PHOENIX - Former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman walked away from a lucrative football career to serve in wartime, ultimately giving his life in a military firefight.
He was the first pro football player to die in combat in more than three decades — a rarity in the generations that followed World War II.
“This particular sacrifice is noteworthy because of its unrepresentative nature,” military historian Peter Karsten said.
Tillman was killed Thursday by militia forces about 25 miles from a U.S. military base at Khost, Afghanistan. He was an elite Army Ranger who joined after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Tillman’s family has not publicly commented on his death, and his father told a reporter the family wouldn’t be “saying anything for quite a while.”
“We’re not really going to talk right now,” Patrick Tillman told The Arizona Republic. “I hope you understand.”
In World War II, 638 former National Football League players served. Nineteen were killed.
Since then, athletes in the military have become less and less common.
Historians note that some athletes of previous generations had little choice but to serve. Those who weren’t drafted often volunteered to avoid dangerous assignments, they said.
The draft had its benefits. It made it possible for athletes who served to avoid backlash from people who were against the wars, since they didn’t have a choice, said Otis Pease, a retired University of Washington history professor who specializes in the United States’ involvement in World War II.
Athletes were actually sought by the military during World War II, because they were thought to be more likely to survive plane crashes, said Michael Gelfand, a University of Arizona history professor.
Without the draft, athletes are now often reluctant to join the military — especially with the amount of money they have to lose.
Cardinals center Pete Kendall commended Tillman for walking away from millions of dollars and a life of relative ease to put his life on the line.
“That is one of those things that is easy to say you might do, but Pat, to the best of my knowledge, is about the only one that I know presently in our modern day of athletics that did it,” Kendall said during a news conference Friday.
Before Tillman, the last pro football player to die in combat was Bob Kalsu, an offensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills, who served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and was killed by North Vietnamese mortar fire.
Billy Shaw, a Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame guard and former teammate of Kalsu, said news reports of Tillman’s death reminded him of Kalsu.
“What a tremendous character makeup both of these individuals had to put their careers on hold to defend our country,” Shaw said. “They are the real Hall of Famers.”
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