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Collinsworth pushing to get Pat Tillman in pro football hall

| Monday, July 4, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The idea is always at the surface, has been since the story of an NFL star dying in an Afghanistan firefight captured America's attention, and strikes especially hard on this holiday weekend 10 years after the September 11 attacks.

You remember Pat Tillman, the NFL star who sacrificed a dream career and millions of dollars for the front line of the fight against terrorism, driven by the kind of values the rest of us admire but can't always match. He died for it, killed by friendly fire and then disrespected by a government cover-up, so how could we not want to honor him as best we possibly can?

Broadcaster and former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth is leading the push to induct Tillman into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The case is compelling and straightforward:

The Hall of Fame honors greatness, and what is greater than what Tillman did• Who brought more honor to the sport than a man who gave his career and life to help protect us?

Except the inconvenient truth is that Tillman doesn't deserve induction, at least not the way things are currently structured. He was a four-year starter at free safety for the Cardinals, a good enough player to have a long career, but certainly not to the level of the men with bronze busts in Canton.

Besides, the more you learn about it, the hazier the case becomes. For instance, not many realize that Tillman is one of 1,200 men to delay, interrupt or end NFL careers to join the military during times of war. He's the 23rd to die in battle.

Reached for this column, even Collinsworth says he didn't know those facts.

"I got medals for being in combat and I got paid for being in football," says Eddie LeBaron, who quarterbacked 11 seasons in the NFL and won the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Letter of Commendation during the Korean War. "Two separate deals. The last thing I would want to do is say something not good about Pat. But I believe they should be two separate items."

So, what if there was a better way to honor Tillman• A way that fits his life and sacrifice more appropriately?

What if the best answer came modeled after something we know intimately here in Kansas City?

You probably remember the anger around baseball, but particularly here, when Buck O'Neil didn't make a list of 17 Negro Leagues players and figures to be inducted to baseball's Hall of Fame five years ago.

Buck took it with grace, of course, even agreed to speak at the ceremony. By the time the speech ended, with the crowd standing up and holding hands and singing -- the greatest thing ... in all my life ... is loving you ... -- plans started on how to honor one of the game's great ambassadors.

A group including Joe Morgan, Bob Costas and Bud Selig came up with this: the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, given no more than once every three years to someone who enhanced baseball's appeal and embodies Buck's integrity and dignity.

"It's accomplished what we hoped it would from the onset," says Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. "In many ways it brings greater awareness to Buck than if he'd been among the Hall of Famers in the plaque gallery."

You see where this is headed, right?

The answer: the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame should create an honor modeled after what baseball did for Buck. Build a life-sized statue and feature it prominently. Put all 1,200 names with the statue, paying special care to those who died in combat.

Use the draw of Tillman's story to honor his memory and the sacrifices of so many others who choose to serve our country -- football players or not.

Create an award named in Tillman's honor for those in and around football who show extraordinary courage and sacrifice. Be picky, but every few years, honor a remarkable individual who otherwise might go unrecognized.

"Actually, that does make sense," Collinsworth says. "As unique as this story is, there ought to be a unique tribute, in my opinion. And the place to do it is the Hall of Fame."

Collinsworth's main reservation is finding people worthy of the honor, and it's a legitimate point. The standard should be high, which is why it shouldn't need to be given every year. The first recipient could be Bob Kalsu, who left the Bills after his rookie year in 1968 for the Army. He died when his unit was attacked by mortar fire.

Or what about Mario Tonelli• He played fullback for the Chicago Cardinals before fighting in World War II, where he was taken prisoner and survived the Bataan Death March and more than three years as a POW. Remarkably, he returned to the NFL.

The award wouldn't have to be tied to military service. Former Chiefs running back Joe Delaney died trying to save three boys from drowning. Only one survived. Stories of sacrifice and courage are everywhere, sometimes we just have to look.

A spokesman for the Hall of Fame points to a traveling exhibit called "Pro Football and the American Spirit" that honors the fighting former players, saying that anything more risks getting away from the Hall's mission statement, which is essentially to honor, preserve and educate.

That's dead wrong, and weak. The exhibit is nice, but completely inadequate, like wearing a short-sleeve shirt and Bolo tie to a state dinner.

Tillman wasn't the first pro athlete to die in combat. But it's intellectually lazy to think of his situation the same as the others. Most obvious is the money Tillman walked away from.

Former Chiefs and Bills coach Marv Levy is in the Hall of Fame, and he served in the Air Force during World War II. Reached for this column, Levy said he probably wouldn't have done what Tillman did, and endorsed the idea of created a special honor in his memory.

The NFL sponsors a scholarship in Tillman's name, and should be ashamed it's not doing more. The ongoing lockout makes it difficult for any other business to be addressed, which is an awful statement of fact considering the opportunity here to honor Tillman as we approach the 10th anniversary of his death.

Collinsworth is good to promote the conversation about this. A few minor tweaks and we could have a moving and worthy honor for one of the most noble men in NFL history.

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