PHOENIX – Sparked by a brainstorming session at a bar in Chandler, Pat’s Run organizers are preparing for the 19th annual race that honors former Arizona State and Cardinals football star, Pat Tillman.
Tillman famously walked away from his NFL career to join the elite Army Rangers in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He was killed by friendly fire while serving near Sperah, Afghanistan, in 2004. He was 27 years old.
The run, which begins Saturday at 7 a.m., is a 4.2-mile race that ends at the 42-yard line of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Tillman wore No. 42 during his career at ASU, which included a Rose Bowl appearance and a Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year award.
The Cardinals, who also have been closely involved with Pat’s Run, selected him in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft, and he played four seasons with the club.
The event that honors him has grown to approximately 28,000 participants and is among the largest timed races in the U.S. It is the largest running event in Arizona.
“It’s gotten bigger and bigger every year,” said Christina Hundley, athletic director at Paradise Valley Community College and former classmate of Tillman’s at ASU. “It’s amazing to see how much it’s grown, but I honestly wish we never had it because it would mean he was still here with us.”
While those involved in organizing the run every year have made minor changes along the way, they always have Tillman in mind when they do.
“We do everything so that it would make Pat proud,” said Mark Zimmer, ASU’s football equipment manager during Tillman’s freshman and senior seasons who still works in the school’s equipment operation.
“Everything we do for the run is geared towards, ‘What would Pat think?’ We want to do everything possible to have a great event for the people that enter.”
Part of making the event great for everybody is creating a unique experience for the community. When the group of Tillman’s friends gathered in Chandler, they decided the No. 42 had to be a theme that ran throughout the event.
So they settled on the 4.2-mile race length and a finish line at the 42-yard line in Sun Devil Stadium, where runners are able to watch themselves finish on the stadium’s huge video screen.
“I knew it had to be relatable to Pat, so that’s why it’s 4.2 (miles). The kids run 0.42,” said Perry Edinger, who was the head athletic trainer at ASU during Tillman’s career. Edinger served as the race director in the run’s early years and has remained involved throughout its history.
“You’ve got to make it unique, so that’s why we wanted to end inside the stadium,” Edinger said.
The community has been supportive of Pat’s Run since its infancy in 2005. Even though the participation – 5,500 people – was much lower than it is now, it vastly exceeded expectations from Day 1.
“I was told we’d have 800 (participants),” Edinger said. “In fact, the night before the race, I had to print 500 more (Pat’s Run) shirts.”
The run’s popularity forced organizers to cap the entries at 28,000, and that’s how many either walked or ran the course in 2019. The in-person race was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but thousands still participated in a virtual version of the race, timing themselves on a 4.2-mile run and posting results on social media.
Last year, the event drew 24,000 runners back to the course that starts near Sun Devil Stadium, takes runners over the Mill Avenue Bridge, loops through Papago Park, then brings them back toward campus and into the stadium.
This year, 28,000 are again expected to participate in the race.
“For us to come back to 28,000 … it’s so special,” Edinger told Cronkite News. “It’s just so special for what the concept was to try and honor Pat and now give these Tillman scholars the opportunity to have these scholarships and to build that program.”
The value of service beyond self ran through Tillman’s veins, and continues to through the Scholars program.
Since its inception in 2009, over 800 veterans spouses and active-duty members have received scholarships to 166 different universities. So far, the program has churned out a graduation rate of 98% and employment rate of 96%, as well as an average GPA of 3.6.
“It takes about a month and a half for several committees to come together and we go through several rounds to (whittle down the 1,500 applications) every time,” Hundley said. “There’s a lot of folks out there, a lot of eyes on these applications, to be able to find the best 60 that will make a huge positive mark on the world in their future.”
It’s because of events like Pat’s Run that the Tillman Foundation and Tillman Scholars program has raised more than $24 million through the years.
This year, participants get an added bonus as former Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt will serve as the race starter.
“(Watt) was kind of a no-brainer for us this year,” Zimmer told Cronkite News. “He really embraced Pat Tillman when he got here, made a lot of references towards Pat and military appreciation.”
The recently retired Watt played his final two seasons in the Valley and always made it a priority to help the community during his NFL career.
“It’s great to have people who continue to honor Pat in some way,” Edinger said. “When you look at (people like Watt), you kind of see pieces of Pat.
“He continues to verify what I thought in the first place – that this thing would work and people would honor Pat down the road.”
Having Watt on board checks one of the final boxes for the Tillman Foundation and Pat’s Run. The future Hall of Fame defensive end’s appearance could bring even greater exposure worldwide.
“The more people we can bring to that, the more sponsor dollars we can bring to that, I think just lends to there being more opportunity of what we can do in addition to the race,” Hundley told Cronkite News. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do more (for the Tillman Scholars).”