A full decade has now passed since the Arizona Cardinals used their seventh-round draft pick, the 226th choice overall in the 1998 NFL draft, on an undersized linebacker from Arizona State by the name of Pat Tillman. Standing just 5-foot-11, Tillman was given little chance of making the Cardinals’ roster as a linebacker, and he willingly moved over to safety to maximize his abilities and increase his chances of sticking inthe league.
It has now been just more than six years since Tillman, who made the Sports Illustrated All-Pro team in 2000 after setting a franchise record for tackles in a season, turned down a $3.6 million contract extension offer from the Cardinals in order to enlist in the U.S. Army. He became an elite Army Ranger in May 2002, and after rejecting the fame and fortune of the NFL, he was deployed to Iraq as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and then to Afghanistan, where he volunteered to defend the United States against the terrorists who attacked us in Sept. 11, 2001.
It has now been four years and one month since Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
Exactly one month has now passed since the Detroit Lions used their seventh-round draft pick, the 218th choice overall in the draft, on an unheralded safety from Army by the name of Caleb Campbell. Standing 6-2 and weighing 230 pounds, Campbell is given little chance of making the Lions’ roster as a safety, and has willingly moved to linebacker to maximize his abilities and increase his chances of sticking in the league.
It has been two years since the U.S. Army changed its policy, opening the door for graduating cadets to avoid their mandatory five-year active service commitment and begin professional sports careers immediately.
It is now five days before Campbell graduates from West Point and becomes the anti-Tillman.
The purpose of this column is not to disparage Campbell, who may yet end up trading in his football helmet for a soldier’s helmet before it’s all said and done. The Army provision gives him two years to pursue his sports career while serving as a recruiter on his days off, then allows him to buy out the three remaining years of active duty service in exchange for six years as a reservist, at which time he could still be called into combat. However, many active and retired soldiers are disappointed, and some are downright angry, that a cadet can be allowed to shirk his responsibility in a time of war after receiving a taxpayer-funded education at a service academy.
They point out, and rightfully so, that other talented cadets aren’t given free passes into the corporate world, where one might become a six-figure-earning CEO while working at local recruiting depots on the weekends. They note that even cadets with personal family problems aren’t given deferments from their active-duty commitments in order to earn bigger incomes before buying their way into reserve duty. And they bristle when they consider Campbell’s story as it compares to the those of superstars whose careers were interrupted by military service, such as Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Roger Staubach, David Robinson and, yes, Pat Tillman. They believe Campbell is guilty of betraying his oath to the country.
Still, other servicemen believe the soon-to-be West Point graduate can do more good for the military as a poster-boy NFL star and recruiter than he ever could as a deployed officer in the Middle East.
The merits of those arguments can be debated in perpetuity, and I will not attempt to bolster nor condemn any of them here. Rather, I prefer to let this story serve as a reminder to us all, on this solemn Memorial Day, of the extraordinary sacrifices made by so many men who either delayed or interrupted their professional careers in service to the greatest nation on earth.
May God bless each and every man and woman in uniform who freely gave their lives — so that we may live freely.