PHOENIX — The controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem — that divided fans and drew the ire of President Donald Trump — thrust an unlikely figure in the spotlight.
The late Pat Tillman.
The former Arizona State and Cardinals football player was also an Army Ranger who lost his life in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan. On Monday, the president retweeted a pro-Trump account that featured Tillman’s face in a tweet with the hashtag “stand for our anthem.”
Those who knew Tillman best said people shouldn’t assume to know where he would stand on the issue.
“I think people will be pleasantly surprised to know that Pat might be a bit more open-minded to it than most people, especially after him coming back from Iraq, he wasn’t a big fan of the Iraq war,” said Jeremy Staat, a friend and ASU teammate of Tillman’s and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. “He believes it was an illegal war and especially the way they elaborated upon Pat’s passing, he might be right next to (Colin) Kaepernick, taking a knee.”
Staat, like Tillman, was inspired to join the military after the events that transpired on September 11th but was talked out of it by Tillman, who told him to wait until he plays three more seasons so he could secure NFL retirement benefits. Though he doesn’t agree with the way many players have protested, he said it’s their right to protest however they see fit as long as it’s handled in the right way.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “We have a constitutional right to express a peaceful protest and like I said before, I don’t see anything wrong.
“I don’t like what they’re doing as far as taking a knee during the national anthem. I absolutely do not like it but at the same time, as a veteran, I have fought and defended their constitutional right to a peaceful protest.”
Staat said he voted for Trump and believes that comments the president makes are often to distract people from other issues.
“As a leader, you shouldn’t have to threaten or call those that you lead names in order for them to do what you ask them to do,” Staat said. “Who is he to sit there and tell these grown-ass men that they have to do this or else? This is not a dictatorship, this is a democracy and coming from a veteran, they have the constitutional right to a peaceful protest and it’s an extremely peaceful protest that they’re doing.”
Staat believes people on both sides of the issue need to “stop throwing insults and start throwing some hugs and handshakes.”
“We’re all in this together,” Staat said. “We’re all Americans and we got to back each other’s play.”
Staat wasn’t the only person to critique the president’s choice of a retweet. Tillman’s widow, Marie, shared a statement with CNN’s Brian Stelter that she hopes reaches the president.
“The very action of self-expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for,” she said. “Even if they didn’t always agree with those views. It is my sincere hope that our leaders both understand and learn from the lessons of Pat’s life and death, and also those of so many other brave Americans.”
For many, Tillman is viewed as an ideal example of what an American athlete should be, a man who worked hard and sacrificed to defend his country. Marie Tillman said she hopes his memory would remind people to come together.
“Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us,” she said. “We are too great of a country for that. Those that serve, fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. They and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.”