The Hero and the Unknown Soldier
By: Rick Reilly
All day, in San Jose, the parents of late NFL star Pat Tillman were seeing their son get the kind of attention he would've hated: his face on CNN, teddy bear memorials, a tribute from the White House.
All day, in Bellaire, Ohio, the grandmother of former high school football star Todd Bates was living with a solitary ache she can barely describe: The boy she raised as her own came back from Iraq in a box, and nobody broke into a newscast to announce his death to the nation.
Since 9/11, all Arizona Cardinals strong safety Pat Tillman wanted was to fight for his country. He took a potential $1,182,000 annual pay cut to jump from the NFL to the Army Rangers in 2002, and he refused all attempts to glorify his decision. He told friends that he wanted to be treated as no more special than the guy on the cot next to him. ("He viewed his decision as no more patriotic than that of his less fortunate, less renowned countrymen," Arizona senator John McCain said.) Tillman even forbade his family and friends from talking to the press about him. News crews begged for photos, mere shots of him signing his induction papers or piling out of a truck at Fort Benning, Ga., or getting his first haircut -- anything. They got nothing.
Since he was a kid, all Bellaire High linebacker Todd Bates wanted was "to be somebody," his football team chaplain, Pastor Don Cordery, told the Associated Press. When you grow up poor and without your parents around, you get hungry to make your mark. He wasn't a good enough player to get a scholarship, yet he desperately wanted to go to college. So in 2002 he took the only road available to him -- he left home and joined the Ohio Army National Guard. Nobody wanted to take a picture of him getting his haircut.
Tillman, 5'11" and 200 pounds, joined the only team tougher than the NFL -- the 75th Ranger Regiment. He served a tour of duty in Iraq, then went to Afghanistan. He was killed last Thursday in an ambush in the remote eastern Afghan province of Khost. His younger brother Kevin, also a Ranger, escorted his body home.
Bates, 6 feet and 250 pounds, walked eight miles a day with a 50-pound backpack to lose enough weight to join the Army, recalls his grandmother Shirley Bates, who raised him from a baby. He made it to Baghdad and was on a boat patrolling the Tigris River when his squad leader lost his balance and fell overboard. Without a life jacket Bates dived in to rescue him. Both men drowned. It took 13 days to find Bates's body, on Dec. 23, one month before his unit returned home.
Tillman's death shook the country like no other in this war. Makeshift memorials sprang up at his alma mater, Arizona State, and at the Cardinals' offices in Tempe. The club announced that the plaza around its new stadium will be named Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza. At the NFL draft in New York, commissioner Paul Tagliabue wore a black ribbon with Tillman's name on it. Some people talked about retiring his number, 40, league-wide.
Only friends and family grieved for Bates, but deeply. It so tormented Shirley's companion, 61-year-old Charles Jones -- the man who helped her raise Todd -- that he refused to go to the funeral. "If I don't go, then Toddie can't be dead," he kept saying. He refused to leave the house. He refused to talk much. He refused to eat. Four weeks later he dropped over dead without a word. "He died of a broken heart," says Shirley. She buried them in the cemetery up the hill from her home, side by side.
Tillman died a hero and a patriot. But his death is a wake-up call to the nation that every day -- more than 500 times since President Bush declared "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," more than 800 times since the invasion of Afghanistan -- a family must drive to the airport to greet their dead child. The only difference this time is that the whole country knew this child.
In the little house in Bellaire, any patriotism was swallowed up by sorrow. "There was no reason for my boy to die," says Shirley. "There is no reason for this war. There were no weapons found. All we have now is a Vietnam. My Toddie's life was wasted over there. All this war is a waste. Look at all these boys going home in coffins. What's the good in it?"
Athletes are soldiers and soldiers are athletes. Uniformed, fit and trained, they fight for one cause, one team. They take ground and they defend it. Both are carried off on their teammates' shoulders, athletes when they win and soldiers when they die.
Pat Tillman and Todd Bates were athletes and soldiers. Tillman wanted to be anonymous and became the face of this war. Bates wanted to be somebody and died faceless to most of the nation.
Both did their duty for their country, but I wonder if their country did its duty for them. Tillman died in Afghanistan, a war with no end in sight and not enough troops to finish the job. Bates died in Iraq, a war that began with no just cause and continues with no just reason.
Be proud that sports produce men like this.
But I, for one, am furious that these wars keep taking them.
Issue date: May 3, 2004