonder if you have any regret, if learning to parachute from a plane, with 80 pounds of gear on your back, at night, under fire, makes you wish you were back in the NFL defending hitch routes?

Actually, I was tempted to start my letter this way, for laughs, seeing as how you might need some, what with all you're going through:

Dear Pat, You think you've got it tough, crawling through mud and climbing up rope ladders? Tiger Woods has it tough, too. Every day there's another story about how tough it is to be him -- knowing, that any moment, someone else might ask him about Augusta. Always having to bite his nails, and wonder what lies ahead, around the next dogleg.

Or Dear Pat, Don't be afraid. You think you have fears? Allen Iverson has fears, too. He's afraid to live in Philadelphia.

Or Dear Pat, I know you're tired and hurting. Shaq is, too. We all hope his big toe will be healed in time for the next Olympics.

Anyhow, the public affairs people at Fort Benning say you got through basic training with distinction, and now you and your brother Kevin, who left his own career as a minor leaguer with the Cleveland Indians organization, will go through another 18-day boot camp called the Ranger Indoctrination Program. You'll be eligible for deployment sometime after the first of the year. Just about the time we could be at war with Iraq.

They say you want to be just another foot soldier, which is why you've refused all interviews since you joined. This is a nice idea in theory, but I would argue with it. The fact is, you aren't another grunt. Your behavior is singular; as far as anyone can ascertain, you're the first pro athlete since World War II to enlist. Others have served, like Rocky Bleier, who was drafted and almost lost a leg to shrapnel in Vietnam, but none has volunteered.

Everybody wants to know why you did it. Are you some crackpot, gung-ho, thrill-seeking dope who should leave things to the real soldiers? It doesn't sound like it: You're a lawyer's son and cum laude graduate of Arizona State.

Bet the Army wishes it was an ordinary thing to exchange a $4 million NFL contract in favor of a three-year tour in the infantry at a salary of $18,000 a year.

I wonder if you've found that as an athlete you're more suited to military service, or less? Athletes visit physical extremes, but they're rewarded with surfeit. I can't think of many who would put up with food deprivation and a 10-mile run with a rucksack. NFL players are certainly possessed of toughness -- the injury rate is harrowing -- but exactly what brand of toughness is it? Outward strength doesn't reflect inner strength, as we've seen. The boxer Riddick Bowe decided to join the Marines in mid-career and washed out after eight days of boot camp, citing the loss of control over his life. None of this is to say athletes like Woods, Iverson and O'Neal aren't meaningful or marvelous; they explore, they establish values and they divert whole communities from their problems. But the contests are essentially make-believe.

The Ranger program is designed to seek hidden stress points in even the most ostensibly strong. The Rangers are arguably the most highly trained branch of the infantry -- it was the Rangers who stormed the gun emplacements at Point du Hoc on D-Day, and established the motto, "Rangers Lead the Way."

From what I hear, this is what you can look forward to in the next phase of your training: First they'll make you walk off a diving board with a blindfold on. Then they'll strap you full of gear and throw you in a pool and make you shed it without panicking. That's just the prelim, before they leave you in a swamp for days with no sleep and a bad map.

You seem to be putting up with it fine. All I really know is what you wrote your position coach with the Cardinals, Larry Marmie, in a handwritten letter from basic training a couple of months ago.

"He said now he understood a lot of things," Marmie says. "That he had been in a bit of a cocoon in football."

It's hard to guess what you mean by that. Marmie says you had a quiet distaste for the more self-absorbed types in the NFL, which may have something to do with your enlistment. "In pro football there's a certain amount of ego involved," Marmie says. "Maybe some guys have an exaggerated idea of what they mean to the game. Pat always had things in balance."

You've suggested to friends that you didn't feel right fighting fake battles on the field when other Americans were fighting real ones on other fields. Sept. 11 was a Tuesday, a day off around the league, but as usual you showed up for a workout. You never got the workout in, because the news bulletins interrupted you. You sat in a room in front of the television, staring at it for three straight hours.

That spring when you became an unrestricted free agent, you called Marmie and asked to meet him at a coffee shop, and told him they better draft a safety because you were joining up.

Anyhow, it's interesting to think about what you're doing right now, as opposed to your old teammates. Ernest Becker, in the Pulitzer Prize winning book "Denial of Death," a study of mortality and heroism, writes that the threat of death can lead one to a more purposeful and authentic life. He writes of "inauthentic men," who "follow out the styles of automatic and uncritical living . . . they are one-dimensional men totally immersed in the fictional games being played in their society." Does this explain you?

Dr. Johnson suggested that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of death. Lance Armstrong says that the experience of losing something, whether a career or an old sense of self, is actually enhancing, because unrealized capacities emerge only in crisis. I wonder if you felt wasted, unrealized, because an NFL game could only approximate a crisis?

According to your former teammates, you were always restless. At Arizona State, when head coach Bruce Snyder told you he might redshirt you, you replied that he could do whatever he wanted, "But I'm only going to be here for four years, because I got things to do." There is an interesting rumor that when you enlisted, you told the Army something similar: You said your three-year tour of duty had to end in the spring, so that you would have time to prepare for the NFL season when you mustered out.

I wonder if the military will alter you, and especially your ideas about heroism. Becker says we've made "animal courage into a cult," and that heroism is "first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death." As a culture, we make heroes out of athletes simply for being athletes -- in part because they aren't what Becker calls "the automatic cultural man, who imagines he has control over his life if he pays an insurance premium. If he guns his car and runs his electric toothbrush."

It will be interesting to see what kind of soldier you turn out to be, and whether in the end, you find that soldiering has made you a more authentic man.

Yours truly . . .

Pat Tillman exchanged a $4 million NFL contract in favor of a three-year tour in the infantry at a salary of $18,000 a year.