For most athletes, enshrinement in their sport's Hall of Fame represents the pinnacle of achievement. There is not a more finite way to cement a legacy than to have your name put along with the greatest who ever played the game.
But true greatness can mean many things.
To the Professional Football Hall of Fame, greatness means being the elite-of-the-elite, a player who could run, pass, tackle, and block better than anyone. It includes the people behind the scenes who built the NFL and its member clubs into the largest sports empire in world.
As in any walk of life, those talented individuals consist of men of noble character, Grade A scumbags (looking at you, Juice), and a majority who fall somewhere in between.
In other words, the Hall has all types, but what it doesn’t contain is a bronze bust for Pat Tillman. Yet.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of Pat’s tragic death, in which he fell due to friendly fire in Afghanistan. Along with the well deserved remembrances and retrospectives on his life, there has also been a growing discussion of inducting Pat into pro football's most sacred ground.
Pat is already a 2010 inductee of the College Football Hall of Fame. His hellmaking play at linebacker made him an instant local icon as he helped ASU to a Pac-10 title and a conference Defensive Player of the Year award (an honor that now bears his name) during his career.
As a pro, Pat fell well short of the current Hall of Fame standards, and for obvious reasons.
The story of how he turned down a three-year, $3.6-million contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist with the Army Rangers following the 9/11 attacks is the stuff of modern day legend. An incredible gesture, certainly, and one that few of us, if any, could possibly make. But that's not enough to get him in.
Pat's time as a veteran of both the NFL and the armed forces is not unique among pro players. More than 1,000 men who have played, coached, or done front office work in the NFL have also served in the military. Hall of Famer players Sid Luckman, Chuck Bednarik, Roger Staubach, in paticular, all served on active duty during wartime. The story of Rocky Bleier, wounded in Vietnam before resuming a successful career, is a true inspiration. Again, this aspect is not by itself a compelling argument for induction.
But it is the totality of what Pat Tillman did and who he was that makes a convincing case. As a player, Pat was always greater than the sum of his parts, and so he was off the field. That combination of character, talent, determination, and honor is what sets him apart from anyone else.
If anyone deserves to have prior standards cast aside and be recognized with the true legends of football, it's Pat Tillman.
Seeing Pat’s bronze bust in Canton would be nothing short of remarkable. It would prove that true greatness cannot be measured by statistics or highlight reels, and that Canton is a place for all heroes who buckled up the chinstrap.
Yet if the powers that be decide that on-field production shall remain the benchmark for former players and Pat remains left out, that's fine. It really is.
Pat Tillman is one of the rare player whose impact as is not validated by the exploits he displayed on the field. His legacy is made of sterner stuff.
It comes in the efforts of the Pat Tillman Foundation, whose continuing work helps to build a new class of leaders through their military scholarship program.
It comes in the strides of thousands of runners who take to the Tempe streets every April for Pat’s Run.
It comes in the form of the camouflage practice jersey that now stands as the definitive validation of a current Sun Devil player as a student, athlete, and contributor to the community .
Most importantly, it lives on in the example set forth by that remarkable young man. On the field, in the classroom, and in the community, Pat lived his life to a different standard with a one-of-a-kind perspective. Pat Tillman inspired then, inspires now, and will continue to inspire people for generations to come. What better legacy can anyone hope to leave behind?
We here in Arizona, and especially those of use close to Arizona State University, see Pat in a far more personal and intimate way than the rest of the world. PT42 just means that much more to us, and it is only natural that we want to see the man and his legacy exalted in the same manner everywhere as he is here in Sun Devil Nation.
However, he won’t be, and that’s OK. That doesn't diminish anything one iota.
As long as there are people who strive to live a life to the Tillman ideal, there can be no higher honor.