TEMPE, Ariz.– Pat Tillman's life-size portrait is the final image Arizona State football players see before entering Sun Devil Stadium through the “Tillman Tunnel.”
The snapshot of the former ASU star looking ready to lead the charge onto the field might seem stripped from the Hollywood playbook of “Friday Night Lights.” But the Sun Devils have a high metabolism for imagery this season as second-year coach Todd Graham has reawakened the long sleeping giant by getting players to embrace the school's most influential player.
Nearly 10 years after his death while serving as an Army Ranger in the mountains of Afghanistan, the memory of the former linebacker from San Jose, Calif. continues to inspire the imagination in Tempe.
“Pat has become a symbol of what it means to be a Sun Devil,” longtime athletic administrator Jean Boyd said. “Now that memory is living, walking and breathing in the program.”
As the Sun Devils (10-2) prepare to play host to seventh-ranked Stanford on Saturday in the Pac-12 championship game, many have marveled at the turnaround in the Valley of the Sun.
Arizona State failed to produce a winning record in five years under former coach Dennis Erickson, going 31-31. The Sun Devils had a reputation for unruly play, and they were the country's most penalized team in 2011.
Enter Graham, the Pac-12 coach of the year who arrived two seasons ago from the University of Pittsburgh. The former history teacher wanted to instill disciplined and passionate play, hallmarks of Tillman's style.
Graham had rules on what players could wear in the football offices. He asked referees to conduct classes on the game's rules.
The Sun Devils went 8-5 and won the Kraft Hunger Bowl in Graham's first season. Now the team ranks third nationally in fewest penalty yards, averaging 28.5 per game.
The change started with an indoctrination in Sun Devil football lore. In one of their first actions in Tempe, coaches wrote ASU's history on the walls of their offices to mark the program's highlights.
That's when Graham discovered Tillman's name all over the place.
The coach ticked off the list: “Academic All-American, All-American on the football field, all-conference, player of the year. What he did in the community with service. Led his team to the Rose Bowl.”
The more Graham learned about the longhaired, buck-the-norm Tillman, the more the coach felt a kinship.
“He wasn't just a cookie cutter, easy guy to deal with,” Graham said. “That's the kind of guys I want. Guys who will challenge; guys who are passionate about what they're doing. But that dynamic individuality never came in front of his family, his team or, ultimately, his country.”
Graham preached relationship building and a team-first mentality. The catalyst: Tillman's dramatic story.
“Coach Graham has embraced all that is great about youth sports and college sports and made it all about life lessons,” said Tillman's widow, Marie. “He has weaved Pat into the story in what he does.”
There is a virtual Tillman museum in the ASU football offices and a camouflage PT 42 practice jersey awarded to the rare player who matches Tillman's passion for playing, scholastics and fraternity among teammates.
Beyond the football field, the school honors the man with the Pat Tillman Veterans Center in the student union. Thousands participate in the annual Pat's Run each spring, finishing on the 42-yard line of Sun Devil Stadium in honor of his number. “Tillman Scholars” — those attending ASU's business school on full scholarships that the charity run sponsors — focus on public service.
But the steel-wired connection to Tillman is tightest with the No. 11 Sun Devils, who are on the cusp of playing in the Rose Bowl for the third time in school history.
It culminates in the “Tillman Tunnel,” the maroon-and-gold-painted hallway that connects the locker room to the field. And then there's the portrait of No. 42 from behind painted on the gate that opens to the turf.
“We understand for the first time in a long time it is bigger than ourselves,” fifth-year linebacker Granville Taylor said. “It has been decades since Pat has been on this field, but we still talk about him.”
Tillman's legacy began for many when he rejected a $3.6 million contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He died in a controversial friendly fire episode two years later. Tillman was 27.
For many Arizonans, however, the connection to Tillman dates to when he was an undersized defensive player out of San Jose Leland High.
The 5-foot-11 linebacker helped Leland win a Central Coast Section title, then enrolled at ASU in 1994, getting the final scholarship offered that year by Sun Devils coach Bruce Snyder. As a junior, Tillman led the Sun Devils to an undefeated regular season and a trip to the 1997 Rose Bowl, where they were beaten by Ohio State.
He was Pac-10 Conference defensive player of the year in his senior season and graduated with a degree in marketing in 3 ½ years. Despite many doubters, the Cardinals selected Tillman in the '98 draft at No. 226.
He set a team record in 2000 with 224 tackles as a safety. The next season, Tillman rejected a $9 million offer by the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals.
Graham, who also coached at Rice and Tulsa, emphasizes such selfless values to his players. He even has a catchy slogan to remind them: “One heartbeat, one identity, one vision.”