In June 2002, in response to the September 11 attacks, Pat Tillman made the decision to join the U.S. Army Rangers, and in doing so put a professional football career with the Arizona Cardinals on hold. Two years later, in 2004, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan while serving in the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. After his death, Pat Tillman’s wife, Marie Tillman—with the help of family and friends—founded the Pat Tillman Foundation to provide resources and educational scholarships to veterans, active servicemen, and their spouses. Marie Tillman spoke with Inc. reporter Abigail Tracy about her journey from tragedy to triumph with the Pat Tillman Foundation.
Following the death of your husband, what made you decide to start the Pat Tillman Foundation?
After Pat was killed, there was a lot of public interest in his death, and we were getting a lot of donations to an organization that didn’t exist. A bunch of friends and family got together, all wanting to do something in his memory, and we decided to start the foundation. In the beginning, it was really just a way to gather the outpouring of emotion that resulted from his death.
How has the Pat Tillman Foundation developed since its inception and what is it today?
With the organization having started the way it did, first and foremost we needed to uphold Pat’s legacy. A lot of who we are as an organization and the services that we provide are an extension of how Pat lived his life. We decided to focus on three cornerstones—leadership, service, and education—taking the aspects of [Pat’s] life that were really important to him and then translating them into an organization.
What has your experience in building a foundation out of a tragedy been like?
In the beginning, I was focused on continuing his legacy, and the foundation gave me a great opportunity to focus my energy outward by helping other people as opposed to focusing on my own grief and the tragedy. As time went on, it really became more about the people that the Pat Tillman Foundation helps on a daily basis. That is what keeps me going now.
What has been the key factor to the success of the foundation?
In many ways I think it has been persistence. There have certainly been a lot of stumbling blocks along the way—especially putting it all together in the beginning during such a personally difficult time, but with any business you will face roadblocks. You just need to navigate those and continue to move forward.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned throughout this process?
I certainly had no idea what I was getting into when I started [the Pat Tillman Foundation], but I have had some great mentors who have helped guide me in an area that I had no prior experience in. A nonprofit organization is a small business, and I think the best thing to do is seek out others in the space where you are trying to accomplish something and ask their advice and seek their guidance.
Want to hear more of Marie Tillman's stroy? Join her and many other entrepreneurs on October 3 in Phoenix for our Inc. 500|5000 conference. Visit conference.inc.com for more details.