Bruce Snyder has watched each Cardinals game this season, and he sees in this team of destiny shades of its fallen hero, Pat Tillman.
The Cardinals safety turned Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. And in his four seasons with the Cardinals, Tillman proved first impressions can be deceiving.
He went from NFL long shot to, perhaps, the Phoenix area's most beloved athlete. His tireless effort helped endear him to the masses while allowing him to overcome long odds.
That's where Snyder, Tillman's coach at Arizona State, sees the parallels.
"He knew nobody thought he could make it," Snyder said. "But he was so doggone strong-headed. He absolutely didn't care.
"Coach (Ken) Whisenhunt came in and wasn't a familiar name to many here. But they caught fire. It does kind of mirror what Pat's career was like. It didn't add up that this was a team that could go to the Super Bowl. But now, I don't know if they can be stopped. Pat would have been the kind of guy who helped light the match and said, 'I believe.' "
Tillman believed in his abilities as much as his team. He also believed in following his convictions, something that led him to decline a $3.6 million contract offer and join the military soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. The decision ultimately led to his death and the subsequent government cover-up.
His story is one of the most widely told tales about the Cardinals, a team that has little meaningful history. Arizona's Super Bowl appearance next week in Tampa might bring the story back to the forefront. But those who knew Tillman have never forgotten.
Nowadays, they find themselves wondering how he would have reacted to the Cardinals playing in the sport's biggest game.
"Even if he wasn't playing for the team at this point, he would be so proud," said Tillman's friend, Benjamin Hill.
The two met in kindergarten and remained friends through adulthood. Today, Hill is a member of the Pat Tillman Foundation's board of directors.
"One of the things that was really a character-showing statement was when St. Louis offered him a lot more money," Hill said. "But Pat said the Cardinals were the team that always believed in him."
Tillman, who died at 27, never played in a Super Bowl. But he carried himself like a champion, Hill said.
"He always set his sights on lofty goals," said Hill, a financial adviser in Southern California. "One of the things that's been hard is you always think of how things would have been different if he were still here."
But in his absence, Tillman's spirit lives on. His retired number hangs inside University of Phoenix Stadium, and a statue of him stands outside it.
More important, though, is the legacy he left, one that has inspired others to positively impact the world around them. It prompted Scott Medlock, a friend of Hill's who never met Tillman, to stage a benefit concert and golf tournament on the foundation's behalf. The foundation does many things, but one of its priorities is its Leadership Through Action program at Arizona State.
That teaching leadership is a component of the program is no coincidence. Snyder still remembers his first encounter with Tillman during a recruiting trip. The team had only a couple of scholarships left to offer, and the scrawny kid from San Jose, Calif., was one of several players under consideration.
"Here's this 5-10, 180-pound high school kid," Snyder said. "Where do you play him? But I said to my staff after that meeting, 'We need this kid. He's going to be good for us.' You had adult conversations with him even when he was a kid."
Sure enough, when Snyder's team went undefeated to earn only the school's second Rose Bowl berth in 1996, Tillman was one of its dominant voices.
"He was so respected on my team," said Snyder, who remains in the Phoenix area. "He was not shy. If he didn't agree or believe what you were saying, he'd tell you. But if he understood what you were trying to do, he'd carry that through the whole team."
The circumstances under which Tillman died remain sketchy. The military awarded him a Purple Heart and Silver Star posthumously to support the false story that he died at the hands of enemy fire.
But his loved ones prefer to dwell on the positive images of Tillman and remind others what he was about. The Cardinals' Super Bowl berth presents another opportunity to do that.
"It's great that his story can be carried forward," Hill said.
"Any platform that his story can be shared from, I think everybody will be better for that. If the Cardinals being in the Super Bowl helps spread his message, I'm all for it."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]es.com.