It was a friendship that started with a bang. Literally.
Pat Tillman was a rookie linebacker on the Arizona Cardinals in 1998, and current Bills wide receivers coach Rob Moore was an 8-year veteran receiver.
Tillman had already earned a reputation for hurting players during practice when the two were put on opposite sides of the ball during a 7-on-7, non-contact drill.
“Pat hit me and took me to the ground,” said Moore, who didn’t get it, and didn’t like it. “So naturally, he and I got into a slight scuffle.”
But before he let hot-headedness cement his views on the rookie, Moore got a recommendation that would turn that hit into something much more meaningful.
“One of the coaches said, ‘Look, instead of fighting the kid, why don’t you pull Pat aside and try to teach him to be a pro.’ So I kind of took him under my wing.”
From then on, Moore was assigned to Tillman. The two sat next to each other on every team plane ride, where Moore would quickly come to know Tillman’s strength of character and “scary intelligence.”
“The conversations we would have were unbelievable,” said Moore. “We would talk about everything from where healthcare was going to who we were voting for to be president and why, to what it’s like to be a father. We had a friendship, and it went beyond the white lines of football.”
He said Tillman would quote Ralph Waldo Emerson and other notable writers on a whim in mid-conversation, and recite the book he read from and the page number too.
Their friendship became one of substance, not just of hard-hits and gridiron aggression. They learned from each other on those plane rides, diving deep past the surface, and surely past what their counterparts two seats over were discussing.
“I remember distinctly, one of the conversations we had was how disappointed he was in himself because his exact words were, ‘I haven’t done a damn thing. My grandfather fought in a war and his dad fought in a war and I’m just a football player. I haven’t done anything and that doesn’t sit well with me.’ We had that conversation.
So when Moore found out that Tillman had enlisted in the Army and would be deployed to Iraq, it didn’t surprise him one bit.
“He expressed that he wanted to do something that mattered. That was important to him. He didn’t think he had done anything at that point.”
Tillman only knew one way, Moore said, and that way was going through life with unbridled conviction. The hits during practice, his philosophies on life, leaving a prosperous NFL career behind to enlist in the Army – everything fell in line with that all-or-nothing mentality.
“Sixty miles per hour? Try 120,” said Moore. “Pat only knew one way. But you learned to love him because of that. And on gameday you didn’t want to play with anybody else because he always had your back.”
Tillman knew when he enlisted that he would soon be overseas in harm’s way, but similar to the way he had the backs of his teammates, he was ready to fight to defend the United States of America. He was “doing something that mattered,” and that fulfilled his life’s purpose more than what he did every Sunday on the football field.
Tillman was killed in action ten years ago in a friendly fire accident in the mountains of Afghanistan at the age of 27. Though the end of a life as young and rich as his never makes perfect sense, Moore has come to appreciate the symbolism of a life lived so passionately lost in sacrifice for its country.
“They say that certain people will leave this earth a certain way. I think that the way he left was who Pat Tillman was,” he said. “He’s a guy who was going to fight for the cause. He was fighting for something he truly believed in. He was trying to satisfy an urge in himself, something that hadn’t sat well with him. He wanted to give back and I think he went out in the way in which he wanted to, fighting for his country.”
Moore has photos of his friend hanging in his house in Arizona where he says he can still feel his presence. He remembers Tillman often, especially on Memorial Day.
“We talk about having the spirit of charity and giving and those things – I think at the end of the day he sacrificed his life, and I don’t know what more you would give.”