NFL player gives up millions for quest to become an Army Ranger

Monday, July 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT BENNING, Ga. (AP) _ NFL player Pat Tillman made a living pushing his body to the limit, putting himself through grueling training and sweating it out in the summer heat. This year, he's doing it for the Army for a lot less money.

The 25-year-old starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals told coaches last year that he wanted to join the Rangers _ the Army's elite infantry unit _ and train with his younger brother, who enlisted with him.

Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to make $18,000 per year for an uncertain future, since there is no guarantee he will make Ranger.

Basic training began Monday at Fort Benning.

``In Pat Tillman's view of the world, football is a part of it, but there are a lot of other things that are important to him,'' said Lyle Setencich, Tillman's linebacker coach at Arizona State University.

This is, after all, a player who last year turned down a $9 million, five-year offer from the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams so he could stay with the perennially losing Cardinals for less money.

Tillman has rejected all requests for an interview about his decision.

``He said there were personal reasons he didn't want to divulge to me, and I didn't press him on it,'' Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said. ``I respect his decision. I think it's honorable.''

Others have questioned his sanity, but that is nothing new for Tillman, who used to meditate atop a 200-foot light tower above Arizona State's stadium.

``If you don't know Pat, then you would think he's crazy,'' said Phil Snow, who coached Tillman as Arizona State's defensive coordinator. ``The planes flew so close to him that he could damn near reach out and touch them. He's just fearless.''

Bored before the 2000 season, Tillman ran a marathon. After setting a Cardinals record with 224 tackles in 2000, he prepared for last year's training camp by competing in a 70.2-mile triathlon.

``You don't find guys that have that combination of being as bright and as tough as him,'' Snow said. ``This guy could go live in a foxhole for a year by himself with no food.''

Tillman's age may have been a factor in his decision _ the cutoff for the Rangers is 28. Several of Tillman's friends believe the Sept. 11 attacks had an influence. Setencich attended Tillman's wedding in May and talked with him about the National Football League.

``He mentioned he might get out of it,'' Setencich said. ``I asked him if he wanted to go to law school and he kind of smiled and said, `There are a lot of things I can do.'''

Tillman's goal will be difficult. Only 35 percent of all candidates get to wear the coveted black and gold Ranger tab. Physical fitness is key, but Army training is different from sports.

``Mental toughness separates those that drive on,'' said retired Ranger Capt. Todd Bearden. ``When you take away somebody's sleep and somebody's food and push them to the limit, it changes the dynamics of everything.''