On Sunday, everyone will be wearing number 40.
As part of the ceremonies to honor former safety Pat Tillman and other Arizonans who have lost their lives serving in "Operation Enduring Freedom," the Cardinals and Patriots will wear a No. 40 helmet decal during Arizona's home opener on Sunday. Across the league, all other 30 teams will do the same. The small sticker is part of a larger tribute by the Cardinals, including a halftime ceremony and the retirement of Tillman's jersey, taking place at Sun Devil Stadium.
It's well documented that Tillman walked away from the National Football League in the spring of 2002 to enlist in the Army. The 27-year-old safety, who turned down a $9 million free agent offer from St. Louis to stay with the Cardinals in 2001, later walked away from Arizona's three-year, $3.6 million offer in 2002 to begin his quest to be an Army Ranger. Tillman was killed in the line of duty last April during a firefight while on combat patrol in Afghanistan, becoming the first NFL player to be killed in combat since the Vietnam War.
New England head coach Bill Belichick was one who had a relationship with Tillman, whom he described as "outgoing" and "wearing his passion on his sleeve," after scouting him at Arizona State University.
"Pat played with a great passion for the game, and for life," Belichick said. He lived life with a lot of passion. He was a very dedicated individual. I'm sure that all those types of characteristics and adjectives, in a way, will transfer over to everybody at the stadium – the fans and the team. They've had a lot of time to build up for it. We all know what's going to take place, and I think to wear his number on their helmets and all that, I'm sure they're very aware to what he's meant to his family, to his alma mater, to his team, so his country, to all of us."
The New England helmets hanging from the locker of each player had already been affixed with the "40" decals on Wednesday. Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi plans to wear the decal honoring Tillman the rest of the season.
"It's something I'm proud to do," Bruschi said. "It's on my helmet right now. I proud to wear that number on my helmet, not just for this week but I'll wear it for the whole year for the sacrifice that Tillman made and the hero that he showed he is. We're not talking about political views or anything like that. We're talking about a hero. A hero that really sacrificed his life to really show the spirit of American and make all of us here appreciate what we have and be thankful of what we have because of people like him."
A tour around the Patriots locker room shows the respect Tillman earned throughout the league.
"I think the way he lived his life, and the things that he accomplished, it's something everyone should honor," Matt Light said. "He gave up something to do something he truly believed in. I had the utmost respect for that guy and for what he did, and I think everyone around the league does. He has probably the biggest heart of anyone I've ever heard of. It was obviously a sad day when he passed but he'll be remembered for a long time in this league."
Adds Mike Vrabel, "What an unbelievable badge of courage to even be able to represent him by wearing his number on our helmet. I think to be able to play a game with him, and see the way he played football, and to recognize what he did as an individual, there's just a lot of respect for him. To put himself last behind a lot of different priorities in his life really is commendable."
Members of Tillman's family will also be on hand Sunday's game, in which all fans in attendance will receive a commemorative No. 40 lapel pin in honor of Tillman.
It was also recently announced that the NFL and NFL Players Association will generate funds by donating their proceeds from sales of Tillman's jerseys manufactured by Reebok to the Pat Tillman Foundation. The jerseys will be sold at Cardinals home games, azcardinals.com, NFLShop.com, and military bases around the world.
"I didn't know Pat personally, but anyone who knows anything about the story can respect the guy immensely," Christian Fauria said. "Remembering [three] years ago when all this went down with him turning down the contract and going into the army, I was like 'That's crazy.' Then with his passing, it really just makes you humble, based on asking [yourself], 'What have I done?" If anything, you should get something like that out of it. The sacrifice he made for his country and his family, really, to have a loss like that, we can all look to be half the man that he is."
Maybe the story isn't new, and maybe it has all been heard before, but Sunday's events honoring Tillman are at the very least a reminder of the role sports plays in our society.
"I think everyone knows what Pat has done," Tom Brady said. "You pay tribute to people who you look up to and you respect and you admire. When you think about what he's done, and you [can] compare it what we're doing in playing football and how little of actual importance it is."