Many CEOs find a way to turn their passion into a business. But Marie Tillman, the widow of former football player Pat Tillman, has accomplished an even more daunting task: channeling her bereavement into a foundation that has helped put hundreds of veterans through college.
In an interview with Inc. editor Eric Schurenberg at the Inc. 5000 Conference on Thursday, Tillman recounted how her experience instilled in her a dedication to service. She and her husband had recently wed when the tragedy of September 11 occurred. Pat, who then playing for the Arizona Cardinals, decided to forgo $3.6 million in order to join the Army. Both his family and his new in-laws tried to talk him out of enlisting, but Marie supported him from the beginning.
"A lot of people were talking about, 'I should do this,' or ''We should do this as a country,'" she said. "But Pat was never one to sit around and talk--he was one to take action. That’s what I loved about him."
Pat was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, in an incident initially described as an enemy attack but later revealed to be friendly fire. The controversy surrounding the details of his death initially taxed his widow’s energy. But Marie was rallied by the tremendous generosity of others, who sent donations to the Cardinals and to Arizona State University, Pat’s alma mater, in honor of his life and career. The Pat Tillman Foundation arose from her desire to corral that enthusiasm into an enduring support system for veterans.
"I got bogged down in the circumstances surrounding his death," she said. "But I realized I couldn’t live like that. I had to find a peaceful place." Starting the foundation, she told the audience, "was a huge part of the healing process."
Since 2004, the Pat Tillman Foundation has supported the educations of some 230 veterans. Several of them have gone on to start their own businesses. (One of them, Dan Futrell, an Army veteran who went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard, was in attendance at the Inc. 5000 Conference as part of Inc.'s Military Entrepreneurship Program.) Although the veterans chosen as Tillman Military Scholars have disparate backgrounds, they all, according to Marie, share a strong calling to serve even beyond the military.
"It’s a continuation of service in and out of the uniform," she said.
Her work with the foundation has in turn fueled her own sense of service in the years since Pat’s death. "At first, it was just about getting up, going to work, and functioning like a regular person," she said. "Now, to truly live is to give back."