Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I'm Pat F***ing Tillman

I woke up this morning haunted by four words. And I couldn't put the national holiday behind me. War has a way of doing that...

Over the Memorial Day weekend, a new service took place on the Mall.  For nearly eight hours different people read the names of the men and women who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting the war against terror. Perhaps you know one of them. Or, perhaps you understand—had I been there—why I would not have heard "Corporal Patrick Daniel Tillman." 

No, what I would have heard what were (probably) his last words: "I'm Pat F***ing Tillman."
Pat's parents Mary and Patrick Tillman
Killed by fratricide on April 22, 2004, Tillman's death by "friendly fire" is an unfortunate reality of war. So is the fact that men in his own battalion heard his cry for help as he realized who was shooting—members of his convoy. 

Today, we call out the names of the fallen. Ten years ago, Pat Tillman called out his own; a desperate plea for help. Corporal Tillman wasn't the first and he won't be the last to die in this way. This is important to know and understand above and beyond his life and death. 

The power of Saturday's service, which resembles the beauty of the Vietnam Memorial, is that it recognizes no one is just a number; everyone has a name. Pat Tillman is much more than his retired ASU jersey #42 or Arizona Cardinals uniform #40. He is, like every man who serves our country, someone's son, brother, or husband. Pat was all three. (please pardon the gender specific language).
Reminders of Tillman. Sun Devil Stadium at ASU
He was also an athlete and a solider. I finally began to make sense of the story we talk about today, when we discuss Pat Tillman, through the integration of those two components of his identity. It came to me through an unlikely resource.

The April 28, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated ran a tribute to one of its great writers, Gary Smith, who is retiring after 30-plus years of magazine writing. "His great achievement was an inversion of sport's central allure -- the way it reduces messy existence to clear winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. He made it OK to feel uncertain about the athletes we were sure we knew, to empathize more than judge, to end a story feeling more conflicted than consoled. Because at gut level- we understand: No human is ever as simple as a ball game." (S. L. Price)

I reviewed this insight several times. It stayed with me. Why? It's Pat Tillman. It's his story.

Tillman, an emotional leader was the
Pac-10 defensive player of the year.
You don't have to dig deep to realize that Pat was much more complicated than what may appear on the surface. If Pat Tillman were one of my students I would love him and yet I know I would have to be ready for the challenge he would bring to class—discussion, debate, etc. On good days, I can handle a personality like Pat's. On bad ones, it would be tough. 

But Pat drew his friends, teammates and family members in with empathy, more than judgment (see "The Tillman Story" Pat Tillman read the entire "Book of Mormon." Despite the fact he was an atheist, he wanted to discuss Mormonism and religion with a fellow member of his battalion, a devout Mormon). Learn his story and conflict will serve as the operative word. Consolation is not at hand.

The powers that be used his death as an opportunity to paint a picture of a clear "good guy and bad guy." Us vs. them. On the surface it appeared as though they found the perfect personality. An athlete who becomes a solider. A man who knows the importance of winning over losing. They were wrong. 

"No human is ever as simple as a ball game." Nor should they be. Pat entered the army to serve and found out more questions than answers. He put his thoughts to paper in his journal; this was burned immediately after his death.

Tonight I will pray the Litany of Saints. I love this prayer because it calls out the names holy men and women who have loved and served God. I will not call out Pat Tillman as one of them; he wouldn't want me to. So I'll pray for 8,000 as a collective whole. And I won't forget his cry....I'm Pat Fucking Tillman....

Photo Credits
All Photos from E-60: An Un-American Tragedy

Monday, May 26, 2014

Pat Tillman: What Motivates You?

Americans celebrate Memorial Day weekend in a variety of ways. Yes, there are the barbecues and festivities that mark the "unofficial start of summer," but I also noticed the intentionality and reverence we give this holiday. For example, today, the Giants and Cubs wore camouflage to honor service members; the national anthem and "God Bless America" were sung with such conviction, I know their messages did not fall on deaf ears. At mass last night, the pastor asked for those who have served in the armed forces to stand. These men and women received a special blessing and the community extended its respect and gratitude with prayers and applause. And, in our nation's capital, the names of the fallen were listed one by one on the Mall.
It took nearly eight hours to read this list. 
The Washington Post reported "Ruth Stonesifer, a quilter from Doylestown, Penn., was the first to approach the wooden lectern in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Saturday morning to begin reading the names of nearly 7,000 U.S. men and women who have died while deployed since Sept. 11, 2001." When I heard this story, I realized that one of those names was Pat Tillman.
Corporal Patrick D. Tillman

It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years since the charismatic "man of conscience" died. Killed by fratricide—friendly fire—on April 22, 2004, today his story is one that people aren't sure how to talk about. Why did the initial reports state that he was killed by enemy fire when we knew otherwise? Was he used as a political pawn to justify a war we should not be fighting? Why has the military not come clean about this tragedy? And why is that important? (It is.) Is he still a hero? If so, why? 

To me, Pat is a hero because of his sacrifice and his commitment to things that really matter. His decision to become an Army Ranger with his younger brother Kevin means that he renounced a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals. The Tillman Story says "He refused to speak to the media about his decision, requesting only to be looked upon as any other soldier." He was counter-cultural through and through. 

Indeed, Pat captured our imagination for a number of reasons. He was an overachiever. He was brilliant and brash. He looked like a man who enjoyed having a really good time yet he married his high school sweet heart Marie. He could be a irreverent and yet his desire to serve our country was so humble and pure. His rugged good looks ought to have served as the perfect profile for recruitment but on the interior, we know that Pat also raised questions about why we were in Afghanistan. Although he grew increasingly disillusioned, he committed to completing his term. Remarkably, his brother did.
Pat with his high school sweetheart and wife, Marie.
I regretted not writing about Pat Tillman on the 10-year anniversary of his death, and yet I have a sense he wouldn't want me to... or on Memorial Day either. So let me conclude with what he would want us to know.

Pat would want us to understand that he never did anything for fame or glory. He didn't enter into a challenge for what he could gain, but rather what he could give. And if there was something to get, it wasn't a worldly or fleeting good. Quite the contrary.
Kevin turned down an opportunity to pursue baseball professionally, to serve in the USMA.
When Pat was asked "What motivates you?" He said "I get a lot of satisfaction out of my family being proud of me. My brothers—I care what they think and how they feel. I want them to be proud of what I'm doing. My mom. My mom ran the San Francisco marathon and she finished last. Dead last. On the sheet...Mary Tillman...the last frickin' name. They were tearing down the race course and she came in and still finished. That says a lot about her. She is a hard working woman."

So on this Memorial Day, I give thanks to the men and women who have served. Their parents, their siblings—their families and friends ought to know they too play a special role in that gift. Thank you Pat Tillman for reminding me of that truth.

Photo Credits
Corporal Tillman 
Pat and Marie

Monday, May 19, 2014

Gone But Not Forgotten: Tiggs et al

I have taught Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice each of the 11 years I have been at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. My 4th-period class has asked me since November if they are my all time favorite group. Being that tomorrow is our final class, it's time that I confirm what they already know: they are among the very best. 
Best way to start and end class....Corn hole

Yes, they have worked hard this year, but they have laughed and cried harder—much harder than any group I can remember. Their ability to listen thoughtfully yielded kinship and a loving respect for one another. They have shared their talents unselfishly. From our Valentine's Day prank to on-going games of Corn hole long after the bell has rung, we have had more fun than any religion class has a right to have. Their presence leads me to say one prayer: "Thanks." But I would be remiss if I did not mention how grateful I am for the prayers we have shared together—in silence and out loud.

When my former student Brendan Tiggs died in February, I told all of my classes about the petitions he once said. On a near daily basis, Tiggs would pray for "anyone who might be having a tough time." I asked my students to continue this prayer. In the wake of our grief, many students honored Tiggs through this petition. As time has passed, however our prayers changed. Naturally, we took on new concerns—but not in my 4th period. If one of Tiggs' former teammates didn't offer that prayer, another student gave voice to it every day. Wow.

It can be difficult for some groups of students to feel comfortable sharing their prayers out loud. I understand. Even with my colleagues in the Religious Studied department I am often reluctant to speak up or expose my needs, desires, concerns and more in prayer. But not this group. Sharing is natural and supported, it is encouraged and understood. It is holy. And those intentions begin each day with the same intention: for the Tiggs family.

The young man who says this prayer says it for good reason. He told me "I've been blessed for the past two years in sharing the number 74 in football with Tiggs. And now I realized how blessed I am to have that and I feel like that will always connect me with him." A common number, a common prayer—it doesn't take much to stay connected to those we love.
A picture is worth more than 1000 words.
And so it was with a heavy heart but a warm smile that I came across a photo of Brendan Tiggs on this second to last day of class. Last April, our community welcomed NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and SI Alum, Dan Fouts back to his alma mater. Presented with an award from All-State, my hope was that we caught a snapshot of him next to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame plaque that stands outside of McCullough gymnasium (for an article I am writing in Genesis). No such luck. I did, however, find a picture I had never seen before of Tiggs. To me, it captured exactly who he was and why we love him.

Here he stands, in his J-Rich Warriors jersey, besides his teammates and friends. Wearing a joyful smile on his face, I know that Tiggs gave Fouts an honorable handshake and welcome. It's bittersweet. 
One of many legacies at SI.
Brendan Tiggs left a legacy—one that this group has carried on. Tomorrow I will say goodbye to the 27 juniors, but hope to remember them with the class photo we will take out on the piazza. They made me laugh today when someone asked: "should we wear the same thing?" They too have created a legacy of their own; I am grateful for all we have learned and shared. 

Whoever said "those who can't—teach" had it entirely wrong. My students have been some of my greatest teachers and as far as I'm concerned what they can do is humbling and inspiring. They love, laugh, pray and give the best of what they got—themselves. Brendan...my juniors...Thanks ...Wow.
What an awesome group...

Photo Credits: Thank you, Paul Totah!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Notre Dame Walk-On Mike Anello Still Pays it Forward to St. Baldrick's

For every one of the five years I have written this blog, there has been a different idea for a book: Sports and Spirituality: A Symbiosis, The Story of Bookstore Basketball: A Tourney Like No Other, and others. Although one has yet to come to fruition, the work has not been in vain. Every "book" has yielded more stories, additional curriculum for my senior theology course, new friends and unforgettable conversations. One of those was with Notre Dame alum, Mike Anello who walked on to the Notre Dame football team and became a two-time Academic All-American.
My hope was to learn from a broad spectrum of Notre Dame athletes and coaches one thing: What one moment as a student athlete/coach stands out among the others? Describe it. Why this moment? The answer was to be captured in "book number two," Notre Dame Athletics & Athletes: Tender, Strong and True.

A friend said Mike Anello was one voice I ought to include. Mike, who was more than generous with his time, made but one request. Rather than just share one moment on the football field, Mike sought to talk about what his teammates were able to do off of it as well—and that is raise money for children with Cancer through St. Baldrick's Foundation. 

I share this story two years later because this Saturday, I will have to chance to meet Mike and support this great cause at the Irish Times. The San Francisco Bay Area Alumni Club will be hosting the fundraiser and I hope you will join us! Even if you can't, please share the word about the gathering and more importantly about the good work of St. Baldrick's.

His story, which includes their story, is below.

Known for a football career that started as a walk-on and ended garnering not one, but two Academic All-American honors for his special teams play, Mike Anello can’t be stopped.  If it isn’t his impressive speed hurling down the field it is his efforts to rally his teammates in support of the St. Baldrick’s foundation that illustrate why he is a fan favorite. Mike has asked to share two moments, representing each commitment.

I made the football team in the spring of my freshman year as a walk-on but had to battle my way through ups and downs to get there. In the summer leading up to my junior year, I had earned my way onto the depth chart on special teams.  However, this did not last long, as the ball did not seem to bounce in my favor…ever, and by the end of summer camp, I had fallen off the depth charts.

Eventually Mike got his own #
I stood at a crossroads. I could go and compete against the best guys out there or hang my head and go through the motions.  I decided I would work harder. I started the 2007 season on the scout team (in practice they play the role of the opposing team’s players). As we prepared for our second game of the season—Penn State in State College, we knew they had a great gunner. In order to block him from getting to our returner, we decided we would double-team him. 

I played the role of their gunner and I beat the double team every time in practice that week. The night before the game, some of the players told me the coaches decided to change the game plan, stating, “If we can’t stop Anello. How are we gonna stop this guy?!”

The next week we were preparing to play Michigan at the Big House. They too had a gunner that we needed to double team. I beat the coverage all three times during practice that week. After the third rep, Coach Weis screamed for me to get back to the huddle in his ever so kind New Jersey vernacular. He told me I would be traveling to the Big House that week, and I might even be running down the field (I still get cold chills as I think about that day). 

That night I called my family; I talked to my parents and my two older brothers.  I told them don’t tell anyone because I don’t know that I am going to play, but at the very least I’d be traveling for the Michigan game. In true walk-on fashion, I shared my number with the punter, so we had to change it from 43 to 36 the day of the game because you can’t have two of the same numbers on the field. 

As fate would have it, I got in the game and on my second play, I made a tackle on punt coverage. I remember jogging off the field and shaking my head, because no matter what happened the rest of my career at Notre Dame, the Anello family name would forever be etched in Notre Dame history having made a tackle (if they could match me to my new number that is…).  I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life.

St. Baldrick’s Foundation
In the spring of my senior year, a student contacted me via Facebook, asking if I could get some of the guys from the football team involved in a charity “head shaving” event on campus for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which supports Pediatric Oncology Research.  She knew many of the kids attending, who were currently undergoing treatment, would love to meet some of the football players. 
It's not hard to see why this little girl changed Mike Anello's life...
The first year I was involved, I got five guys to join me.  We took a picture with a young girl who was wearing a pink bandana as she had lost her hair to cancer.  I will never forget the smile on her face.  And whenever I see that photo today, I can’t help but smile.  That little girl has been an absolute inspiration ever since.

The next year Dayne Crist, Mike Golic Jr., and I rallied over 40 guys from the team to join us in shaving our heads for St. Baldrick’s. 

This is why I love Notre Dame; we know we have a duty, an obligation to “pay it forward.” 

I had such a great experience that first year, that I decided to devote a lot of my time the last few years to bring St. Baldrick’s events to Boston. We’ve raised over $100,000 the last two years and hope to continue building on that momentum. 

Photo Credits
Pink Bandana