American Football: 9/11 made him quit NFL and go to war. It cost him his life

Arizona safety Pat Tillman turned down a fat contract to serve the US, only to die in controversial circumstances

Frank Bauer was pleased with the offer; a three-year deal, with an annual salary of $1.2m and a third up front. The Arizona Cardinals were happy, Bauer was happy and his player, a safety who punched above his weight, would soon be too. Job done, all he needed was a signature, the signature of Pat Tillman.

From the first time Bauer set eyes on Tillman, creating chaos with the No 42 on the back of his Arizona State shirt, the veteran agent knew he was watching someone special. The first time he met Tillman – "this kid in shorts and flip-flops" – Bauer knew he had met someone special. "We just hit it off," he said.

Mary Tillman had realised there was something special about her son from an early age. One morning she was baking cookies – this begins as an American folk tale but takes a grim turn – in the family's small home in a suburb of San Jose. Upstairs her sons were playing and a suspicious silence drew her attention. She discovered two-year-old Kevin standing on tiptoes to look out an open window. He was watching Pat, his older brother, who had clambered out of his bedroom window, scrambled across the roof and leapt into a nearby tree.

"It was blowing in the wind and he was shouting 'yahoo'," said Tillman. "He was always very adventurous and a daredevil, always aware of his own physicality. I realised then he didn't have a sense of fear."

Bauer never got his signature. Instead he received confirmation that Patrick Tillman was different, a man apart. "He was not materialistic," Bauer tells a BBC radio documentary to be broadcast tonight. "When I met him he showed up on a bicycle – most kids like that would show up in a brand new car thinking they're going to make it in the NFL. He said 'I'm thinking about doing something different with my life; we'll be fine, don't worry'."

What Tillman, a footballer with four years in the NFL behind him and entering his well-rewarded athletic prime, was thinking about was enlisting in the army. Bauer tried to persuade him otherwise, but Tillman's mind, stirred by the events of 9/11, was made up. Two years later he was dead; killed on a barren hillside in Khost province in Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border, a victim of friendly fire.

Look at the military photograph of Pat Tillman, square jawed, clean shaven, and it is easy to see why the Pentagon leapt on him. Look at the best-known photograph of him in action for the Cardinals – the one on which the statue outside their ground in Glendale is modelled – helmet off, long hair flying and face stretched in a roar of triumph, and there is a suggestion as to why he refused to play ball with the Pentagon. Here is not the straightforward God-fearing American patriot. "I'm not doing that, I'm not prostituting myself," he told Bauer when told that the Pentagon wanted to keep him away from the front line and have him tour US bases. "He never felt that he was special," said Bauer.

Tillman was an atheist – "He'd want me to say this: he's not with God, he's fucking dead," Richard, his youngest brother, declared at his memorial service broadcast live on TV – who read Noam Chomsky and was keen to meet him once he had completed his time in the special forces. There are suggestions Tillman was opposed to the course America's war on terror had taken.

When, on that picture-perfect September morning a decade ago, the Twin Towers came tumbling out of a cloudless New York sky, it is supposed to have changed the United States for ever. It changed Tillman.

It was the eve of the NFL season. Tillman was an established name in the Cardinals defence. TV commentators had dubbed him The Blade for his aggressive tackling. The previous year he had turned down a $9.8m offer to join St Louis Rams, choosing to remain in Arizona out of loyalty to the team who had given him his break. He played the 2001/2 season but an interview he gave to local radio on 12 September – his last one – hinted at a shifting mindset. He spoke of his grandfather being at Pearl Harbour. "I haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for," he said.

He played his final game in January 2002, a defeat at the Washington Redskins. In the May he married Marie, his high-school sweetheart, and then joined up with brother Kevin. The following year he took part in the invasion of Iraq, an experience he was to describe as "pretty much bullshit". He returned to the US for further training and Bauer contacted him – Seattle Seahawks wanted him back in the NFL. He was offered a way out, but again, citing loyalty, he turned it down. "I tried to convince him to come out but he wouldn't," said Bauer. "He had made a commitment. He told me 'I'll call you when I get back and we'll make plans for the NFL'."

The call never came. Tillman was sent to Afghanistan and on 22 April 2004 he was on patrol with his platoon near the village of Sperah. Problems with one of their vehicles saw the unit split into two and when one came under fire, Tillman, another US soldier, Bryan O'Neal, and an Afghan militiaman named Thani were sent from the other to investigate. They came over a ridge and were immediately fired on. Thani was killed. Tillman and O'Neal hit the ground yelling to their compatriots that they were "friendlies". But when they broke cover the firing started again. According to O'Neal, Tillman's last words were "I'm Pat Tillman. Cease fire. I'm Pat fucking Tillman." He was shot three times.

Alex Garwood, Tillman's brother-in-law, was driving home from a job interview when his mobile rang. He was told army representatives were on their way to inform Mary Tillman that her eldest son was dead. "When I got there," said Garwood, "I remember sitting waiting for the sergeant to come. She had gotten lost because it's hard to find the house. I felt sorry for her. She was trying to button up her uniform and we were standing on the lawn. I felt like saying we know what's happened, you don't need to button up your shirt. You see it in the movies – the line is on behalf of a grateful nation we regret to inform you that your son was killed in defence of our nation."

It was not until five weeks after Tillman's funeral that the family discovered he had not been killed by the Taliban. He had been awarded a Silver Star, yet when the citation was approved, high-ranking military officers were already aware what had happened. The family rejected the Pentagon's offer of a burial with full military honours and their relations with the authorities were soon to worsen. With public support for the war in Afghanistan waning, there was a clumsy attempt at a cover-up over how the man they wanted to be their poster boy had met his death. Tillman's uniform, which should have been returned to the family was destroyed, and an initial report that found "gross negligence" was quashed. There followed a series of contradictory reports and then in 2007 a Congressional hearing during which Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary at the time, and four generals used a variant on "I can't remember" 82 times in three hours of giving evidence.

"To know that he was used, that was really hurtful," said Mary Tillman, who has set up the Pat Tillman foundation. "Even the fact that he's been turned into some kind of icon to a degree and his humanity was taken from him [hurts]. He had so many good qualities but he was a human being and he had struggles and he had to make decisions and choices and I feel like that was all stripped from him for a while.

"What was so disturbing was that with everything we got from the military, the autopsy, the different military reports, it made us believe something worse had happened to him and we still don't know if that is the case or not. When you are lied to and you keep uncovering things that don't make sense it's crazy.

"I realise that Pat himself would not want us to devote our lives to this. That would make him very sad but I think he'd be proud and he'd be happy that we shook things up a little bit. Pat was a very inquisitive person and he really loved people. He just had a zest for information and finding out things and he had a fabulous laugh and if you got to hear that laugh you were a lucky person."

'Once in a Lifetime Kid: The Story of Pat Tillman' is on BBC 5live Sport at 8pm

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone