Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis calls him courageous.
"This was truly a decision made with honor, with integrity, with dignity, with a lot of thought and with a lot of sacrifice," McGinnis said this weekend.
Tillman enlisted in the Army after four NFL seasons that included a team-record 224 tackles in 2000. Tillman and his brother, Kevin, a former baseball player in the Cleveland Indians organization, have been deployed, presumably to the Middle East.
"I think he's the quintessential definition of a patriot," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam War veteran who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday. "He gave up a lucrative and exciting career to serve his country."
Pat Tillman is believed to be the first NFL regular to leave the game voluntarily for military service since World War II, when 600 players served and 19 were killed. The Tillmans are part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, comprising three battalions and 2,200 men. They had been stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash. Even family and close friends don't know for sure where they are now.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, who has remained in touch with Tillman, last heard from him three weeks ago.
"He was upbeat," Marmie said. "You could sense an enthusiasm coming through the phone. He had completed a lot of the steps that you have to take to become a Ranger and reach that stage. He was feeling good about it."
The Tillmans have never publicly discussed their decisions to join the Army's elite infantry unit, declining all interview requests. Family and friends have respected their privacy, helping both to maintain a low profile.
"They don't want recognition separate from their peers," Patrick Tillman said of his sons. "It's a pretty elite crowd they're running with. All of those guys are stand-up guys. I don't think you can pick one out and say one's better than another."
Pat Tillman, now 26, had been considering enlisting before 9-11. (The Rangers will not accept a recruit over age 28.) The terrorist attacks only confirmed his decision to put his NFL career on hold for at least three years.
"He told me he thought he had had a pretty darn good life and things had been fairly easy for him, and he felt the need to give something back," Marmie said.
Tillman informed the team in May after returning home from his honeymoon with his high school sweetheart, Marie. It came as little surprise to anyone who knew him.
While at Arizona State, Tillman would meditate atop a 200-foot light tower above Sun Devil Stadium. He ran a marathon one offseason because he was bored; in another offseason he competed in a 70.2-mile triathlon to prove he could do it.
Tillman, who earns from $1,022 to $1,443 a month as a soldier, completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program in December. At graduation, he was chosen flagbearer for his unit, B Company of the 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.
Only 35 percent of candidates earn the right to wear the coveted black and gold Ranger Tab.
John Devlin, who met Tillman through his brother, Mike Devlin, is a former Army Ranger. He figures the Tillmans are right in the middle of the action. That is exactly the reason Tillman took a hiatus from the NFL.
"He's not nuts," John Devlin said. "He's a rare, rare individual he and his brother both. I'm proud to know them; I wish them luck; and I pray that they and the rest of our guys come home all in one piece, but I know that's not going to be the case."