MARIE TILLMAN DOESN'T have much time for the strangers who profess to know what her husband stood for. She knew Pat Tillman as well as anyone, so she understands that he never considered his legacy, never called himself a patriot, never wanted to become a symbol. "We talked about our future and all the things we wanted to do together," she says. "Not, like, what happens if somebody dies."
She chooses her words carefully as she sits on a couch on the sixth floor of an office building in downtown Chicago, home of the Pat Tillman Foundation. Marie wants to make sure she gets this right, because so many others get it wrong. Pat's legacy is not the story the U.S. military sold after his death, not the glorified image painted in the NFL's Salute to Service campaign, not the retweet from President Trump this fall that put Tillman on the opposite side of the Colin Kaepernick debate.
Pat was 25 when he left his job as a Cardinals starting safety to become an Army Ranger and 27 when he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. He was a hero. He was also complex. To cast him as a fervent loyalist to the war is to mischaracterize his life. Marie describes his thinking as informed, dynamic, evolving. He loved his country but also felt the need to question it.
Let others speculate about what Pat would make of the divided America of 2017. They can claim that Pat would have condemned athletes who kneel for the national anthem as unpatriotic, or that he would have knelt alongside them. "I would never want to speak for him," Marie says. Her work does that.
When Pat was killed, Marie and the Tillman family received thousands of small donations, and eventually the total surpassed $1 million. They started a foundation.
Early on, Marie met two veterans who had returned to Pat's alma mater, Arizona State, with grand ambitions and little support. She wanted to help them. So in 2008 she sharpened the foundation's focus, concentrating on aid to soldiers or their spouses as they transitioned out of battle and onto college campuses. They're known as Tillman Scholars, 520 of them so far, and they've received $15 million.
Like Tillman, Karl Holt joined the military after 9/11, becoming a special forces medic. He survived a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2009 and, with a broken back, treated 10 wounded before help arrived. He underwent 32 operations, then enrolled at North Carolina to become a trauma surgeon. Jonny Kim won silver and bronze stars for his valor in Iraq and is training to become an astronaut. Laura Moye, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, is the wife of a Marine. She studies neuroscience at Illinois-Chicago, specifically traumatic brain injuries, research could that could help both football players and soldiers.
"The more time I spend with the scholars, the more optimistic I am about the future of our country," says Marie, who does speak out on Facebook and elsewhere, writing pieces opposing Trump's travel-ban proposal and countering Trump's tweet about Pat in a statement to CNN. Pat's legacy, she says, should never be politicized or used to divide.
Marie wrote a book, fell in love again, remarried and started a business in Chicago, Mac & Mia, a clothing delivery service for children. She has five kids, including three stepchildren. Sometimes she wonders if she has taken on too much. Then she thinks of Pat. "He would have said, 'Why not?'" she says. "That's how he plays into my life on a day-to-day basis. He's very much a part of who I am.
"There was a point when people said to me, You have to move on, you can't be that involved with the foundation. But the work we do here, it's important. That's Pat's legacy."
Pat Tillman was a hero. He was also complex. "I would never want to speak for him," says his widow, Marie. Her work does that.
TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE TILLMAN SCHOLARS FOUNDATION, GO TO PATTILLMANFOUNDATION.ORG/DONATE