Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Why Bucs coach Dirk Koetter's office is decorated with one framed jersey — Pat Tillman's

TAMPA — Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has 11 helmets proudly displayed behind his desk, one for each of his coaching stops, from the NFL to San Francisco State to Highlands High School back home in Idaho.

He has only one jersey framed on his wall, and it's of a player he never coached.

The No. 42 jersey worn by the late Pat Tillman at Arizona State is there as a daily reminder of sacrifice and character.

"Football is a selfish sport, and that might be the ultimate unselfish act of any football player in the history of football," Koetter said, pointing to the jersey. "There have been others, I'm sure. Here's a guy that gave up a multi-million dollar contract to go fight for his country and do it with his brother, and he didn't come back."

The Bucs play at Arizona on Sunday, and Koetter will be close to where he was in 2004 as the head coach at Arizona State, when Tillman was killed at age 27 while serving in Afghanistan with the Army Rangers in a friendly-fire incident.

Tillman, once the Pac-12 defensive player of the year for the Sun Devils, had played four years for the Cardinals — he had 92 tackles and started every game in 2001. Motivated by the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 that year, he walked away from the NFL to enlist and serve overseas.

That was also Koetter's first year in Tempe, and the coach had met Tillman when the safety stopped by his old school.

"He had the world by the tail and gave it up," Koetter said. "He gave up being an NFL player, being a football hero, a hero in that town. He was idolized in that town. To give that up to go fight for his country, I couldn't do that.

"I think most people, if they're honest with themselves, how many could really do that? It's a lesson that I'll never forget."

Tillman is still revered in Arizona, 12 years after his death. Koetter has coached football for 34 years, but his longest stay anywhere was at Arizona State, and he was on the sideline when Tillman's jersey was posthumously retired in 2004.

"When I ask the players to give examples of almost any characteristic, whatever the lesson is, Pat Tillman's name always comes up," Koetter said in 2004. "He is off the charts in our respect."

The next spring, Koetter helped promote the first Pat's Run, held on campus each April around the anniversary of Tillman's death, often the same weekend as Arizona State's spring football game. Commemorating his No. 42 jersey, it's a 4.2-mile run that ends on the 42-yard line at Sun Devil Stadium.

The first year, it had 3,000-plus participants. Now the event is so popular that it's capped at 28,000 runners.

Go to a Sun Devils game today, and you'll see No. 42 jerseys throughout the stadium.

Look around at the Bucs-Cardinals game Sunday and you'll see his No. 40 Cardinals jersey and all that it means to fans.

"They embraced him in life, and when he passed away, they continued to embrace. They rallied around him, and you still see that," said Alex Garwood, Tillman's brother-in-law and a football player four years ahead of him at Leland High in San Jose, Calif., where the football field now carries Tillman's name. "I don't know that most people choose to put another person's name on their back, but lots of people here will tell you the only one they'll do is No. 42, or No. 40."

Koetter coached against Tillman in college — he was offensive coordinator at Oregon in 1996-97 in two losses to Tillman's Sun Devils. In 1996, Tillman had his first college interception against the Ducks, plus he recovered an onside kick and had a 15-yard sack among his 12 tackles. A year later, he again had 12 tackles in an Arizona State win.

Garwood credits Arizona State and people like Koetter as starting a passionate, sustained support of all Tillman stood for.

The Pat Tillman Foundation has awarded more than $14 million in academic scholarships to 460 military veterans and their spouses at more than 100 universities across the country.

"Somewhere, inside, we hear a voice," the foundation's website quotes Tillman as saying. "It leads us in the direction of who we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow."

There are charity runs each year in Tillman's name in San Jose, New York and Atlanta, with proceeds going to his foundation. And as the Bucs go to Arizona as underdogs facing Tillman's old team, there are lessons in sacrifice and selflessness that have stayed with Koetter and so many others, carrying significance far beyond the football field.

"Coach Koetter has been around lots of men of character, around a tremendous amount of extremely talented athletes," Garwood said. "He's got one jersey up on the wall, and that tells you a lot. Over the years, we've been fortunate enough to hear those stories. It resonates with people how Pat played, but how he lived his life is really what resonates."

See pattillmanfoundation.org and on Twitter at @pattillmanfnd for information on the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

   
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