Players sense hero's presence


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TAMPA, Fla. -- Pat Tillman is here. They feel it. They sense it, from the oldest head around the sidelines, 42-year trainer John Omohundru, to the longest-tenured veteran on the Cardinals, safety Adrian Wilson.

"Not only the players, but the fans of Arizona really look back and wonder what this whole scene would have been like if Pat was still here," Wilson said amid the media breathlessness surrounding this Super Bowl week. "Just to have him around the stadium and around the practice field. ... That [says] we are still thinking about him, and that he is still with us in spirit."

An 8-foot bronze statue, hair flying, adorns a "Freedom Plaza" outside University of Phoenix Stadium. His retired No. 40 and name appears in their Ring of Honor. His photo hangs in the trainer's room and elsewhere around the team's Tempe, Ariz., facility.

Yet now that the Cardinals -- after 89 mostly mediocre-to-miserable years -- have reached the summit of Super Bowl XLIII today against the Steelers, questions remain: What about honoring Tillman here? What about the franchise remembering the star safety who declined a $3.6 million contract offer to join his brother in the Marines after9/11, then was killed in action in Afghanistan by friendly fire in 2004.

"People have asked me, 'What do you think Pat's doing right now?' " Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said. "I got two answers: One is, he's looking down, and he's very, very happy for the Cardinals and the fact that we're in the Super Bowl. And, two, he's pretty ticked off that he's not down here playing in it."

Marie Tillman, his widow and now chairman of the Pat Tillman Foundation, has been invited to sit with the Cardinals' owners at Raymond James Stadium, Bidwill said.

But beyond that, no patches? No stickers on helmets? No ... something?

"That's interesting," said Alex Garwood, a high-school teammate, longtime friend and brother-in-law who yielded the foundation chairmanship to Marie Tillman but remains a board member. "They have Gene Upshaw [stickers] on there" for the late NFL Players Association chief.

NFL officials plan to show a scoreboard video tribute to Tillman in a game where they are honoring, among others, military veterans in a display that includes Iraq commander

Gen. David Petreaus participating in the coin toss. The league, said spokesman Greg Aiello, has "honored Pat Tillman's legacy on an ongoing basis since his death," in such forms as: a $250,000 gift to build a USO center in his name in Afghanistan, a Hall of Fame display and sales of licensed No. 40 Cardinals jerseys through the foundation. Aiello added that "there was a spike in [those jersey] sales this week, which is great." And NBC is expected today to air a piece about him as well.

A Phoenix man who said he was a veteran of the first Gulf War tried to honor him in an NFC championship game timeout Jan. 18 by running onto the field in a Cardinals No. 40 and khakis, adding that he felt Tillman's jersey needed to be there.

Cardinals players and coaches pay homage. Ex-Steeler Sean Morey wears a Pat's Run T-shirt around the team facility after running both 4.2-mile races along Tempe streets since he arrived in the Phoenix area.

""When I came here in 2001 ... Pat helped me with the playbook," Wilson said. "He helped me learn how to practice and do a lot of things that I didn't know how to do. I think Pat eventually knew that I was going to be the guy who would take over his spot, and he didn't have any problems with that. He showed me the right way to do things. ... You never want, somebody like that, his legacy to die."

"He's the embodiment of what you want to be," said long-snapper Nathan Hodel, the only other current Cardinal to play with Tillman. "The decision he made to serve his country instead of, you know, playing and making really a lot of money? You got to ask yourself, I don't know if I could've done that."

"The great thing is," Garwood concluded, "we're talking about him now."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com .


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