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Saturday, April 24, 2004 - Page updated at 01:32 P.M.
Les Carpenter / Times staff columnist
There was time left for one last dinner. It came on the kind of January night that never happens around here, with the air warm and the sky clear. Pat Tillman, football player turned soldier, stood outside the Flying Fish on First Avenue and jiggled the handle to the restaurant's front door.
He wore blue jeans and had a shaved head.
"Another two minutes and I was going to light a charge through the window!" Tillman roared as he finally found his way in.
Doug Tammaro laughed. Same old Pat. Always loud.
They had been friends for years: Tammaro, the sports information director at Arizona State, and Tillman, the former ASU safety who tore offenses apart. And if you're wondering how a football player and a PR man could become so close, well, that was the thing about Pat Tillman, the guy who left more than $3 million and an NFL career behind to chase Osama bin Laden around Afghanistan.
"He's just a regular guy," Tammaro said.
Yesterday morning, Tammaro sat in his office in Tempe, Ariz., still talking about Tillman in the present tense even though the news was a few hours old that his friend had been killed in an ambush in Afghanistan. Behind his desk a 30-by-40-inch photograph of Tillman hung on the wall. It shows Tillman with chestnut locks flowing from beneath his helmet, chasing down an Oregon Duck.
Tammaro loves this picture. To him this will forever be Pat Tillman, young, reckless, always on the pursuit, the image of a player unwanted by colleges, who at Arizona State turned himself into the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.
There were so many images of Tillman yesterday. All around the NFL the stories spilled out about the player who read books on top of the Sun Devil Stadium light towers, who rode his bicycle to practice with the Arizona Cardinals and who once dangled upside down from a tree so he could know what it was like to be a branch.
"Mr. Ferguson, I'm leaving," is all Tillman said.
"There was no changing his mind," Ferguson said.
Nobody does this. Nobody walks away from guaranteed millions and a life of pampered athletic luxury to slosh through mud and snow and duck bullets halfway around the world. Then when Tillman did just this, he said nothing about the reasons why, forever cloaking his motives in mystery.
In the months that followed there was occasional speculation that he was distraught by the attack on the World Trade Center, that he had come from a military family, that he felt ashamed that people were dying in terrorist attacks and he wasn't doing something to help stop it. But ultimately this was just speculation. Tillman was sent to Fort Lewis, moved with his wife to University Place and then almost disappeared completely from sight.
"Why did he do it?" Tammaro asked. "Because he wanted to. It's that simple. Because you couldn't (join the Army) at age 40. If it had to be done it had to be done now; 9-11, I think, was part of it, but by no means was that just it.
"He does not make snap decisions. I think this was something he was going to do regardless of 9-11. Pat thinks things through."
This was no longer about football. Though Tillman was just 27 and in the prime of a football life that could make him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, he left the game behind. There was a visit to Seahawks Stadium last December when the Cardinals were in town, but even then he just ducked into the team's locker room, said hello to old teammates and disappeared again.
That time was over.
But when Tammaro came to town with the Arizona State basketball team on the last weekend in January, Tillman said he would love to go to dinner. He even picked the restaurant. Then when he arrived with his wife, Marie, and brother Kevin, Tammaro was stunned.
"You look so big," he said.
"Ah, man," Tillman said. "I'm just wearing a lot of shirts."
For the next two hours they sat and talked. Tillman had questions, about the ASU football team, the basketball team, the players he knew. He wondered what old friends and coaches were doing.
Tammaro asked about the war and Tillman said a few things. He talked about going to Afghanistan and Iraq and said he had seen action. But when it came to specifics, he stopped short. There were things he couldn't talk about, he said. And Tammaro didn't want to push him. "He knew he was going back (to the Middle East) and I think he was ready to get back," Tammaro said.
The conversation turned to Seattle and Tillman's face lit up.
"He loved Seattle," Tammaro said. "He really loved Seattle a lot. I got a feeling that he might have set up shop there later in life. He was really falling in love with the city."
It grew late. Tillman was tired the day before he had been up for 24 hours straight as part of his training and he needed to get back. Tillman and Tammaro walked outside into the warm evening and hugged.
"I love you," Tammaro said.
Tillman waved. It was the last time Tammaro ever saw him.
"You know people throw around the word hero a lot, but Pat was one of them," Tammaro said. "It's unbelievable what he did."
Yesterday at 10 a.m., an ASU employee pulled the flags at Sun Devil Stadium to half-staff. As he did this, a car slowed down and honked and then another and then somebody yelled something.
"Did you hear that?" the man pulling the flags asked.
The person next to him shook his head.
"He said, 'Go, Pat.' "
Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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