TEMPE – Nearly two decades after former Sun Devils and Cardinals star Pat Tillman was killed in the line of duty, the hero’s legacy still lives on.
The 19th annual Pat’s Run took place Saturday morning in Tempe as approximately 28,000 people laced up their sneakers to participate in the 4.2-mile race (0.42 for kids), representing the jersey number that Tillman wore at Arizona State. The race raises money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, generating about $24 million since 2005.
People of all ages participated, and every runner had a unique story. Two firemen were among those who ran in full equipment, and members of the U.S. Armed Forces also ran in uniform.
No matter the story, everyone shared the unmatched feeling of crossing the finish line positioned at the 42-yard-line in Sun Devil Stadium.
Team Bad Axes, a group of firefighters that help spread awareness for fallen first responders and military, participates in Pat’s Run annually. They do so in full firefighter gear, acknowledging the energy and the positivity around them, pushing them to work harder.
The firemen compete in strenuous events such stair climbs, where they ascend the equivalent of 110 stories, or 2,200 steps, in honor of first responders who lost their life in the line of duty on Sept. 11. They also compete in other events, such as mud obstacle races.
Since starting Pat’s Run, Team Bad Axes members have learned more about Tillman’s story and are motivated to raise money towards a good cause, demonstrated by their finishing time of 58:16, a record for the firemen.
Some runners wore Tillman’s No. 42 jersey or Cardinals helmets, and there were runners who lifted an American flag for the entirety of the race. Whether they were with their families, friends or on their own, everyone had the same purpose: honoring Tillman’s legacy.
This year, former Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt was selected as the race starter. Watt counted down and sounded off the horn to start the race, and 28 corrals of about 1,000 runners each took to the course in intervals. Fans fortunate enough were able to snag a photo with the future Hall of Famer near the starting line.
But Watt made it clear to everyone why he was there – to show his love and support for Tillman and the Pat Tillman foundation.
“I think (Tillman) is truly what an American hero is and what we should all try and inspire to be,” Watt said. “His selflessness, who he is, what he represented … that’s what we’re trying to be.”
While the goal remained the same, the atmosphere stood out. After crossing the finish line runners were winded, yet in a state of satisfaction, proud of themselves for participating and raising money for a great cause.
Every year brings a new batch of runners, and some have turned the race into an annual tradition. Staff Sgt. Jesus Barraza, who is in the Army National Guard, completed his first Pat’s Run virtually while he was stationed overseas. This year marked his first in-person experience, and he did it with two other soldiers, Staff Sgt. Buddy Rogers and Sgt. Alejandro Morga – all who ran in full uniform while lifting an American flag.
“It’s different, especially the first time I did it overseas, so that meant a lot being deployed,” Barraza said. “But now being back here in Arizona, it means something different since (Pat Tillman is) from here. Being what Tillman represented means a lot to us as service members as well.”
For years to come, Tillman’s legacy will live on, and the Tillman Foundation and Tillman Scholars program will continue to make an impact.
“To give up a lucrative professional football career to volunteer for something he believed in … you’ve got to honor that true dedication,” runner Doug Mach said.
Tom Stempel, Mach’s running partner and former worker in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, acknowledged the impact of the Tillman Foundation.
“I’ve got to give an applaud to the Tillman Foundation, which is just an incredible foundation that does so much with active duty, veterans, spouses of vets, I just love what they do, I love supporting this,” Stempel said.