Jewish World Review July 29, 2003 / 29 Tamuz, 5763

Jonathan Gurwitz

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Real sports heroes don't make headlines | The downfall of sports icons is a depressingly familiar story: an accusation of rape, possession of drugs, someone is missing, someone killed.

The ethical lapses of professional athletes merely reflect the failures of a much broader group of public figures granted elevated stature in our society: religious and business leaders, politicians and actors.

The dizzying pace of arrests and convictions often makes it hard to keep track — who are the good guys, who are the acceptable ones, who are the ones for whom excuses are made?

The media and public focus on the aberrant while good deeds and normalcy go unnoticed.

Moral train wrecks are front-page news; ethical pedestrians fade into sepia-toned footnotes of history.

One such footnote was written one year ago, as National Football League teams arrived at their training camps. Pat Tillman, a four-year veteran strong safety with the Arizona Cardinals, was, however, a no-show.

A free agent after the 2001 season, Tillman was offered $3.6 million for three years to continue with the team.

But the then-25-year-old athlete decided to hang up his cleats, though not for the usual reasons of more money or more playing time.

Instead, he announced he was enlisting in the Army with his younger brother Kevin, who himself had a promising career as a minor league baseball player in the Cleveland Indians organization, with the goal of joining the elite Army Rangers.

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The Tillmans' career move drew little media attention, both because of their reluctance to discuss the matter publicly and because, like the ethical pedestrian, they were far less interesting to gawking spectators than the captains of disaster.

Pat Tillman allowed that he was deeply moved by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had given great thought to his responsibility to his country, and felt compelled to enlist last year because of Defense Department age restrictions for entry into special forces.

As a basic trainee at Fort Benning, Tillman refused all media requests.

He and his brother graduated to no special fanfare, drew enlisted salaries of about $1,500 a month and were among the one-third of Ranger applicants to successfully make it through to wear the black and gold.

Lt. Col. Don Sondo, deputy commander of the Army Infantry Training Brigade, told the Army News Service that the Tillmans maintained a low profile and shunned special treatment.

The brothers joined the 75th Ranger Regiment and were deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The regiment saw extensive action throughout the campaign, but neither the Army nor the Tillmans themselves will discuss their service.

Today, they are at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., in preparation for their next deployment.

On July 16, at the ESPN ESPY Awards, the Tillman brothers were selected as the recipients of the 11th annual Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to athletes whose contributions transcend sports.

To no one's surprise, Pat and Kevin were not present to receive it. Younger brother Richard accepted the award on their behalf, recalling that during the ceremonial fly-overs that precede many games, Pat and Kevin would often look up and say to themselves, "This is a game. What am I doing? I'm playing a sport."

This weekend, the NFL's 32 teams begin their return to training camp. Hope once again springs eternal in the hearts of football fans, and the thoughts of young men everywhere turn to the rites of a new football season, two-a-day practices in the burning heat and the smell of freshly mowed grass.

Baseball, after the All-Star break, is headed into the homestretch. Friday night lights and the first, crisp evenings of autumn are not far away.

Games will be played and athletes idolized, some of whom — like their counterparts in the rest of society — will fail personal and public tests of success and integrity.

Meanwhile, Pat and Kevin Tillman and the nameless band of brothers who serve with them will stand a post, fly a mission and perform a tour in obscurity.

"The difference between sports and combat is the cost of being wrong," Lt. Col. Sondo told the Army News. "In a sport you lose a game; in combat you lose lives."

The story of the Tillman brothers reminds us of that difference, as well as the necessity every now and then to look beyond the train wrecks and dollar signs and moral failures in the headlines to seek out the simple and the good as our heroes and role models.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, is a co-founder and twice served as Director General of the Future Leaders of the Alliance program at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. In 1986 he was placed on the Foreign Service Register of the U.S. State Department. Comment by clicking here.


06/26/03: Strange bedfellows are a sure sign of rocky times
06/26/03: What Einstein taught Bush
06/26/03: JFK's message of struggle for freedom still stands
06/19/03: Most Americans understand this cynical equation
04/22/03: War opponents share burden of guilt
04/10/03: Iraqis get liberation and respect
03/28/03: Constitutionally protected SOBs
03/25/03: Morality changes with the times
03/12/03: Will all of those, ahem, "sincere" peace activists remember the Iraqis tomorrow?
02/27/03: Blood already on UN inspectors' hands

© 2003, Jonathan Gurwitz