Purposeful People Series

Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders

Marie Tillman honors her late husband through the Pat Tillman Foundation

By Brion O’Connor

Marie Tillman attends The 2019 ESPYs at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Calif. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Marie Tillman has experienced life’s highs and lows, and she has dealt with both with grace, courage, and dignity.

She is the widow of Pat Tillman, a true American hero. He had parlayed a successful collegiate career on the gridiron at Arizona State University, where he was an Academic All-American, into a starting safety position with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. But when the United States invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Tillman put his football career aside, spurning a three-year, $3.6 million contract extension to join the Army Rangers with his brother Kevin.

Before being deployed in 2002, Pat Tillman married Marie, his high school sweetheart. After several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pat lost his life on April 22, 2004, in the remote Khost Province of eastern Afghanistan. The eventual admission by military leaders and members of President George W. Bush’s administration that Tillman was killed by “friendly fire” caused a scandal, but Marie Tillman wouldn’t be deterred from honoring her late husband.

Together with family and friends, Marie Tillman established an organization that would eventually become the Pat Tillman Foundation. The foundation’s mission statement is simple and profound: “To unite and empower remarkable military service members, veterans, and spouses as the next generation of public and private sector leaders committed to service beyond self.”

Since 2008, the Pat Tillman Foundation has provided academic scholarships, professional development opportunities, and a national network to empower the “Tillman Scholar” community. To date, close to 700 scholars have benefitted from the roughly $18 million invested at more than 100 universities.

Marie Tillman has since remarried, and she now oversees a blended family that includes her husband and five children. She lives in Chicago, where the Pat Tillman Foundation is based. The ANA Center for Brand Purpose caught up with her to learn more about Pat Tillman and the foundation.


Q. What was Pat Tillman like?

Pat is one of those people who is hard to describe. He was just so full of life and energy and always curious. He was always looking for new experiences and new things to learn about, new people to talk to and learn from. He just really had a boundless amount of energy.


Q. How did he change over the time you knew him?

At his core, Pat was always the same person. But he definitely matured and grew up and just had more life experiences, as we all do. Going away to college, and then early on in our careers, gave him a higher level of maturity. He continued to evolve.


Q. What would surprise people about Pat Tillman? Sometimes people put football players and other athletes in a box, but Pat excelled in the classroom as well.

He was multidimensional. He was not just an athlete. He had interests outside of sports. People were surprised at how intellectual he was, how thoughtful, and how much time and energy he put into those pursuits outside of his football career.


Q. How cut and dried was Pat’s decision to join the military? Was there any equivocation?

The idea of it all started with 9/11. Then there was a period of time, several months, that he researched and thought about it and weighed the consequences of what a choice like that might mean. It was not a decision that was made overnight. It was more of a process.


Q. Was there a specific factor that sealed his decision?

I think ultimately he went with his gut and what he felt was the right thing for him to do. While he did take several months thinking it through, and exploring what that would look like, it really came down to just that feeling inside, that “this is the direction I want to go.”


Q. Did the decision surprise you? Did you have any concerns at the time?

There were definitely concerns, but it was less surprising than you would think. It does speak to that multidimensional way about him. Pat was someone who thought very deeply about these kinds of things, and it wasn’t out of character for him to make a change like that. While he loved football, that’s not how he identified.

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Cardinals Pro Bowl Safety Pat Tillman left the NFL to join the Army Rangers and ultimately gave his life in service to his country. Fifteen years later, his legacy lives on in the form of 635 Tillman Scholars who are pursuing new passions after their military service ends. NFL Media Originals/YouTube

Q. What did we, as a nation, lose when we lost Pat Tillman?

That’s a hard question. As a nation, his decision was very symbolic. A lot of people responded to that. I think in some ways, it was a loss of innocence, right? When he made the decision to join the military, and the reality of what that means, I think that’s what people felt after he was killed.


Q. What was the impetus to create the Pat Tillman Foundation?

In 2004, right after he was killed, we started the foundation. There was this outpouring of support from people from around the country and around the world. People started sending money as a way to honor him. So, we created the organization as a vehicle to collect that money, with the hope of doing something good in his name. In the very beginning, we didn't know what it was going to be. Over time, it turned into the Pat Tillman Foundation.


Q. Can you expand on the foundation’s goal to “build the next generation of leaders,” and its mission?

It really was something that evolved over time. In the beginning, we knew we wanted to focus on higher education and leadership. The first thing we did was partner with Arizona State University; they had a leadership program that we funded. It was through that program that I met two young men, brothers, who had served and were back home on a college campus. They were trying to figure out how they would continue to have an impact and serve, outside of uniform. It was through that experience that I realized there was a need in the veteran community around that — supporting these young men and women who are coming back on college campuses and looking to still have an impact, but maybe in a different way.


Q. Does the foundation’s mission statement reflect Pat?

Yes. That was intentional as well. Because of the way we started, and the intentions with which we started, we have tried to think about the characteristics that Pat embodied and have that be a strong foundation for our programming.


Q. The passage of time isn’t always kind to our heroes, and sometimes memories dim. How important is it for you to keep Pat’s memory alive?

It is part of what we hope to accomplish through the organization. It is a tricky thing. Some stories live on for years and years and years, and some sort of fade. I think the way Pat lived his life, and the choices that he made, still do resonate pretty strongly with people. It is something that remains. But it is something that we think about as we think about the future of the organization.


Q. How are you keeping Pat’s legacy alive and committing to your scholars?

The thing that has really worked for us is identifying the characteristics that Pat embodied, and using that through everything we do. It’s things that we point to when we select our scholars. And, in many ways, we see them as the continuation, as the living example of his legacy. So, a lot of what we do through our marketing efforts is to tell the story of our scholars. You can see how those men and women, the way they’re living their lives and the things they’re looking to accomplish, really do tie back to these characteristics. It’s trying to take this thread that Pat started and pull it forward through our scholars.


Q. How important is the foundation’s relationship with the NFL?

The NFL has been incredibly supportive from the beginning, of me and our family personally, and of the foundation and what we do. That comes from keeping his story alive as an athlete. There’s no formal partnership as it relates to the documentaries and other things that you see. It’s the interest from producers or people within the (NFL) who have reached out to us. That’s something we’ve appreciated and been happy to participate in. It really stems from their interest in continuing to tell his story.


Q. So there’s really been no need to formalize that relationship with the league?

Right. And something I’ve always felt, not just with the Cardinals but the NFL, is a real pride in Pat as one of them. That’s also what’s fueled some of that support.


Q. There’s an unmistakable conflict between the military’s handling of Pat’s death and the fact that the foundation aids members of the military. Did you struggle with that at all?

It’s a common question, but it’s not something that I particularly struggled with. To me, there was always a separation between the individuals we encountered while Pat served, and after, and that feeling of community and support and like-mindedness in this community that was so focused on service. To me, that was separate and apart from the military as an organization that maybe didn’t make the best decisions or operate in the best manner as it related to Pat’s death. What I still feel toward our scholars is that personal connection to these individuals. It’s more the shared experience of having served.


Q. Regarding the Tillman Scholars program, what traits and characteristics are you looking for? And what do these candidates say about Pat?

It is the sense of service and the desire to continue that out of uniform, though some stay in the military. It is a sense of humble leadership. There’s a real humility to our scholars. That’s something Pat displayed as well, and it’s something that is core to what we’re looking for.


Q. What do you think Pat would think of the Scholars program?

That’s such a hard question. My hope always is that he would be proud of the things we have done in his name, and feel good about the fact that there are others who are being helped by the way he lived his life.


Q. In the past decade, the foundation supported nearly 700 leaders nationwide. What is your greatest point of pride regarding the foundation?

It has been quite a journey (laughing), and as much as the foundation has served to help others, it is really something that I have benefited from as well. Particularly early on, to have something to focus on that was positive and about helping other people was crucial for me. The fact that the foundation is growing, strong, and vibrant allows me to engage with scholars and continue to have Pat in my life in a way that’s very tangible and just feels good.


Q. What’s next for the Pat Tillman Foundation?

The way we have grown has definitely been organic in nature. A lot of what we do is look to our community of scholars to find out where there are needs and how we can continue to support them. We now have more scholars who are out of school than in school, which is crazy. A lot of the programming that we’re looking to enhance and build in the future has to do with how to move these young leaders into the world post-college and continue to make an impact.



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