The day before the NFL draft, one of the most overhyped events on the sports calendar, a bolt of reality struck with the news that 27-year-old former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman was killed in action Thursday in Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army Rangers.
The draft -- its excesses accurately portrayed in the film "Jerry Maguire" -- is about young men soon to be millionaires because of their athletic skills. They are applauded and fawned over by parents, friends, coaches, fans, media and agents. Tillman was about duty.
He cared more about his country than the $3.6 million contract he walked away from to play safety for the Cardinals. Tillman "was about honor, integrity and commitment," former Arizona coach Dave McGinnis told Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" on Friday. "He didn't make the decision to join the Rangers on a whim. He thought it out."
Tillman joined the Army in May 2002, after four seasons with the Cardinals (one in which he set the team record for tackles). He also had an exceptional career at Arizona State. At 5 feet 11, 200 pounds, he was an aggressive and skilled linebacker who compiled a 3.84 grade-point average in college, graduating in 31/2 years with a degree in marketing.
"He was an achiever and leader on many levels who always put his team, community and his country ahead of his personal interests," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Tillman made a decision to leave pro football, friends told the Associated Press. Tillman, who granted no interviews after his decision, served in Iraq before Afghanistan.
More than 700 members of the armed forces have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. Pictures of flag-draped coffins, photos of dead soldiers in newspapers and nightly television images of casualties are painful, as is the dispatch of a rare pro athlete dying. In the Vietnam War, one pro football player, Buffalo Bills lineman Bob Kalsu, was killed. In World War II, Navy pilot Nile Kinnick, the only University of Iowa player to win the Heisman Trophy, was killed. The Iowa football stadium is named for him.
A nation of celebrity-watchers, right or wrong, we snap to attention when an NFL player who rejected millions to serve his country is killed. It brings to mind an anecdote Boston writer Leigh Montville reported in his recent first-rate book, "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero." Williams' s plane had been damaged by enemy fire in Korea, and he barely landed the plane. The officer in charge of the operation asked Williams for an autograph. The baseball star couldn't believe the request "after I almost got my ass" shot off, Montville wrote of Williams's reaction.
The Tillman story overshadowed the usual draft day drama. Eli Manning, who was a good college quarterback at Mississippi, vaulted to the top of everyone's draft board in the past month, drawing praise from almost every GM in the NFL. He's also the son of one-time New Orleans quarterback Archie Manning and the brother of Indianapolis Colts co-MVP quarterback Peyton Manning.
Archie, who never won a Super Bowl ring as a player, certainly deserves a ring for raising great quarterbacks. But his performance in trying to orchestrate son Eli's career, in the eyes of one of my NFL pals, makes him no better than a "Little League" father.
"I hate this," Archie told a news conference Thursday when it was revealed he was trying to get his son traded to the New York Endorsement Giants to keep junior from Marty and San Diego's mean streets. Well, Manning's wishes were served, at a high cost to the Giants, who yesterday obtained him for N.C. State quarterback Phillip Rivers and a third-round pick, plus next year's first- and third-round picks. If it was a good day for the Manning clan, it was a bad day for Kerry Collins, whom the Giants will likely release. Regardless, Archie's behavior last week made all controlling, overbearing fathers look bad, if you know what I mean.
The Redskins, meantime, made the right choice, opting for safety Sean Taylor of Miami over tight end/H-back Kellen Winslow Jr., also from Miami. Both players have potential to be fine players, but the Redskins went into the draft with more needs on defense than offense.
Like Father, Like Son
In his 27 years as head basketball coach at Georgetown, John Thompson Jr. won because he successfully recruited players who would play relentless defense, run the court and hit the boards. A number of them, including Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Reggie Williams, went on to successful NBA careers after playing a full career on the Hilltop. Allen Iverson went pro after two years.
What kind of player will John Thompson III recruit?
"Good players," he said with a laugh, sounding more like John II than III. "I like players who can do everything. You recruit the most talented players you can; Syracuse won a national championship with Carmelo Anthony, who stayed one year. That wasn't a bad thing. If leaving early makes sense, well. . . .
"We have to get better slowly. The beauty of Georgetown is you can recruit nationally and internationally because of the program's history and tradition."
Who was John III's favorite Georgetown player?
"John Duren. I liked watching him play. He controlled the game and made the other guys better."
Input from the father?
Said John II on WTEM: "I'll support him as much as he needs me. Still, every father and mother sticks his or her nose in their child's business. . . . But I've told him if he does not ask me, I will not tell you what I think. We're not talking about an inexperienced coach here. He should know that when you take a job at Georgetown, you don't have the same resources as a big state school. It's not a level playing field.
"What you have to do to succeed is assemble the right people, get them to have the right attitude and work your butt off."
Isn't it wonderful to see so many former Capitals (including San Jose Coach Ron Wilson) and Wizards doing so well in postseason play? When I saw Richard Zednik score two goals in Montreal's 2-0 Game 7 win against Boston this week, I said aloud, "Hey, look at Zed."
And watching the Wallace Guys, Ben and my old pal, Rasheed, lead the Pistons, and C-Webb in Sacramento, I couldn't help but sigh with pride. And did I mention Barry Bonds told me in spring training he always wanted to play for the Washington Senators?
I need more balance in my life.
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