Alex Garwood has this hazy memory, covered in 17 years of sadness and dust, and it emerges sometimes when he looks at his sons: It’s of him, approaching his brother-in-law’s coffin with a toddler at his side and an infant named Adam strapped to his chest.

How would Alex ever explain any of this: death and war and the man inside? How could his sons ever understand?

“Uncle Pat is in there,” Garwood can recall telling his boys. The years ahead could handle the rest.

If his sons ever asked, Garwood or their mother, Christine — whose sister, Marie, was married to Pat — would explain that their uncle had been humble and curious. He had read the Bible and the Torah and the Koran, and if a stranger asked what Uncle Pat did for work, he would murmur something vague about having a job in Arizona. Tillman loved competition of all kinds, debates and long jogs and board games, and though he was capable of crushing everyone during a run or at Trivial Pursuit, he was often confident enough to let somebody else win.

Years passed, the boys grew, and a third son was born in 2006. Garwood pointed to the television whenever there was a documentary or feature about Uncle Pat. And every September, Alex and Christine began gently describing the events of 9/11, and how it had frightened many Americans but inspired others.

Tillman, a star safety for the Arizona Cardinals, and his brother Kevin, a former minor league baseball player, had enlisted and completed basic training together before being sent to Afghanistan in the same unit of the Army Rangers. Then one day in spring 2004, Alex Garwood answered the phone and learned that Pat Tillman had been killed. He approached his wife, lifted young Adam from her arms, then told Christine her 27-year-old brother was gone. That memory, he says, isn’t so hazy.

“Seared into my head,” Alex Garwood says.

Eventually, the boys learned that the story of their uncle’s death was complicated. At first, the Army insisted Tillman had been killed by enemy soldiers during an ambush. He was hailed as a national hero and awarded the Purple Heart and a Silver Star, and he was posthumously promoted to corporal. But later it was revealed that Tillman and an Afghan soldier were accidentally killed by members of Tillman’s own unit.

Tillman’s family lashed out at the Army for attempting to use their son’s death as an embellished symbol of patriotism, and Kevin Tillman later wrote an essay that denounced the war in Iraq and accused the Department of Defense of deceit.

“American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation,” Kevin Tillman wrote in 2006, “has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.”

This led to more tough discussions in the Garwood household, and Alex says he sometimes used movies and other examples of pop culture to initiate talks with his sons. Sometimes he just listened. Other times the questions had no answer.

“What do you do when you’re ordered to do something you don’t necessarily believe in?” Alex Garwood recalls wondering. “Trying to explain that to the boys, and then trying to explain to them that the guys who unfortunately shot him were his guys, and of course they didn’t do it on purpose, and how did that happen? And having the wherewithal to say, ‘We don’t know.’ ”

Compared to that, the discussion of whether to allow the Garwood boys to play football was easy. Theirs was a football family, simple as that, and though Alex had been an all-American linebacker at California Polytechnic State, a Football Championship Subdivision school on the state’s central coast, by now he was better known as Pat Tillman’s brother-in-law. He ran the Pat Tillman Foundation and often acted as the family’s spokesman when local or national media made contact.

His oldest son, Ryan, first convinced his parents that sixth grade was old enough to play. Adam, who was in fourth grade and enjoyed debate like his uncle, argued it was unfair for his brother to suit up but not him.

“I don’t know how Christine and I caved,” Alex Garwood says. “But we caved.”

The Garwoods installed a machine in their backyard that fired footballs, and Adam spent hours catching passes. Alex says all three boys found ways to honor their uncle, phone wallpapers and such, though Adam was often more overt about it. The youngest, Scott, paraded about in a Ben Roethlisberger jersey when he was younger, but Adam never wore a number that wasn’t his uncle’s. In pee-wee ball, he traded in No. 40 (Uncle Pat’s number with the Arizona Cardinals) for No. 42 (Tillman’s number in college) and has never worn anything else. By the time the boys were teenagers, the bedroom walls of Ryan and Scott were sparsely decorated, but Adam’s room was a shrine: Tillman posters and newspaper articles and a framed Cardinals jersey next to his dad’s jersey from Cal Poly.

Adam treasured the hockey stick the Arizona Coyotes goalie gave him the night he wore his uncle’s jersey number to a game, and eventually he hung a large flag that honored the Army Rangers. He even designed an image of Uncle Pat, his dad says, standing in front of an American flag alongside a quotation attributed to Tillman.

“Somewhere inside, we hear a voice,” reads the quote, posted on the Pat Tillman Foundation website, among other places. “It leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. But it is up to us whether to follow.”

Adam played running back at Los Gatos High, a short drive from where his uncle grew up in San Jose. He perfected his stiff-arm and honed a belief that actions are more important than words. Like his uncle, Adam, at 165 pounds, was considered small for football, but he developed a work ethic that could perhaps overpower any limitation. Under his pads, he wore T-shirts for the Pat Tillman Foundation, where Alex Garwood is a director, and No. 42 on his back and chest. He could rarely be heard in the Los Gatos football facility — unless, of course, a teammate happened to notch a personal best in the weight room, in which case Adam was the first to run over and celebrate. Before his senior season, shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic, Adam invited teammates to his home for offseason conditioning.

“One of those guys,” Los Gatos Coach Mark Krail says. “Not the biggest, not the fastest. But certainly he was going to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Krail, who previously coached at Tillman’s alma mater, Leland High, says he sees similarities between Tillman and Adam.

“He wasn’t out praising Pat all the time,” he says. “He just more lived with that in his soul, and that was more — and still is — a real motivator for him.”

Adam Garwood didn’t respond to text messages requesting an interview for this story. His father says it’s because his son doesn’t believe he has yet achieved anything to warrant such attention, which, as much as the jersey number and silent tokens, seems positively Tillman-esque.

A few months ago, the Garwoods invited a few of Adam’s teammates and friends to their backyard. Adam sat at a table and, in an impromptu signing day ceremony, slid on his father’s Cal Poly helmet. He planned to walk on for the Mustangs, and if he made the opening-day roster, he already knew which jersey number he would wear.

This past weekend, just days before the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, the Garwoods traveled to San Diego. Adam had made Cal Poly’s travel roster, a few weeks before he would be named the Mustangs’ starting kick returner. While they waited for the game to start, his parents thought about the passage of time and the fact that their sons are grown now: Ryan in college and Scott about to start his high school football career. They remembered Pat, of course. And with Adam preparing to run onto a college football field, his dad thought about something else.

In recent months, Adam had been talking about continuing to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, even after football. He was thinking of joining the military. And Alex was unsure what to think about that.

“My initial take is I’m extremely proud that he would even consider it,” Alex Garwood says. “However …”

He pauses.

“I’m very thankful,” he continues, “he’s playing college football.”

On this Saturday in Southern California, Alex and Christine sat in the bleachers at Torero Stadium and waited to make another memory. The music hit, Cal Poly ran through the visitors’ entrance and past the cheerleaders, and Alex Garwood could feel a swell of emotion as he watched his son, wearing No. 42, jog onto the grass.

“It just looked right,” he says. “This is where he belongs.”