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Pat Tillman was the embodiment of the athletic ideal

A contemplative Barry Sanders once said if he could change anything about football, it would be the way in which American society worships athletes.

"I know they're no different than the desolate man in the street," Sanders added for emphasis.

There are a special few about whom Sanders' down-to-earth assertion rings untrue, a roundtable of honorable athletes deserving of their lofty perch on Red Smith's "daily plinth."

Darlington: Tillman's enduring legacy
Ten years after Pat Tillman's death, his life continues to inspire. Jeff Darlington reports on the profound impact. READ

As NFL Media's Jeff Darlington points out in an apt tribute to Pat Tillman's legacy, April 22 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Army Ranger's tragic death in Afghanistan.

The former Arizona Cardinals safety who walked away from a lifetime of security to defend his country in the wake of 9/11 was a cut above the rarest snow leopards -- the transcendent creatures roaming the top of the mountains in their chosen field.

Tillman had more in common with Teddy Roosevelt than Teddy Bridgewater.

At its highest level, athletic competition is the human ideal made visible -- echoing the masterworks of music, art and science. We share in the joy and awe of our species going beyond preconceived limits.

Those sublime moments of field, pitch and parquet are rare enough, though, that life must be staked to some endeavor more substantial than collecting millions of dollars from an elevated version of a child's game.

"I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one's existence," Roosevelt once wrote as counsel to his son. "Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master."

Tillman not only identified with that sentiment, he also understood Roosevelt's admonition to critics that the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, "who spends himself for a worthy cause."

The worthiest of those causes win glory, as bestselling author Jon Krakauer meticulously outlined in his gripping 2010 account of Tillman's heroic yet haunted odyssey.

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Pat Tillman through the years

Take a look back at the life of Pat Tillman.

Tillman's uniqueness went beyond the gridiron and the battlefield.

He discussed Allen Ginsberg and Ralph Waldo Emerson with fellow soldiers. He read The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, the Bible and the Koran as much to test his own convictions as to challenge those of others.

Perhaps Tillman's most heroic attribute was that he was constantly evolving, ever striving.

Contrary to popular belief, Henry David Thoreau never said, "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined."

What he actually wrote in "Walden" is a more subtle challenge: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

We can't all attain the life we've imagined. But if we break free from the constraints of insecurities, selfish desires and outright laziness, we will come closer than we ever thought possible.

Pat Tillman was the athletic embodiment of Thoreau's ideal. If that isn't what Halls of Fame have been erected to celebrate, then their essence must be called into question.

Editor's note: Buffalo wide receivers coach Rob Moore, who mentored Tillman while the two played for the Cardinals, reflected on his friendship with Tillman for a Monday story on the Bills' official website. Click here to read the piece as we honor those who serve our country in the military this Memorial Day.

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