The ultimate sacrifice: Tillman’s legacy burns bright as firefighters lead Pat’s Run 20-year celebration

Valley firefighters Sergio Tosi, Brad Lerman and Nik Gazda were among the first responders to participate in the 20th annual Pat’s Run. They competed in full gear. (Photo by Anthony Remedios/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – A tradition like no other, Pat’s Run celebrated its 20th anniversary Saturday with approximately 28,000 participants taking part in a 4.2-mile run or walk along the scenic routes of Tempe.

The race featured a stampede from all backgrounds, including military veterans, Arizona State athletes and football coach Kenny Dillingham, Arizona Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon and senior citizens, among many more.

Perhaps no segment of the crowd stands out more than local firefighters and other first responders, who support the cause while wearing their full equipment, setting them apart from other participants.
Tillman’s legacy has inspired millions around the world since leaving the NFL in 2002 to enlist in the Army with his brother, Kevin, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. That legacy lives on through not only the Pat Tillman Foundation but also through the many participants of Pat’s Run.

Arizona State football players line up to cheer on first responders and other participants near the Mountain America Stadium finish line for Pat’s Run. (Photo by Anthony Remedios/Cronkite News)

Arizona State football players line up to cheer on first responders and other participants near the Mountain America Stadium finish line for Pat’s Run. (Photo by Anthony Remedios/Cronkite News)

“Pat Tillman is one of the greatest inspirations in American history, certainly in Arizona history, Arizona State, the university,” Chandler firefighter Avery Armstrong said. “We take great pride in the sacrifice that he made for his country.”

“We’re not protecting the country; we’re protecting our community. We want to come out here to memorialize him and to show him and our community thanks, and further our comradery within our department and the fire service.”

“The guy was (living) the dream playing in the NFL as a professional athlete,” Valley firefighter Nik Gazda said. “(It’s) getting out here, reminding everyone to support the fall, remember the fall and not forget where we came from and what the sacrifice was to get to this point.”

For firefighters like Gazda, Pat’s Run is an opportunity to honor the ultimate sacrifice, while for others such as Chandler firefighter Donaldo Lopez, it’s an opportunity to be a leader. Lopez has run the event for over a decade and now shares the experience with his 9-year-old daughter, Genevieve, whose first time attending an event was in her mother’s womb and said “the whole point of it is to be strong.”

“As her dad, I have to show her instead of just tell her what it means to work hard and be strong, push yourself when you’re uncomfortable,” Donaldo said. “(Life is) a series of minor setbacks that you have to overcome to come out on the other end stronger. It has to be a choice and you have to be better at overcoming the obstacles.

“Coming out here and sweating on a Saturday morning for a great reason is an easy way to do something like that. This means a lot to be able to come out here now with my family.”

Donaldo also added that he and his wife have recently used Pat’s Run as a teaching moment at the dinner table to explain Tillman’s story and how everyone can make a difference in the world, no matter their status.

“It doesn’t take a multi-million dollar college or professional athlete. We all have a chance to do great things,” Donaldo said. “Are we willing to sacrifice and give up some of our comfort?”

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Donaldo, his wife and Armstrong were also joined by colleague Rachel Pereda, who will celebrate two years with the fire service in September. Pineda first ran after the pandemic by herself and was excited when the opportunity arose to compete with her peers.

“When (they) asked me if I wanted to do it, I took that as a challenge,” Pereda said. “Being a new firefighter, I look up to my mentorship and leadership. They’re the ones that have helped me and supported me. We have a great group here and a great department.”

All the firefighters who participated carried their gear from start to finish – which included multiple internal layers of protection, helmets, large oxygen tanks and even two American flags – as a symbol of unity and a way to further the competition among each other.

“Competition always brings out the best in all of us,” Armstrong said. “It’s always a competition, even if it’s just internal. So that’s another way to make it more challenging and push ourselves to the limits. If any one of us was just doing it by ourselves out here, we’d probably still be out there walking.”

In light of multiple departments’ firefighters participating in the event, they feel a sense of unity and pride in representing their fellow brothers and sisters. The Valley Firefighters’ uniforms displayed the words, “Team Badaxes,” a collective team name they have used for the last seven years.

“It doesn’t matter the name that’s on your shirt or helmet, it’s a name that we’re all part of this together,” Gazda said. “We don’t need to represent one. We need to represent all.”

Anthony Remedios AN-thuh-nee reh-MEE-dee-os (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

Anthony Remedios expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in community sports management. Remedios also works with Varsity Sports Show, Walter Cronkite Sports Network and Blaze Radio.