Pat Tillman's Widow Builds a New Life
Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan eight years ago played out in public -- the NFL player who quit football to enlist in the Army after 9/11, killed in what the Army tried to portray as a heroic death at the hands of the enemy but what turned out to be a barrage of friendly fire.
But for Marie Tillman, it played out in private.
Tillman, then 27, had lost her husband. The hero of the public story was the man she had loved since high school.
She had a story of her own.
And that story has come to Chicago.
Tillman, 35, moved here two years ago to be with the man she married last year. A few months ago they moved to Northfield, where they live with their 6-month-old son, Mac, and his three sons part-time.
The former Californian is an enthusiastic Chicagoan. She loves dinners downtown, the Tower Road Beach in Winnetka and the Art Institute of Chicago. She has become a Blackhawks fan.
From her home office, she does her work as president of the Pat Tillman Foundation, which has awarded more than $3.2 million in scholarships to 230 Tillman Military Scholars.
At Soldier Field on Monday morning, she will give the keynote address at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Valor Games Midwest, an athletic competition for disabled veterans and wounded or ill active-duty service members that runs through Wednesday.
It is here that she is building her new life, which includes her memoir, "The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, and Life." Published in June, it tells a love story through the letters she and Pat exchanged for years.
She also excerpts the final, fateful letter Pat left for her to read if he didn't come home from deployment:
Through the years, I've asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.
It took time before she was ready.
"It was really obviously a difficult time for me personally, dealing with the loss of Pat and having it be such a public thing," she said by phone from a family vacation in Lake Tahoe.
The man at the center of the public narrative was not the man she knew.
"He was portrayed in ways that were unrecognizable to me," she said. "When you have an individual who takes on this heroic persona, so many human elements fall out. That was part of why I wrote the book -- to show this very human being that was incredible, but he was just like you and me."
Three years after his death, seeking anonymity and a fresh start, she moved to New York and got a job in production and events for ESPN. She had a fear of public speaking and kept a low profile at the foundation she had helped establish.
But she gradually began to expand her role. She fervently supported the foundation's work. The battle with Army officials for the truth about his death did not affect her feelings about soldiers.
"With any organization, there are things that happen. Certainly there was reason for us to be upset," she said. "But the people I interact with every day -- it's amazing individuals that have served their country and come home and want to continue their education and go on to do great things in their lives."
And having been inspired by other people's stories of overcoming adversity, she thought her own might be helpful to someone else.
She moved back to California, took lessons in public speaking and devoted herself to the foundation full time.
Two years ago, a fundraising trip took her to Chicago. She went to a business dinner with a board member who brought along a friend -- Joe Shenton, an investment banker and divorced father of three. At an Asian fusion restaurant near North Michigan Avenue, electricity hummed.
"It was just one of those instant connections," Tillman said. "We were at dinner with two other people, and the two of us just talked to each other the whole night and ignored the other people.
"Pretty shortly after that, I moved to Chicago. It was very fast."
As life has been ever since.
She juggles work, the baby, the family schedule. She and her husband take Mac to storytime at the library. On weekends during the sports seasons they go to soccer and hockey games.
"I feel really lucky," she said. "I feel like I have this amazing person who's so supportive of all the things I do. I have a beautiful family. I have work that I love that's fulfilling and meaningful.
"It's sort of unreal sometimes to wake up and think about what my life was and what I struggled with. It wasn't that long ago. I can certainly remember some pretty dark times. But to be able to sit here today, on vacation with my family and enjoy all these wonderful things -- it's pretty amazing."
The letter in which Pat Tillman asked her to go on living "still does guide me in my life," she said. "There is a lot of guilt associated with moving forward. To be able to come back to it and know he wanted me to move on and live my life has been a gift."
Her work is another. She wrote in her book:
I think that's what Pat meant when he asked me to live -- not only to have fun but to understand that there is a weight to life, and he didn't want me to be frivolous with mine. It is a tragedy that Pat's life ended too soon. But it's also a tragedy to live a long life that isn't meaningful.
In her happily busy home outside Chicago now, Marie Tillman is doing what Pat Tillman asked in his final request: