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Pat Tillman's legacy continues to inspire 10 years after his death

CHICAGO -- Tucked into the sixth-floor corner of a nondescript downtown office building, Marie Tillman is getting it done. She's grinding, tying bows on two of the year's biggest tasks for a foundation that has grown to impressive heights in 10 years.

All the while, Tillman has a quiet energy about her, blending a peaceful calm with a professional demeanor -- a characterization that is still surely far too simple to define a woman who has both endured great pain and shaped a changed life over the past decade.

Then again, how do you easily define any of this? How do you explain a time of year, one marked by a twisted combination of heartache and productivity, without failing to encapsulate just how complicated all of it must be?

Tuesday marks the 10-year anniversary of Pat Tillman's death. It marks a decade since Tillman, the man who famously gave up a budding career as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals to instead protect the safety of a nation, lost his life while serving as a soldier in Afghanistan.

It also marks a week when Tillman's widow, who met her late husband in high school, will help orchestrate a charitable race in Arizona, called Pat's Run, that has grown to include 30,000 participants. It marks a time of year when she will continue filing through nearly 2,600 applications sent by those hoping to be one of the 50 to 60 military veterans awarded with a scholarship to continue their education.

"I mean, I think that there's a lot going on, which is great," Marie says. "I love to be busy and sort of focused on the tasks that we're focused on. But I'm also trying to take a step back and be a little bit more thoughtful and reflective on the time of year."

"I'm trying to think a little bit more about Pat's life and this legacy that's come from it."

Ten years since she lost her husband, Marie Tillman helps to personify what this unfortunate anniversary has become for those who knew Pat best. It is a time to remember and reflect -- and a time to push forward and produce.

A promise kept

In a final letter, one that would have best remained forever sealed, Pat Tillman wrote a note to his wife that was to be opened only if he passed. There is one passage in particular, 10 years after his death, that holds great significance.

"I've asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask," Pat Tillman wrote to Marie. "I ask that you live."

Pat's football career took the couple to Arizona, but she has since lived in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Chicago, where the Pat Tillman Foundation is now based. She is married to Joe Shenton. The couple has two children together, in addition to three children from Shenton's previous marriage.

Yet all along, even with the changes in her life, even as she continues to "live," as Pat requested she do in that letter, Marie has still managed to find the balance between moving forward and maintaining reflection.

"Pat is a big part of our life," Marie said. "We all go out to (Pat's Run) every year, and the older boys have participated. This will be their fourth year. The little ones are a little bit too little to understand yet. (Pat) is very much a part of our life and someone who I talk about -- and so it's nice that we can all participate in something together."

Of course, it is far more than a foundation that keeps Marie connected to her late husband. It is his memory. It is the way he lived, not just the way he died.

"I mean, Pat is a large part of my life still, in definitely good times and difficult times, but particularly in difficult times," she said. "I think about his life and the decisions that he made and our relationship, and that helps to motivate me and keep me going, and keep me sort of centered on the things that were important to both of us."

A legacy lives on

In the years since Tillman died, controversy has been a prominent part of the conversation. Specifically, the details of his death sparked many questions, which engendered strong criticism from Tillman's parents about the way the Army handled the days and months that followed.

Tillman, an Army Ranger who was part of a patrol charged with hunting down Taliban and al-Qaida targets near Pakistan, was originally depicted by the Army as a soldier killed by enemy fire. The Army did not disclose until a month later that friendly fire took Tillman's life, causing many to question whether the Army was trying to use Tillman's death as part of a publicity campaign.

The way Tillman died remains controversial. The way he lived, however, remains a testament to powerful courage -- specifically regarding his conviction about entering into service.

"It was certainly a gut reaction he had after (the attacks of) September 11th, but really, the process that went into making the decision was much more thoughtful than just sort of an emotional reaction," Marie said. "There was a lot of research and time and thought that went into finally coming to that decision."

Pat and his brother Kevin Tillman ultimately decided to enlist and serve with the Army Rangers. The choice ended a four-year career with the Arizona Cardinals -- and put aside the potential of a contract that was expected to pay him $3.6 million over the next three years.

A sacrifice? It certainly seems like a huge one. But Marie said Pat didn't necessarily view it in a sacrificial sense.

"It was more about an opportunity to give back and to serve," Marie said. "Yes, there was sacrifice that was involved with it, but I don't think that was sort of the primary thing that we thought of when he decided to enlist."

So what, then, in the wake of his heroic decision to serve his country -- and the unfortunate elements of his death -- is Pat Tillman's legacy?

"I think that his legacy and life and his death meant different things to different people," Marie said. "He lives on in different ways because of that. But I think that the fact that he still is remembered and the fact that he serves as an inspiration for so many years for so many people, that's definitely part of his legacy."

Still serving

The Pat Tillman Foundation held its first Pat's Run road race 10 years ago. It is 4.2 miles long -- commemorating the jersey number (42) worn by Tillman at Arizona State. And the growth of the race is, quite frankly, staggering.

In 2012, for instance, it was the 12th-biggest race in the country, with 23,448 participants. This year's edition, which will take place Saturday, is expected to eclipse 30,000 participants.

"It's pretty amazing to think back to our first run," Marie said. "About 4,000 people came out, which we thought was amazing. I don't usually sit back and reflect on it, but certainly, with the 10-year anniversary coming up, we've all been kind of looking at what's happened over the last 10 years."

And it's not just the race that has grown. So, too, has the scholarship program, with its mission to support veterans and their spouses through educational grants. The foundation currently has 290 scholars across the country. In its first year, the program received 1,000 applicants. This year, the foundation will pick from 2,600.

The NFL also has its own commitment to Tillman's legacy. In 2010, the league collaborated with the foundation to establish the NFL-Tillman Military Scholar award, annually given to one individual who exemplifies Tillman's legacy. And the NFL's "Salute To Service" program donates to three nonprofit partners, including the Pat Tillman Foundation.

It is with passion and purpose that Marie, along with her team of workers based in both Chicago and Tempe, Ariz., have managed to build this foundation -- the very passion and purpose that Marie believes drove her late husband in his own decisions.

And so, one decade later, Pat Tillman won't simply be remembered. His legacy will live on -- while his widow does the same.

"I think one of the things (that) resonates with people in watching him play and the decisions he made in his life was that he was somebody who lived with passion and purpose," Marie said. "You know, I think you saw that on the field, the energy that he brought and just the purpose in which he lived his life.

"He walked away from football in order to focus on something that he thought was more meaningful."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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