NFL plays the bad cop against Plummer and a decal

Thursday, October 14th 2004, 8:10 pm
By: News On 6

The National Football League wanted to package its tribute to Pat Tillman much the same way it's planning the next halftime show at the Super Bowl. Nice, neat and orderly, with no surprises.

Jake Plummer had some other ideas on how to remember his friend and former Arizona Cardinals teammate. He wanted to take it a bit further, with a personal tribute of his own.

It wasn't much, just a No. 40 decal that would remind Plummer of Tillman every time he put on his helmet. Compared to the ultimate sacrifice Tillman made for his country, it almost seemed too little.

Not to the NFL, though. The way the league reacted, you'd think Plummer was trying to put a picture of Janet Jackson's breast on his helmet.

In its infinite arrogance, the NFL threatened to fine Plummer thousands of dollars if he kept wearing the decal, which he has been doing since the exhibition season. Plummer relented, taking the No. 40 off for two weeks.

Rules are rules, after all, and the NFL is a stickler for enforcing its idea of what is appropriate on a uniform. Besides the league already honored Tillman by having all players wear the No. 40 decal in the second game of the season.

The more Plummer thought about it, though, the worse he felt.

Last Sunday, when Plummer and the Denver Broncos played the Carolina Panthers, the decal was back on. Plummer wasn't going to give up the fight, and he agreed to accept whatever fine was levied and urged fans to donate to the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Suddenly, the issue wasn't so simple anymore.

After all, this wasn't Peyton Manning wanting to wear hightop shoes to honor Johnny Unitas. This wasn't Jim McMahon wearing ``Rozelle'' on his headband to poke fun at the former NFL commissioner.

This was a football player with a simple desire to honor a fellow player who died in the line of duty for his country.

Terrell Owens can pull out a Sharpie and autograph a football or do situps in the end zone after a touchdown without getting fined. But Plummer can't wear a small No. 40 decal in honor of a war hero?

This was one battle the NFL wasn't going to win in the court of public opinion.

Politicians, who know a hot issue when they see one, jumped right in. Arizona Sen. John McCain sent a letter to commissioner Paul Tagliabue sharply rebuking the league's stance.

``Pat Tillman left this world as a protector of our freedoms, the same freedoms that your league enjoys each Sunday,'' McCain wrote. ``He died so that we as Americans can enjoy our way of life and express ourselves in the way that Jake Plummer now seeks to express himself.''

He wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Americans, after all, grow up learning to respect those who fought _ and those who died fighting _ for their country.

Sure, the league had already honored the former Cardinals safety. But what was wrong with Plummer wanting to keep alive the memory of a special man who left behind the riches of pro football to fight in the war against terror?

Give the NFL some credit. It didn't take long for it to see which way the wind was blowing, and on Wednesday, there was a compromise that seemed to make everyone happy.

Plummer gave up his decal and, in exchange, the Broncos will put up a big No. 40 logo near the play clock on the north end of the stadium. The team will also run ads on the scoreboard during games to promote the Tillman Foundation.

The NFL agreed not to fine Plummer, and will allow him to tape public-service announcements honoring Tillman that will be played in stadiums nationwide on the weekend after Veteran's Day. It will also contribute $250,000 to a USO center in Afghanistan to be named after Tillman.

``I wish I could still wear it,'' Plummer said, ``but it doesn't stop me from honoring and remembering Pat Tillman as a dear friend and a close teammate and a guy that I think everyone should look up to as a hero.''

Jake Plummer did more than just tweak the rigid underpinnings of the NFL by putting a decal where it wasn't supposed to go.

He stood up to the league for what he thought was right, the same kind of thing Tillman was doing when he joined the Rangers to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the end, the league kept its helmets free of any extra adornment _ at least until Owens starts signing his in the end zone. But the payoff for Plummer was greater.

His challenge focused far more attention on Tillman than a little helmet decal would have ever gotten, the foundation stands to get more money, and Americans get another chance to remember the sacrifice Tillman made.

As for Plummer, he'll get the satisfaction of knowing that Pat Tillman would have been proud of what his buddy tried to do.