Thu. Jul 25th, 2024
alert-–-the-us-war-hero-who-sacrificed-promising-football-career-to-fight-for-his-country:-how-pat-tillman-turned-down-lucrative-nfl-contract-to-serve-in-afghanistan-before-being-killed-in-friendly-fire-ambush-–-as-prince-harry-faces-backlash-for-award-in-his-nameAlert – The US war hero who sacrificed promising football career to fight for his country: How Pat Tillman turned down lucrative NFL contract to serve in Afghanistan before being killed in friendly-fire ambush – as Prince Harry faces backlash for award in his name

With his rugged good looks, a beautiful wife and a multi-million dollar NFL contract, Pat Tillman seemed to have it all.

The Arizona Cardinals safety was one of the rising stars of American Football, known for defying his relatively small 5ft 11in frame to excel as a safety, earning him admiring glances from some of the NFL’s top teams.

But above all else, he was a patriot and when nearly 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the then-24-year-old felt compelled to act.

Forgoing the offer of a $3.6million dollar contract, he enlisted in the Army alongside his brother, determined to serve his country during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But his loyalty to his country would not be repaid, with the football star tragically losing his life in a friendly-fire ambush in 2004 that was subsequently covered up by the military.

In the years since tributes have been paid to the Army Ranger, with a prize named after him being given to unsung heroes in sport at the ESPY Awards (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly).

It was here that the all-American world of Pat Tillman collided with that of Prince Harry this week.

The Duke of Sussex was announced by ESPN, the sports TV network which runs the awards, as the recipient of the Pat Tillman Award, sparking a fierce backlash that has ‘stunned’ King Charles’s youngest son.

ESPN said he was being honoured for his ‘tireless work in making a positive impact for the veteran community through the power of sport’ with his Invictus Games.

However, some critics have said the award should be given to someone, with Tillman’s own mother saying it should recognise people who don’t have the ‘money, resources, connections or privilege that Prince Harry has’. 

Tillman, who had grown up playing baseball as well as American Football, had taken a scholarship to play the latter while studying at Arizona State University.

In a deep and committed relationship with his high school sweetheart Marie Ugenti, he quickly developed a reputation as an excellent linebacker, although he would later be moved into the role of safety.

A seventh round pick in the 1998 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals, his star rose quickly and at one point he was offered a $9million contract (the equivalent of £12million today) with the St Louis Rams.

True to form though, Tillman remained loyal to the team that had given him his big break in the NFL, staying in Arizona.

But change was on the horizon, and despite having a $3.6million dollar contract (the equivalent of nearly £5million today) on the table from the Cardinals, he decided to enlist in the US Army in May 2002.

Tillman did so alongside his younger brother Kevin after witnessing the September 11 attacks.

The move made the brothers well-known in the US, although it was not fame which motivated them.

Dave McGinnis, who coached Tillman at the Cardinals, told the Associate Press at the time it was a ‘very serious’ and very personal’ decision. 

He said: ‘I honour the integrity of that. It was not a snap decision he woke up and made yesterday. This has been an ongoing process, and he feels very strongly about it.’

Before he left, Pat married his long-term girlfriend Marie, with the newly-wed couple deciding to put off having children until he had finished his tours of duty. 

The Tillman brothers excelled in basic training, and both were accepted into the elite Army Rangers before being deployed to Afghanistan.

Pat would be used in Operation Iraqi Freedom – which saw the United States dramatically invade Iraq in a bid to depose dictator Saddam Hussein.

It would later be revealed that Tillman had been outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq, calling the invasion ‘f***ing illegal’. 

After returning unscathed, he was sent back to Afghanistan where he would tragically see his life ended in a friendly-fire ambush.

The US Army initially claimed that Tillman’s unit was ambushed near the Pakistani border on April 22, 2004, with the former NFL player and an allied Afghan soldier being fatally wounded by enemy forces.

Two other soldiers, including the platoon’s leader, were also wounded and Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for bravery.

Following the news of his death tributes poured in, with Bob Ferguson, who was Cardinal’s General Manager during Tillman’s time there, saying: ‘Pat represents all that is good with this country, our society and ultimately the human condition in general.

‘In today’s world of instant gratification and selfishness, here is a man that was defined by words like loyalty, honour, passion, courage, strength and nobility. He is a modern-day hero.’

His former teammate Jake Plummer added: ‘Ee lost a unique individual that touched the lives of many with his love for life, his toughness, his intellect.

‘Pat Tillman lived life to the fullest and will be remembered forever in my heart and mind.’

The Cardinals retired his No. 40 shirt and named a plaza surrounding their stadium after him, while Arizona State, who he played for while at university, retired his No. 42 jersey.

However, after his funeral the narrative surrounding his death began to change and previously unknown details about the ambush in which he lost his life came to light. 

An investigation was launched into the exact circumstances surrounding his death, with a damning report by  Criminal Investigation Command in 2007 concluding he had been killed by friendly fire.

The report described the incident, explaining that Tillman’s portion of his platoon had backtracked to give fire support to the platoon’s other half, which had been ambushed.

‘[Tillman’s portion of the platoon] dismounted their vehicles and moved on foot, to a more advantageous position to provide overwatch and fire support for [the other portion’s] movement out of the ambush,’ the report read. 

‘Upon exiting the gorge, and despite attempts by [Tillman’s portion of the platoon] to signal a “friendly position”, occupants of the lead vehicle of [the other portion] opened fire on Tillman’s position, where he was fatally shot.’

However, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press in 2007, Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Tillman’s forehead and failed to persuade authorities to investigate whether his death amounted to a crime.

‘The medical evidence did not match up with the scenario as described,’ a doctor who examined Tillman’s body after he was killed on the battlefield told investigators.

The doctors – whose names were blacked out – said that the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the Army Ranger was cut down by an M-16 fired from 10 yards or so away.

Ultimately, the Pentagon did conduct a criminal investigation and asked Tillman’s comrades whether he was disliked by his men and whether they had any reason to believe he was deliberately killed. 

The Pentagon eventually ruled that Tillman’s death at the hands of his comrades was a friendly fire accident.

The medical examiners’ suspicions were outlined in 2,300 pages of testimony released to the AP in 2007 by the Defence Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to that document, there was no evidence of enemy fire at the scene.

Tillman’s family, which has a tradition of military service, believed that a cover-up had taken place in order to help then-President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

‘The administration clearly was using this case for its own political reasons,’ his father Patrick Tillman told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. 

‘This cover-up started within minutes of Pat’s death, and it started at high levels. This is not something that [lower-ranking] people in the field do.’

Since 2014 every year the ESPY Awards have handed out the Pat Tillman Award for Service, given to sportspeople, many of whom have strong links to the Armed Forces.

Past winners include former NFL player and Marine Jake Wood, ex US Army sergeant and paraswimmer Elizabeth Marks as well as the Buffalo Bills training stuff who saved the life of a player who went into cardiac arrest during an NFL match. 

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford was given the award in 2021 for the millions of pounds in donations he raised alongside the footd charity FairShare during the Covid pandemic and his campaign for free school meals for children.

However, the announcement that Prince Harry is set to be given this year’s award has sparked a backlash from some, include Tillman’s mother, Mary. 

She told the Mail last week: ‘I am shocked as to why they would select such a controversial and divisive individual to receive the award.

‘There are recipients that are far more fitting. There are individuals working in the veteran community that are doing tremendous things to assist veterans.

‘These individuals do not have the money, resources, connections or privilege that Prince Harry has. I feel that those types of individuals should be recognised.’

The backlash began almost straight after ESPN announced on June 27 that Harry would be given the Pat Tillman Award for Service. 

Sources told The Telegraph that it is a ‘bitter pill to swallow’ when the Duke of Sussex is criticised about anything relating to his military record and work with veterans.

‘Harry’s legacy on Invictus, the things he has achieved, that’s his real passion,’ they said. ‘This is the space in which he truly feels at home, it is something he deeplycares about. The reaction certainly took the shine off the award.’

A petition to urge ESPN to reassess its decision boasted almost 68,000 signatures in ten days.

It said: ‘Pat Tillman exemplified duty, honour, and sacrifice.’

‘He gave up his successful NFL career to serve his country after the 9/11 attacks, and tragically lost his life during his service. Awarding this honour to someone who does not reflect the award’s intent diminishes its value and disrespects Tillman’s memory.’

Former NFL player Pat McAfee also waded in, saying: ‘We should celebrate sports. The worldwide leaders should celebrate sport but doing something like this is obviously trying to p*** people off.’

He said they should create a new category just for the duke. ‘How about it’s like ESPY for Royal Family member who doesn’t want to be called ‘Royal Family member’ who loves sports?’

Jake Wood, a former Pat Tillman Award winner, later defended Prince Harry on TMZ Live, saying: ‘He’s a royal prince, there’s 100 different things he could have done with his life after his service in the British Armed Forces but he’s chosen to dedicate a big portion of his post-military life to helping veterans.’

A spokesman for ESPN previously said: ‘ESPN, with the support of the Tillman Foundation, is honouring Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, specifically for the work of The Invictus Games Foundation as it celebrates its 10th year promoting healing through the power of sport for military service members and veterans around the world.

‘While we understand not everyone will agree with all honourees selected for any award, The Invictus Games Foundation does incredible work and ESPN believes this is a cause worth celebrating.’

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