Absent a ceremony tonight, Cardinals stand as tribute to Tillman

The Baltimore Sun

TAMPA, Fla. - Faith Hill will sing "America the Beautiful." Jennifer Hudson will belt out the national anthem. Fighter jets will fly overhead. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, will toss the coin. And then two teams will clash on a lush spread of grass and 150 million fans from sea to shining sea will stop everything to indulge.

America and football. A union as perfect as any, inspiring among its faithful the most important of tenets: loyalty and love and devotion.

But something's missing. You couldn't help but notice in the days before tonight's Super Bowl that the memory of Pat Tillman feels like barely a footnote. In fact, the NFL sent out a news release a couple of days ago, with the trumpeting headline: "NFL salutes service, courage and bravery in Super Bowl XLIII." But it had nothing to do with Tillman.

Tillman meant everything to the Arizona Cardinals. He was the most recognizable guy, in fact, ever to put on their uniform. But we remember him forever because of when he took off that uniform, when he walked away from football and signed up for the Army Rangers, eventually giving his life fighting in Afghanistan.

He deserves to be remembered today.

"I think a lot of players weren't here when he was here, maybe don't understand the big picture of what he brought to this organization and really what he did, what he really means to the bigger picture," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner says.

Whether they realize it or not, they were all affected. If you go through the locker room, only one Cardinal you'll see today played alongside Tillman. But his life and death changed this franchise.

Like Tillman, Adrian Wilson is a safety. Tillman's final season in the NFL - 2001 - was Wilson's first. He says you might not hear guys talking about Tillman much but that's because they don't really have to. Everyone knows. Tillman's photos still decorate the facility. You can't miss the statue of him outside University of Phoenix Stadium.

"I think guys understand how much he meant to the organization and the team," Wilson says.

"Being able to drop all his personal goals in football to the side, to go and do something he felt he needed to do to be a better person and to actually do something with his life, I think that speaks volumes for the type of person that he was and the type of character that he had," he says. "This team and this organization has really kind of piggybacked at bringing in guys who are tough, high-character guys that are going to do what it takes to get to the next level."

Wilson points out that it wasn't long after Tillman left football that the Cardinals started to turn the corner. Inspired by a call to service in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tillman walked away from the game and enlisted in May 2002. By the spring of 2003, the Cardinals really began building the team that takes the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers today. The next two drafts brought wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, linebackers Gerald Hayes and Karlos Dansby, defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith, and guard Reggie Wells.

You hate to connect dots that might seem so distant, but Wilson says Tillman's departure played a profound role in changing a franchise that had been mired for years in mediocrity. After Tillman was killed by friendly fire in April 2004, everyone associated with the NFL was given a jolt of perspective. Football wasn't so important anymore. The mentality around Tillman's former team changed forever.

"The Arizona Cardinals needed a fresh breath of confidence," Wilson says. "When that happened, it changed the mind-set of a lot of people. Whenever you can do that, it's good. Change is good. And we've changed for the better."

We could all probably change for the better. Tillman's legacy didn't end with his death. Actually, it started there.

"There's no question that he's an inspiration for what he did, for what he stood for," Warner says. "You think about his situation and the choice that he made, and I think there are very few, if any, who would make that same choice. We're spoiled and we're pampered to a degree."

Tillman's narrative has been told, edited and re-told countless times. But the basic pillars of his life, his calling and his sacrifice remain unchanged.

The Cardinals probably wouldn't be here today without Tillman. And our country wouldn't be here today without men and women just like him.

So today we celebrate America and football. And what a great union it is. We would be hard-pressed to find someone who bridged the two or represented either better than Pat Tillman.

Though it has announced no plans to pay tribute to Tillman today, the NFL picked a beautiful theme for the Super Bowl - service, courage and bravery. It's difficult to think of better words to describe the most important Cardinal any of us will ever know.

STEELERS (14-4) VS. CARDINALS (12-7)

Tonight, 6:30

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Steelers

by 6 1/2

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