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Pat’s Run celebrates second decade in Tempe

This year’s theme is ‘20 Years: One Legacy’

Football field set up for a race with balloons spelling "Pat's Run."

In the 20 years since Pat's Run began, the event has grown to include nearly 30,000 participants, who show up from across the globe to pay tribute to a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. The 20th annual Pat’s Run will return to Mountain America Stadium in Tempe on April 13 with the theme “20 Years: One Legacy." ASU photo

April 08, 2024

When a core group of Pat Tillman’s friends learned of his death in April 2004, they felt compelled to do something to honor his extraordinary life and military service.

So they gathered at a restaurant to toss around ideas. Someone suggested a golf tournament. Another suggested a tennis tournament. Then, one of them proposed an organized walk.

“Pat’s not a walker,” said Perry Edinger, Tillman’s friend and athletic trainer. “He’s a runner. Let’s make it a run.”

Thus, Pat’s Run came to be. In the 20 years since then, the event has grown to include nearly 30,000 participants, who show up from across the globe to pay tribute to a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

The 20th annual Pat’s Run — a 4.2-mile run/walk celebrating the legacy of the former NFL player, Sun Devil and Army Ranger — will return to Mountain America Stadium in Tempe on April 13. The run has four different events to choose from (including in-person and virtual runs/walks for adults and children). Register here.

The theme of this year’s event is “20 Years: One Legacy."

20th annual Pat's Run

Saturday, April 13 in Tempe

  • In-person and virtual runs/walks for adults and kids. Register here.

Various dates and locations through April 27

Not only does Pat's Run honor Tillman’s legacy, it raises money to support the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Tillman Scholar program.

“In the 20 years the Pat Tillman Scholar program has been around, there are nearly 1,000 scholars who have been motivated by the core values that Pat represented day in and day out, working on various impact areas committed to service,” said Katherine Steele, chief executive officer of the Pat Tillman Foundation. “Our scholars are either military veterans, active duty or military spouses, and they have a presence in the community, which keeps Pat’s legacy alive and making an impact on the world, which is what Pat did when he was with us.”

To date, the foundation has raised approximately $34 million in leadership and academic support.

Steele said the Tillman Scholar program receives thousands of applicants each year but selects only 60, who make impacts in education, law, business policy, medicine, international affairs, engineering, ecology, nursing, public health and housing.

“These scholars have emulated this idea of humble leadership just as Pat did because they’re not out there for the accolades,” Steele said. “They’re out there because they want to lead in ways that matter. Pat’s passing made people understand what leadership looks like and what it means to contribute to society.”

Katie Newton said becoming a Tillman Scholar in 2016 showed her what true leadership looked like.

“When you’re a Tillman Scholar, you’re put in this community of people who want to make an impact in their own corner of the world,” said Newton, a nurse practitioner in Utah who specializes in pediatric oncology. “They will hold you accountable to the goals you have set professionally for yourself, which means so much to me.”

Man wearing a jersey with the number 42.
Robert Jennings of Gilbert, Arizona, wears his Pat Tillman jersey for the 2013 Pat's Run. The 4.2-mile race route represents the No. 42 Tillman wore on his jersey as a Sun Devil. ASU photo

Newton said that accountability and commitment to service are traits that Tillman continues to inspire in her and others.

“I never got to meet him, but the legacy he has created has this profound impact on many communities because of what he did and what he stood for,” said Newton, who has participated in Pat’s Run since 2017. “I carry his legacy forward wherever I go.”

Tillman, who played football as a student at ASU, was in the NFL when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened. He gave up his football career to join the U.S. Army and was killed by friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan when he was 27.

Alex Garwood remembers a conversation he had with him when Tillman announced he was turning down a $3.6 million offer from the NFL to serve in the military.

“We went for a run, and I asked him a lot of questions and he answered each and every one of them and didn’t challenge them,” said Garwood, a co-founder of the event and Tillman’s brother-in-law. “He essentially told me that he didn’t view his job as any more important than a dentist or construction worker. He had this deep conviction to serve his country. It was a monumental decision, but Pat didn’t think he was making that big of a sacrifice.”

Edinger, who has served on the Pat’s Run committee for two decades, said he remembers how the first race in 2005 drew approximately 5,500 people.

“I was told by running experts that in order to draw people to our race, we’d need to have a 5K and 10K race, just to draw 800 people,” Edinger said. “I told them they didn’t understand who Pat was and what he meant to people. So I went out and bought 5,000 T-shirts. There was so much interest that the night before the race, our shirt vendor had to print up 500 more.”

Edinger is astounded this year’s race will draw almost five times that amount.

“To have 30,000 people 20 years later show up to honor him and the things he accomplished is amazing to me,” Edinger said. “Man, that guy left an impression.”

That's certainly true for Mary Tunberg, who has been involved with the event since its inception. Tunberg never met Tillman but watched him play football in the 1990s as an ASU season ticket holder.

Pat’s Run by the numbers:

  • 1,500 volunteers perform more than 100 tasks.
  • 90 Tillman Scholars participating or volunteering.
  • 40,000 pounds of ice.
  • 28,000 water bottles.
  • 10,000 bottles of Bodyarmor Sports Drink.
  • 30,000 fresh bananas and oranges, provided by Peddler’s Son and Epic Produce.

“He was magic on the field as a player. When he entered the field, you could feel the energy he brought to the game,” said Tunberg, volunteer coordinator for Pat’s Run in charge of approximately 1,500 volunteers. “He was a unique person who bucked the system. He had so much integrity and climbed to the top of his profession only to give it up to make a sacrifice for his country. I’m proud to say he’s a Sun Devil.”

Tunberg, a retired accountant, said she spends most of her time recruiting volunteers for the race and assigns them to various tasks. She said they are vital and valued.

“The race wouldn’t go off without the volunteers because they make everything seamless,” Tunberg said. “Our volunteers come from all walks of life, but when we all come together, we are a real community.”

The community extends far beyond the borders of Arizona. Tillman Honor Runs are hosted by ASU alumni chapters and clubs in multiple cities across the United States. The 4.2-mile race routes in each city represent the No. 42 Pat wore on his jersey as a Sun Devil. Registration for honor runs is open through April 27.

A 6-year-old boy wearing a Pat's Run T-shirt poses for a photo outside his house
Six-year-old Tillman Thomas — named after Pat Tillman — will be taking part in this year's Pat's Run with his family. They'll travel from Colorado for the event. Photo courtesy the Thomas family

Matt and Chelsea Thomas could have participated in the Tillman Honor Run in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and made life a little easier for themselves, but they are drawn to Tempe. They have flown in from Denver every year since 2014. This year, they’ll bring their four children, including their 6-year-old son, Tillman, who was named after the legendary Sun Devil.

“Matt’s uncle served in the Army Rangers in the first Gulf War, and we believe as our Tillman gets older, we will be able to use the connection to understand what a tremendous sacrifice the members of our armed forces make for all of us,” Chelsea Thomas said. “Above all else, we hope he learns the stories of how Pat lived his life and had such an impact on the lives of so many. We hope that inspires the same passion in our son.”

She said that Tillman is beginning to understand who Pat Tillman was and what he did for his country.

“When we ask Tillman about who he is named after, he thinks about the jersey and pictures he has on his wall, then he always replies, ‘Mom, Dad, wasn’t he like Captain America?’

“Yes, son, he was. Except better. He was real.”

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