Pat Tillman, a former NFL player who swapped a lucrative football career to enlist in the U.S. Army, was killed in action in southeastern Afghanistan, U.S. military sources said today.
The 27-year-old former football player was killed in direct action during a firefight in eastern Afghanistan Thursday, Pentagon sources told ABCNEWS.
A former member of the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman, along with his brother Kevin, enrolled with the U.S. Army Rangers a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
According to a Pentagon source, Tillman was killed in action when his unit's patrol was attacked by small arms and mortar fire during a coordinated ambush in eastern Afghanistan. His family has been notified, a Pentagon source said.
Two U.S. soldiers were wounded and one enemy combatant was killed during the ambush.
Tillman's brother, a former minor league baseball player with the Cleveland Indians, is in the same platoon.
The news of his death came as a shock to fans and teammates. Michael Bidwill, vice president of the Arizona Cardinals, said the news was like a "kick in the gut."
And in a statement released today, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Tillman "personified all the best values of his country and the NFL."
While extending his sympathy to the Tillman family, Tagliabue said the former football player had made "the ultimate sacrifice and gave his life in the service of our country."
The White House said in a statement that Tillman was "an inspiration both on and off the football field. As with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror, his family is in the thoughts and prayers of President and Mrs. Bush."
Ever since his shocking decision to walk away from a promising professional sports career, Tillman's popularity shot up, even as he consistently declined to grant media interviews.
Last year, Pat and Kevin Tillman were awarded an Arthur Ashe Courage Award meant for individuals whose contributions transcend sports. The award was accepted by their younger brother, Richard, while the brothers were away.
Tillman, an unrestricted free agent, traded a $3.6 million, three-year contract with the Cardinals for military service. He made the decision after returning from his honeymoon with his wife, Marie, in May 2002.
As an Army Ranger, his annual salary would have been $18,000.
In 2001, the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams offered Tillman a $9 million, five-year offer sheet. He turned it down out of loyalty to the Cardinals.
A Shocking Decision
After joining the Army, Tillman was first sent to Iraq with the 75th Regiment Ranger Battalion last March during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Following a brief break, he was posted in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been battling pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban resistance since U.S.-led forces attacked the Central Asian nation in 2001.
Despite major media interest in his story, Tillman remained very private about his decision to give up football for military service. He swore his family to silence, according to media reports.
In a rare interview before he enlisted, Tillman said: "My family has … gone and fought in wars and I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that, and so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for."
While some media reports suggested that Tillman had lost friends in the attacks on the World Trade Center, family members denied the reports.
"Pat Tillman made a decision based on some very real values, and the words honor, dignity, integrity, commitment … they were not just adjectives with Pat Tillman, they were reality in his life, and that came through very loud and clear," said Dave McGinnis, the former Cardinals head football coach and a close friend of Tillman.
‘Extraordinary Young Man’
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was "heartbroken" by the news of Tillman's death.
"The tragic loss of this extraordinary young man will seem a heavy blow to our nation's morale, as it is surely a grievous injury to his loved ones," McCain said in a statement.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Tillman played four seasons with the Cardinals before he joined the Army. Before signing with the NFL team, he had been a star linebacker for Arizona State University's football team, and was the Pac-10's defensive player of the year in 1997.
A marketing major, he carried a a 3.84 grade point average through college and graduated with summa cum laude honors in 1997 after 3½ academic years.
Flags are being flown at half-staff on the Arizona State campus and throughout the state.
A well-loved player in Phoenix, Tillman will be sorely missed by his former teammates, said Paola Boivin, a sports reporter for The Arizona Republic.
"It's just a city in mourning," said Boivin, "because he was kind of the guy that renewed our faith in the professional athlete."