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FIRST-PERSON: Tillman & White: bigger than their games

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Pat Tillman played the game of a patriot when he exchanged his Arizona Cardinals uniform for the uniform of the United States Army Rangers 75th Ranger Regiment, a light infantry unit based in Georgia.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on his beloved country, Pat joined the Rangers in May 2002 and forfeited a $3.6 million contract for yeoman’s pay in the army. But money isn’t what made Pat tick. This tough, nose-to-the-grindstone safety was known for always placing team, community and country first.

When the 27-year-old died on April 23, 2004, in a firefight while on combat patrol in Afghanistan, he did so while trying to protect his unit from a very unfortunate instance of friendly fire. If for nothing other than his humility and selflessness, Pat stood in rare company. He was in every sense of the word a hero when he died.

The recent death of Reggie White, the nine-time Pro Bowl defensive end with the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, left the nation with a similar sense of loss, again reminding us how much we need true heroes. White, who was gifted with enormous physical strength and fearsome athletic skill, was only 43 when he died on Dec. 26. His life is a stark reminder of just how large life is and how small the world of sports is in comparison to the most important issues of life.

By the time Reggie retired from the game of football, he had established himself as a man of character and substance on the playing field. But in the playing field of real life, he also had established himself as an astute businessman, humanitarian, but most importantly, as a man whose faith was strictly in God.

Reggie, too, was one of a scarce number of high-profile sports figures who did not become ensnared by his wealth and fame. Rather, he used his high-profile status to help as many people as he could. Reggie was more than an exceptional athlete; he was a preacher — and a prophet of hope for a world so desperately in need of true inspiration.

Reggie White’s life had such a positive impact on so many lives that his legacy of caring, on the field and off, will be ceaseless. One such example is Urban Hope, an outreach program which Reggie and his wife, Sara, helped create in Green Bay, Wis.

Mark Burwell, Urban Hope’s executive director, noted, “A lot of people know Reggie as a football player and a sports legend, but what he has returned to the community and the seeds that he’s planted here in economic development is one of the best models in America.” Burwell said the program has assisted in the creation of some 1,100 jobs and has helped start 400 businesses. Former Green Bay Mayor John Jadin said, “Reggie was one of those people who I think recognized that he needed to justify his blessings in life by becoming a vehicle to bring blessings to others.”

This is an era when so many of America’s athletes are deeply troubled. Some have proved they are a danger to themselves and to others in their self-absorption. Thankfully, individuals like Pat Tillman and Reggie White make it easy to realize who and what best represents our nation.
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is associate professor of religion and director of urban ministries studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd