PEORIA — The mission: to honor Pat Tillman’s legacy.
The story of the former Arizona State and Cardinals football player, who died in a friendly-fire incident while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, had an impact on the nation but most profoundly on two states: California and Arizona.
Tonight at Liberty High School in Peoria the visions of coaches from both states will unite when Liberty hosts Tillman’s alma mater, Leland High in San Jose, for the inaugural “Pat Tillman Classic.” This will be the first of a home-and-home series, with Liberty traveling to San Jose in 2019.
Tillman was born in Fremont, California, but achieved his collegiate and professional success in Arizona.
Long before Tillman and his brother, Kevin, joined the Army and became Rangers, it was at Leland where the formation of this football and military icon began. Tillman led Leland to the Central Coast Division 1 Football Championship in 1993 before joining Arizona State in 1994.
“I knew Leland was looking for an opponent, so I thought what a better to honor Pat Tillman than to bring his high school to play a football game in the state where he achieved so much success,” said Liberty coach Mark Smith, who reached out to Leland High. “I thought it would really make it special by including the military and first responders.”
To honor all branches of the military and first responders, Liberty will conduct a pregame ceremony in which they will fly out 10 flags, including the Liberty school flag and the flags of the following: the United States, the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, the National Guard, the Coast Guard and the police and fire departments.
“Each of the players that were chosen to run out a flag has a personal connection to all 10 of the flags,” Smith said.
As he prepared his team for the game, Smith’s focus was on using the military as an example of discipline.
“We are a band of brothers, and we need to focus on finishing as a family,” he said.
At Liberty High, the team follows a mantra of “Code Red,” representing toughness, discipline, leadership, composure and commitment.
“In life and in the military branches these are core values that these young men will take with them as they carry on through life,” Smith said.
Senior running back Jaycob Morris, who will be attending the Naval Academy after graduation, said, “Pat Tillman’s toughness, leadership and determination have set an example for me and the way I play.”
This will be the first ” true” road game for the visiting Chargers and their coach thinks the travel experience will be something his players will forever cherish.
“Most of these kids won’t play beyond high school, and they will never get the chance to travel to play a football game, so I hope they cherish this moment forever,” Leland coach Mike Ward said.
In order to prepare for the intense Arizona heat, Ward has spent the last week focusing on conditioning by having his players run in sweatpants and hoodies, while limiting the football activities.
“These kids have never experienced the type of temperatures we will play in, so I want them as prepared as possible,” Ward said.
Tillman’s impact is visualized in memorials in both his native California and his adopted home in Arizona. The venue where the Leland Chargers play their games is named “Pat Tillman Stadium.” The press box and scoreboard have his name prominently featured.
The team is scheduled to visit the Tillman Statue at Sun Devil Stadium today. Both teams are scheduled to wear camouflage uniforms today, which will later be auctioned off with proceeds to benefit the Pat Tillman Foundation.
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