Posted on Sat, Sep. 07, 2002

Doing right because it's right


As bad a press as the sports business got during baseball's billionaire-millionaire labor pact face-off, it's too bad media types haven't paid more attention to America's most selfless pro sports figure.

His name, in case you haven't heard, is Pat Tillman. He's not a 9-11 hero, but the horror of 9-11 moved him in a way that made him a shining exemplar for all of us, young and old. His story recalls John F. Kennedy's inaugural exhortation of a generation ago: to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Until the 25-year-old athlete joined the Army recently, he was an employee of the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals. Tillman's work as a defensive back, by all accounts, made him a highly productive and valued member of the enterprise.

Earlier this year, however, he told his employer he planned to forgo the $3.6 million the Cardinals had offered over three years. Instead, he joined the military and thus took a pay cut estimated at something over $3.5 million. Pro athletes are fond of saying it's not about money, but Tillman's action speaks much louder than the words of many of his overpaid, self-absorbed colleagues.

After Tillman completes infantry training, he plans to go to Airborne School to become a paratrooper. If he makes it through jump school, his next goal is to undergo Ranger training, which has the reputation of being an almost superhuman test of physical endurance.

Tillman is obviously not doing this for personal glory. He has refused to talk for public consumption about why he decided to turn his back on the lucrative life of a pro football star to become a low-paid warrior in the service of his country. He apparently has also told Army superiors he prefers not to have any media coverage of his training experience and wants to be as anonymous as the rest of his fellow GIs.

It has been reported, however, that what happened last Sept. 11 changed Tillman in a profound way. An ESPN reporter said friends have related Tillman's explanation in terms of his conscience not allowing him to wreak mayhem on football opponents while the threat of terrorism menaces his country.

Tillman's example is awe-inspiring in myriad ways. It's one thing to fly a flag or wear a T-shirt proclaiming your patriotism. It's quite another to sacrifice millions of dollars to undertake a mostly thankless pursuit that almost certainly will place you in mortal danger.

One of the most meaningful contributions Tillman makes in pursuing his unselfish quest is to provide a psychological antidote to the shameless acts of sickening greed and corporate malfeasance perpetrated by once respectable American business leaders.

Whom do you look to for inspiration during a time when sports heroes and business and civic leaders become poster children for much that is wrong with society?

There were heroes aplenty at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, and they'll forever be an inspiration to us. Meantime, in 9-11's aftermath, the Pat Tillmans of the world go a long way toward convincing us that altruism is still alive in places where we most need it, when we most need it.

Jerry Heaster's column appears Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. To reach him, write the business desk at 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108, call (816) 234-4297 or send e-mail to

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