The first official moment of the 2004 National Football League campaign was probably its most awkward. It featured rookie quarterback Eli Manning being picked by the San Diego Chargers as the first selection in the annual college draft. For reasons known only to himself, Manning announced his displeasure at having to play for the lowly Chargers–even given the magnificent rushing skills of running back LaDanian Tomlinson and the utter perfection of the San Diego climate. Manning sulked around the green room of Madison Square Garden like a whipped puppy, and treated his first-overall selection like a trip to an especially unfeeling dentist. (Manning’s gambit would eventually pay off, though, when the Chargers traded him to the New York Giants–his preferred location.)
To make the irony complete, the pampered, pouting Manning was wearing a black ribbon printed with the name and number of former Arizona Cardinals defensive back Pat Tillman, who famously left the Cardinals to join the Army and who had recently fallen in combat in Afghanistan, earning the Silver Star in the process. Tillman was eulogized from the podium by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and his red #40 jersey was prominently displayed nearby. In the weeks since his death, Tillman’s name has become–appropriately–a byword for courage and sacrifice. “Pat Tillman sacrificed a glamorous, highly paid lifestyle to journey to a remote place and fight for the ideal of freedom,” wrote commentator Gregg Easterbrook at the NFL’s website.
Commissioner Tagliabue recently announced plans for the NFL’s teams to honor Tillman, probably by wearing a black #40 patch on players’ helmets for the rest of the year. However, in announcing its decision, Tagliabue acknowledged the main objection to such a plan. He stated that the “key thing here is to have a proper balance between respecting what Pat did and what all the other men and women of the military do.” This concern is especially appropriate in honoring Tillman, who famously declined all interview opportunities and requested nothing more than to be treated like every other Ranger training for combat.
The concern is enhanced by the spotty record of the NFL and other pro leagues in honoring the memory of the departed. Paul Lukas, in a recent article at Slate, pointed out some of the oddities when professional sports intersects with mourning, such as the late Tug McGraw being memorialized on the jerseys of both the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. Lukas notes that the NFL’s Chicago Bears have memorialized the “GSH” initials of team founder George S. Halas on their sleeves in something of a permanent fashion. While some of these wearable memorials have been tasteful–the Atlanta Braves this year sport a dignified #21 patch worn in honor of the late hurler Warren Spahn–some have been grotesque. For example, the Washington Redskins wore an exceptionally large patch on their uniforms to honor the father of owner Dan Snyder–who had no formal connection to the team other than through his son.
What should the NFL do? Clearly, choosing not to honor Tillman is not an option; the football gods themselves would shake the roots of the league in protest. There is a potential compromise available, however, if the NFL can look to the movies for inspiration.
The 1984 film The Natural featured a fictional baseball team from the 1930s–not coincidentally, a team that was mourning the loss of a star player. The New York Knights had a black armband on their uniforms, but they also had a patch on their sleeves as well. The patch–a black rectangle with a white lightning bolt running diagonally across it–was first sewn on a by a rank-and-file player for the Knights, for luck. Once he gets a key hit in a big game, all the players begin wearing an identical patch–even fictional hero Roy Hobbs.
The patch used in The Natural was supposedly a unit patch from World War I, although it’s hard to pin down which unit, or why it would be used so many years after the fact. However, it’s an idea that the NFL could easily adopt on a large scale. In order to show support for overseas troops, and to honor the memory of the fallen, NFL teams could wear a unit patch from a military unit. Each NFL city is only a short drive from some military base, somewhere; it shouldn’t be that hard to match teams to units. The Atlanta Falcons could, for example, wear the patch of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at nearby Fort Stewart. The Dallas Cowboys could wear the patch of Fort Hood’s First Cavalry Division, currently serving in Iraq.
An argument could be made that it would be inappropriate for civilians–and overpaid civilians at that–to wear military insignia in time of war. However, many of our armed forces overseas are football fans, and NFL games are widely broadcast to the troops. If done respectfully, and thoughtfully, and after consultation with the Department of Defense, wearing unit patches might be the most appropriate way for the NFL to honor Pat Tillman and his comrades-in-arms.
If nothing else, seeing NFL players wearing military patches will give a whole new meaning to such football clichés as “warriors,” “battles in the trenches,” and “long bombs,” and remind all of us that the real thing is still going on, around the world, and will for as long as America remains in peril.
Curtis Edmonds is a former aide to Governor George W. Bush and writes movie reviews at txreviews.com . He recently completed his first novel.