Under Graham, Tillman legacy growing at ASU

TEMPE, Ariz. — On Saturday, Arizona State football coach Todd Graham will start roughly 28,000 runners on their way in the 4.2 miles of the ninth annual Pat’s Run, which honors former ASU linebacker Pat Tillman. Though Graham never met Tillman and has been in Tempe just one season, it seems fitting that he’ll lead thousands of people in celebrating the life of ASU’s most revered alumnus.

Under Graham, Tillman’s legacy has grown as the coach has put constant emphasis on the ideals and values Tillman stood for both on the field and off during his time at ASU and after it.

“He is the person here we look to that epitomizes what our program is all about,” Graham said. “He made the ultimate sacrifice, and the passion with which he competed was unmatched. He’s the only single player whose picture is in my office, and it tells his story. So when recruits come in, that’s who we’re (trying) to be like.”

Tillman has been honored and celebrated at ASU since his death in 2004 while serving in the U.S. Army, but Graham has furthered the visibility of Tillman’s legacy in a few ways. The walls of the football complex were redecorated before last season, with images of Tillman placed prominently.

Last season, Graham and his coaching staff started a tradition to honor Tillman and reward defensive players for displaying the commitment Tillman did on and off the field. A player deemed deserving earned the right to wear a camouflage No. 42 jersey — the number is retired at ASU — with Tillman’s name on the back during practice for as long as they continued to earn it.

Safety Alden Darby was the first ASU player to receiver the honor, and he was the only last season. This spring, All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, who is the official starter for Saturday’s Pat’s Run kids run, also earned the “PT42” jersey.

“It’s an honor to put that jersey on,” Darby said last year. “I feel honored having Pat Tillman’s number on it and his name on my back.”

Said Sutton after receiving the honor last week: “It’s an honor, because he’s somebody that did a lot to work hard for this university and for our country at the same time. So it means a lot.”

Graham said earlier in the week that he anticipated a few more players earning Tillman practice jerseys going forward, and on Thursday, linebacker Chris Young and cornerback Osahon Irabor received their own camo duds. Graham added that he’d like to see six or seven No. 42 practice jerseys on a regular basis, because it would mean that many were achieving on the highest level, but he reiterates that the honor is very difficult to attain.

Graham has more than once said Tillman represents the standard for which he wants all his players to strive. But he has also been deliberate in not putting Tillman on too high a pedestal.

“He obviously was not a perfect person, but he was tough, physical and passionate,” Graham said. “He exemplifies everything that we’re trying to get out of our players.”

Though some might feel Graham is a little unqualified to make Tillman such a prominent figure in his program considering he never met Tillman the man or coached Tillman the player, Graham has been exceedingly respectful to the Tillman family’s wishes about how Tillman’s name and image have been used.

Before creating and issuing the Tillman practice jersey, Graham got the family’s blessing. And, according to Graham, it was Tillman’s widow, Marie, who asked him to be the starter of Saturday’s run, which helps the Pat Tillman Foundation provide veterans with financial scholarships to further their education.

“I’m very honored that Marie and the family asked me to do that,” Graham said. “It’s something that is very important to us, very important to our team. … Helping our people that have served our country come back and finish their education is a big deal.”

This year’s race will be Graham’s second, and this time he will be joined by a number of football staffers, including offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, offensive graduate assistant and former ASU wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad and senior associate athletic directors Tim Cassidy and Jean Boyd.

“I’m hoping I make (Tillman) proud with how I run the race,” Graham said before poking fun at himself. “Last year I probably let him down. I think it was 58 minutes. I was pretty excited that I finished. I feel like I’ve trained the same as I did last year, so I’m hoping to maybe go 57 minutes.”

While those who knew Pat Tillman often insist he would not have wanted all the recognition he has received for walking away from a professional football career to serve in the military, later losing his life in the process, the Arizona State community — players, coaches, alumni and fans — responds to his example, taking inspiration from his life.

In the same way, Graham’s team is responding to a daily reminder of how Tillman played the game.

“We’re trying to get guys to play with heart, and we always refer to that as ‘PT-42,'” Graham said. “There’s not a day goes by that we don’t talk about what that means, because PT-42 exemplifies everything we want out of our players.”