Pat Tillman, a former pro-football player who left the gridiron to become an Army Ranger, died during a combat operation in Afghanistan, military officials said Friday.

The 27-year-old decided to stop playing for the Arizona Cardinals (search) and join the Armed Forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He passed up a $3.6 million contract with the NFL team to be a Ranger.

"Pat Tillman was an inspiration both on and off the football field. As with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror, his family is in the thoughts and prayers of President and Mrs. Bush," the White House said in a statement.

Tillman was shot and killed Thursday during a Special Operations mission southest of Khost in southeastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, military officials told Fox News.

Serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment (search), Tillman was killed during a search and destroy mission where intelligence indicated a large presence of Al Qaeda fighters. Two other soldiers were wounded when in an exchange of small-arms fire.

Stationed at Fort Lewis (search), Wash., Tillman was deployed overseas in 2003. His brother, Kevin, is also an Army Ranger serving in Afghanistan and also was a professional athlete — he played baseball for the Cleveland Indians' organization.

He was married shortly before he joined the Army. His wife, Marie Tillman, supported his decision.

Tillman is not the first NFL player to be killed in combat. Buffalo offensive lineman Bob Kalsu was killed by mortar fire during the Vietnam War in 1970.

'Viewed Life Through a Different Prism'

Tillman's former teammates and the Arizona Cardinals organization expressed dismay over his death as they praised him for his dedication.

"We are all weaker today following this loss," said Michael Bidwell, Cardinals' vice president. "he was a guy committed not just to his family ... but to his country, to freedom."

The Arizona State University (search) graduate spent four seasons with the Cardinals, from 1998 to 2002, before joining the Army. While at ASU, he had a 3.84 grade point average and graduated in 3-and-a-half years with a degree in marketing.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Tillman was distinguished by an appetite for rugged play and intelligence. As an undersized linebacker at ASU, he was the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year in 1997.

Tillman's best season was in 2000 when he started all 16 games and had 224 tackles.

"Pat was the kind of guy who would rather have played football in a parking lot than in a stadium with 100,000 people watching," Tim Layden, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, told Fox News.

Layden said that Tillman was exceptionally loyal. Before making the decision to join the Army, he turned down a more lucrative contract with the St. Louis Rams because he wanted to continue playing for the team that gave him his NFL start — the Cardinals.

"He just viewed life through a different prism than a lot of other people do," Layden said.

A Personal Decision

After making the decision to join the Army, then-Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said Tillman was "very serious" about his intent.

"It's very personal, and I honor that. I honor the integrity of that. It was not a snap decision he woke up and made yesterday. This has been an ongoing process, and he feels very strongly about it."

On Friday, after hearing about Tillman's death, McGinnis said: "I don't know if I have ever met a more dedicated person in my lifetime."

His agent, Frank Bauer, called the decision consistent with his client's contemplative, nonmaterialistic nature.

"This is very consistent with how he conducts his life," Bauer said in a 2002 interview. "Patty is the type of guy who is very smart and very loyal. I remember when the Rams made their offer, he said, 'No, I want to stay with the Cardinals. If I have to play for the minimum, I don't care.' He axed the offer sheet and played another year. But he's always had a blueprint for what he wants to do."

Tillman hoped to resume his NFL career when his enlistment was up, Bauer said in the 2002 interview.

"There is in Pat Tillman's example, in his unexpected choice of duty to his country over the riches and other comforts of celebrity, and in his humility, such an inspiration to all of us to reclaim the essential public-spiritedness of Americans that many of us, in low moments, had worried was no longer our common distinguishing trait," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement.

Fans Leave Messages at Memorial for No. 40

A memorial was set up outside Cardinals' headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., with Tillman's No. 40 uniform in a glass frame alongside two teddy bears and two bouquets. A pen was left for people to write messages to Tillman's family.

Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered flags at Arizona State University, Tillman's alma mater, flown at half-staff.

"Pat Tillman personified all the best values of his country and the NFL," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement. "He was an achiever and leader on many levels who always put his team, his community, and his country ahead of his personal interests."

Former teammate Pete Kendall, the Cardinals' starting center, said Tillman's death was a jolt of the reality regarding the nation's fight in the Middle East.

"The loss of Pat brings it home," Kendall said. "Everyday there are countless families having to get the same news."

Kendall remembered going out with Tillman and his future wife, Marie.

"We had a meal and a couple of beers," Kendall said. "It was a nice night. I really looked forward to buying him another beer sometime down the road."

 

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.