Joel Jackson, like most other Americans, was moved by the story of the infectiously enthusiastic Arizona Cardinals tackler who bolted the NFL for military service soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But it wasn’t enough to weep upon hearing Pat Tillman was killed by “friendly fire” during an Afghanistan canyon ambush on April 22, 2004. Jackson emailed Tillman’s brother-in-law, Alex Garwood.
Tillman’s mother phoned Jackson a few days later.
Mary Tillman thanked Jackson for his condolences and his stint in the Marines.
“You served, too,” she said.
Jackson swallowed past the knot in his throat.
“That’s true,” he said. “But I didn’t walk away from millions of dollars and playing a sport everyone dreams of playing. And you know what? I might not have done that. Pat understood what America means. To live life without being a slave to financial influence, a lot of people want to be like that.”
That’s what keeps people coming back to Pat Tillman, those who saw his story unfold and younger folks introduced via the NFL Network’s excellent "A Football Life" production.
The ongoing impact of one of the most influential 27-year-olds in recent American history includes the terrifically conceived Pat Tillman Honor Run. The 4.2-mile idea benefiting the Pat Tillman Foundation, a play on Tillman’s jersey No. 42, is based on Pat's Run in Tempe, Ariz., where Tillman played at Arizona State.
It has spread to 32 satellite sites, including the third annual event Jackson started on Daniel Island. It’s set for MUSC Health Stadium on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. (see www.eventbrite.com for more information).
Athlete, scholar, patriot
It’s a low-impact stroll or a competitive race.
It’s a heavy history lesson.
Or just a fun morning outing.
Friends and strangers.
Kids and grown-ups.
It’s definitively Tillman, a deep-thinking, scholar-athlete, patriot, husband, son and brother with a love for life.
Jackson, a 43-year-old software sales representative, started the Lowcountry version of the Pat Tillman Honor Run two years ago with 50 people on the street outside his Daniel Island home.
There were over 200 runners last year at MUSC Health Stadium. Jackson expects 300 on Saturday.
Snippets of Tillman’s Army Ranger sacrifice commanded the attention of the runners gathered last April at MUSC Health Stadium. They watched a 90-second video on the scoreboard: the thoughtful wild-haired college star, the relentless NFL veteran, Sept. 11, national news of his decision to join the Army, a tour in Iraq, tragedy in Afghanistan, the funeral.
Jackson got the reaction he was hoping for.
In a name, Tillman
“I had parents come up and say, ‘That’s the coolest thing my kids have watched in a long time,’” Jackson said. “A lot of younger people just know Pat was the football player who got killed by friendly fire. But we also try to make sure they walk away knowing a little more about who Pat Tillman was.”
Soon after Jackson’s interaction with Tillman’s mom and brother-in-law 14 years ago, he connected with the Arizona State Alumni Association and the Pat Tillman Foundation.
“I decided I was going to do whatever I could to dedicate a portion of my life to make sure that guy’s message keeps being heard to younger generations,” Jackson said.
There is the 4.2-mile run on Daniel Island one day a year, and another reminder 365 days a year.
Jackson’s eight-year-old son is Chase Tillman Jackson.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff