The Pat Tillman Award for Service was created to honor former NFL player and U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Tillman left a successful NFL career to enlist in the U.S. Army in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. After giving himself to service, Tillman ultimately lost his life in eastern Afghanistan. The annual Pat Tillman Award for Service is given to an individual that that echoes the Tillman legacy of selflessness. Jake Wood is this year’s recipient of the Pat Tillman Award for Service. He writes about what service means to him and how he came to embody Pat Tillman’s legacy with Team Rubicon.
Just over 17 years ago, I sat down at a table to sign the most important paperwork of my life. Up to that point, I always thought those papers would be a military enlistment contract, but instead, I found myself signing a Letter of Intent to go play football for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. It was February 2001, and saying “no“ to the military was easy to do — what’d they need me for, anyway?
Fast forward seven months and I wake up one morning in Madison, WI. Unbeknownst to me, a plane has already hit the World Trade Center. Walking into the cafeteria I watched over the shoulders of a group of friends from New York and New Jersey as a second plane hit. The world changed. I took stock of where I was and the decisions I’d made. My heart tugged at me to make the tough choice, to go and serve alongside the other Americans I knew would soon march off to war. I ignored those inclinations and went to practice. We played Penn State that weekend and I spent an entire season rationalizing my inaction. Over the next three years, I would occasionally speak to a military recruiter, as much because my football career was stalled versus a noble sense of patriotism. Nonetheless, I lacked the courage to make the hard choice and join the men and women I watched fight each day from the comfort of my apartment.
In 2004, I just wrapped up spring practice with the football team and, despite working myself onto the first team with a switch from tackle to guard, I dislocated my shoulder again, putting to bed any real chance to permanently crack the starting lineup. One day, I turned on the news and saw a message crawl across the bottom of the screen. “Former NFL Player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman Killed in Afghanistan.” Soon the shows became dominated with coverage of Pat’s death. I was transfixed. At some point, I stood up and walked into a separate room. Inside I sat and stared into the mirror. Eventually, I cried. I realized I was not living the life I aspired to–the type of life Pat Tillman had lived. In Pat’s life I saw courage, conviction, selflessness, and ultimately sacrifice.
That week I walked into my coach’s office and told him my intent. I was going to finish the season and then join the Marine Corps, forgoing my fifth year of eligibility. He looked at me – all 290 pounds of Wisconsin offensive lineman – like I was crazy. “You are going to join the Marines?” he asked, incredulously. I told him I was. He said I was insane and wished me luck.
I played in every game that final year, mostly on special teams. It was an exciting season. We cracked the top-five national rankings and had a shot at the Rose Bowl. But, when it ended on January 1, 2005 I hung up my helmet for the last time, walked out, and started my journey to becoming a Marine.
Nothing about my time in the Marine Corps was special. I enlisted in the Marines out of my home state of Iowa and trained at Marine Corps Recruit Depot – San Diego. I attended the School of Infantry and eventually Marine Scout-Sniper School, which I probably only graduated from because of the toughness instilled in me during two-a-days in the hot, muggy Madison summers.
My unit, the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, deployed to Iraq in 2007. We were sent to the deadliest province during the deadliest year of the war. My platoon in particular took heavy casualties, but we came home proud of the progress we helped make. A year later, we found ourselves in Afghanistan, with my sniper team assigned to a district known as Sangin. Our battalion took more losses than any in the Marine Corps that year, but we again came home with our heads held high.
I gave the Marine Corps everything I had for four years. In return, I was given the chance to serve alongside America’s finest men and women. I was taught lessons about leadership and life that a thousand tuition payments could not afford. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that we could count ourselves lucky if we’re afforded the opportunity to toil hard in the pursuit of something we love.
And that leads me to Team Rubicon. Upon reflection, it’s hard to believe we started TR by accident and that its success was reliant on countless moments of serendipity. In light of the Tillman Award, it seems fitting that the first person who said “yes” to my pitch about assembling a team to head to Haiti after the earthquake was a former Badger teammate, Jeff Lang, and the second person was a Marine friend, William McNulty. Or that the Badger Football fan community rose up to donate thousands of dollars to support our initial efforts.
As this organization’s ranks have swelled over the past eight years to over 80,000, I see Pat Tillman’s legacy of service reflected in the spirit of our members. I was certainly not the only American inspired by Pat’s courage, but it also should not be lost that Pat himself would say he was inspired by the warriors who’d gone before him. We try to challenge our entire team to become the example an entire generation of citizens can admire. To become American ideals in action, the manifestation of our aspirations for this country.
Pat serves as an icon for these ideals. He represented the best values our citizens can strive for: courage, humility, intellect, respect, and a healthy skepticism, among many others. If I allow myself a moment to imagine a universe in which Pat Tillman is still alive, it’s not too hard for me to imagine him wearing a Team Rubicon grey shirt.
To close, few things have the power to bring different people together like sports and service, military or otherwise. Anyone who has played team sports or shared a foxhole knows that the moments endured uniquely allow us to see the best in others. They allow us to suppress the urge to only look out for ourselves and instead teach us how to put others first. At their best, sports and service make us better humans. Pat lived at the intersection of both, and his legacy will continue to pull all of us forward toward a better future for this country.
Jake Wood is cofounder and CEO of Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster response organization. Under Wood’s leadership, Team Rubicon has responded to over 275 disasters since the 2010 Haiti earthquake and grown from eight to 80,000 members. Team Rubicon has been finished in the top three of the Nonprofit Times’ “Top Nonprofit To Work For in America” lists three years in a row. Wood was the recipient of the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2018 ESPYS and is a leading veterans’ advocate who has briefed several sitting presidents and testified before the Senate. As a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, Wood deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Scout Sniper and earned the Navy-Marine Commendation Medal.
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