Family carries on Davidson's tradition
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Jenn Goins entered the stadium as the workers started tearing down the barriers, two hours after the elite runners had finished, behind the kids' race, seemingly No. 30,998 out of 31,000.
She approached the edge of the grass, set the brake on the wheelchair, helped a family member out and started the final stretch to the finish line.
It was a familiar journey; Goins had made it seven times before.
This time, nothing about it seemed right.
Her father, Sheldon Davidson, was not there.
An inspiration to her and the thousands who had watched his annual trek across Sun Devil Stadium, he died less than two months before this year's Pat's Run.
So instead of walking with her father in tribute to NFL star-turned-solider Pat Tillman, she made the short journey to the finish line with her mother, honoring two heroes with each step.
''It's so weird to be here and doing this without him,'' Jenn said, fighting back tears.
There are times, maybe a handful in a lifetime, when we meet people who have an immediate and profound effect on us - successful people, motivational people, hardworking people who touch us by who they are or what they do.
Sheldon Davidson became one of those people to me by walking 42 yards.
I met the man they call Shelly in 2011 while working on the story about the living legacy of Tillman, the former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals player who became an Army Ranger.
Davidson so admired Tillman for the person he was, the thoughtful and no-nonsense way he lived his life, that he felt an obligation to participate in Pat's Run, an impromptu celebration of Tillman's life that turned into the main fundraiser for the foundation in his name.
Davidson ran the first two on his own and kept going even after suffering a stroke in 2007, becoming the inspirational capper to the day as he labored his way to the finish line every year.
Davidson didn't do it for recognition, the pats on the back that came after he finished, the media coverage that eventually came with it.
This was a duty for him.
Despite meeting him only briefly - he once said ''good game'' at Arizona State - Davidson, a military police officer for the Army in the Vietnam War, felt such a strong connection to Tillman that he had to do something in his memory, no matter how painful.
And there he was every year, climbing out of his wheelchair, strapping crutches to his arms, laboring with every step until he crossed the finish line on his own.
Hearing Davidson talk about it in his living room, tears streaming down his face, struck a chord with me.
Watching a video of him from 2009 doing it after the stroke for the first time, Arizona State's football players cheering him on to the finish line, welled up my eyes.
Seeing him stab his crutches into the grass, an unwavering look of determination on his face, sent chills up my spine.
Being able to push his chair around the course twice, including with my daughter last year, was truly an honor.
''He was a good man,'' his wife, Jeffree said.
The original Pat's Run was put together not long after Tillman's death by a group of his friends who wanted to honor a man who loved the thrill of a physical challenge.
Since then, it has become the major fundraiser for the Pat Tillman Foundation, an organization created to help fill gaps in the GI Bill. In 10 years, Pat's Run has raised $9 million, most of that going to the Tillman Military Scholars, a program developed to help servicemen and their family members earn degrees or complete certificate programs.
They come from all walks of life, many of them inspiring in their own right: Blind runners, amputees, newborns in strollers, 90-year-olds with canes, out-of-shape people forcing themselves to run.
The field for the 10th anniversary run last Saturday was filled with awe-inducing stories.
Randy Shepherd finished the course with an artificial heart and hopes to do it again once he gets a donor heart. A disabled teen named Bob was among the last finishers, making his way across the finish line with a friend holding him up under the arms.
Then there was Kianie Putman. She has cerebral palsy and walked the course with the help of crutches, the last person to cross the finish line after raising $2,000 for the Pat Tillman Foundation.
This year's run had one big hole: Sheldon Davidson was not there.
''Shelly had been such a big part of the race for several years and many of the volunteers had been looking forward to seeing him pick up his packet,'' said Michelle McCarthy, director of brand and communications for the Pat Tillman Foundation. ''But sometimes, life just kind of happens.''
Pat's Run was a big part of Davidson's life, particularly after his stroke.
Despite spending most of the year in a wheelchair, he found a way to finish the race on his own, climbing to his feet to stab-step his way to the finish.
With the rock of their family no longer there this year, his family and friends made the journey without him.
Eight family members walked in a group last Saturday, with Jenn pushing Jeffree, who held a picture of Shelly in her lap, and more than 30 people ran or walked in his honor, some in out-of-state shadow runs.
Once they made the steep climb up to the stadium, Jenn and Jeffree waited in the tunnel before stepping out onto the grass for the moment that had once belonged to Shelly for so long.
This year, the moment went to someone else.
As they started toward the finish, so did a disabled teen who drew most of the attention from the remaining crowd.
Behind him, Jenn and Jeffree quietly made their across the grass that had been so important to Shelly, occasionally wiping away tears as Jenn pushed his now empty wheelchair and Jeffree carried his photo.
After crossing the finish line, mother and daughter held each other in a long embrace, sharing tears and a few words before a volunteer worker came over and patted them on the shoulders.
''We were so sorry to hear about Shelly,'' he said. ''He was such a big part of the race and everyone will miss him.''
The number 42 is a prominent figure at Pat's Run and for the Pat Tillman Foundation. Tillman wore it at Arizona State as a player, so the race is 4.2 miles long, the final stretch is 42 yards and PT42 is used as the hashtag on Twitter for all things Tillman.
Sheldon Davidson died on March 16 - 42 days before this year's run.
Even in death, Davidson found a way to make a connection with Tillman.