12/30/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Gentlemen, sharpen your No. 2 pencils. You're 25 and have just married the woman of your dreams. Now, do you (a) sign a three-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals potentially worth $3.6 million furthering a career as one of the NFL's top defensive backs or (b) join the Army for $1,100 a month? If you checked "a" you're a typical American guy; if you checked "b" you're Pat Tillman. "He is a unique individual—he has real substance," Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis says of his scrappy, 5'11", 202-lb. safety, who enlisted in May along with his brother Kevin, 24. Stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., they are now part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite special-operations unit. Friends say Tillman's career move was no spasm of post-9/11 emotionalism. Part of the reason Tillman left the NFL, believes Mark Brand, assistant athletic director at Tillman's alma mater, Arizona State University, is because "he just got bored, and he was looking for new challenges." Tillman was a top student but learned his most lasting lesson in 1994 when he served a month in juvenile detention for aiding a friend in a fight. "It made me realize that stuff you do has repercussions," he told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. He was drafted by the Cardinals in 1998 and held the franchise record for tackles in 2000. This past May Tillman wed his high school sweetheart, Marie Ugenti, 24—then dropped his bomb. "He said, T want to play again in the NFL after my three years are up,' " says McGinnis. "He has dreams in life and courage to make them happen. Our country can be extremely proud."