Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Vault | Pat Tillman

It's hard to believe Pat Tillman was killed nearly three years ago.

And Pat's story still stays in the news as his mother Mary and brother Kevin testified on Capitol Hill this week on the House side about the Army's fabrication of the story surrounding Pat's death, at the hand of fellow soldiers.

Pat was an incredible American, in my opinion a true hero. It still humbles me that Pat would give up his career in the NFL to join the army (not as an officer either, but as an enlisted soldier) and became a Ranger assigned to Afghanistan.

This photo of Pat was made in 1997 when he was completing his senior season as the middle linebacker for Arizona State. Pat, though a bit undersized for a Division I linebacker, was incredibly fierce and during his senior season he was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. He was also a great student and was going to graduate with his bachelors degree in Economics in less than four years.

Sports Illustrated decided to do a profile on Pat, the accomplished student/athlete, to wrap up the season and it just so happened that I had been in the SI offices to show my portfolio. The day after my visit, they called me and offered me the assignment to photograph Pat.

I was psyched.

Shooting for SI had been a dream of mine since college and I grew up not only reading the magazine (Kenny Moore, the world-class marathoner (and 4th place finisher at the 1972 Munich Olympic marathon) was my favorite writer. His articles on both the Fukuoka (Japan) marathon and the '72 Olympic coverage still are seered in my brain) but viewing the images shot by Neil Leifer, Walter Iooss, Jr., Andy Hayt, John Iacono, John Zimmerman, and Brian Lanker among others.

I knew Pat was unique when I spoke with him on the phone the night before the shoot. The magazine had hoped for a single photograph that summed up the notion of Pat as a student and athlete. I had an idea that I shared with Pat.

"Mr. Gero," he said, "I don't mean to be difficult, but that doesn't sound like me. I'm sorry."

I said that was fine, did he have an idea of what we might do that could fit with that concept?

"Well, sometimes I climb into the light towers and I just think."

I almost dropped my cell phone, the image I visualized of him up there would be amazing. And so much better than anything I could come up with.

The next day we met and did some more formal portraits in a classroom on campus and then we climbed a light tower at the Stadium.

The scene was breathtaking and Pat took a position on the railing that seemed a bit like a classic statue. Below was the field and as I was making the photograph I thought to myself: "man, this would make an awesome double truck in the magazine (a double truck is when an image runs two full pages with the image bleeding off the edge).

I quickly caught myself and thought: "this is your first assignment for the magazine, you'll be lucky to see it run 2 or 3 columns in the magazine. Get back to reality."

You can imagine my excitement when the photo editor called me the next day and said that they absolutely loved the image of him in the lights and they were going to use a double truck!

So I have Pat to thank for that gift. Which is the case for any photograph really. I believe our subjects allow us into their world and what we see is a reflection of that trust.

The next summer I would be assigned to the first day of the Arizona Cardinals training camp up in Flagstaff, AZ. Pat was drafted in the 7th round by the local team and he would be converted to the secondary instead of a linebacker as he had been in college. Even at the new position he was still a bit undersized.

But Pat showed on that first day of practice by the intensity of the hits he made and just the flat-out hustle that he may be small in stature but he sure had drive. He not only made the team, he stood out that season on special teams and playing a lot for a rookie. He would later be a starter.

Pat always held a special place in my heart because of the way he helped me look good on my first assignment for a world-class magazine and thus helping me realize a life-long dream.

But I think the place he holds now is even more dear because of the ultimate sacrifice that he gave for not only me, but all of us.

It's people like Pat and the millions like him who fight so that we are free to pursue happiness -- however that appears for us.


Blogger Ruth Anne Adams said...


4:14 PM  
Blogger AnneGero said...

I REMEMBER THE EXCITEMENT WHEN YOU TOLD ME ABOUT THE PICTURE THE FIRST TIME AROUND. iT STILL HOLDS TRUE TODAY. It is indeed a great shot. I'm just glad I did not know how high up you had to climb BEFORE you took the picture. What Mother's don't know sometimes won't hurt them.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

I remember this story from my first time to shootsmarter, loved it then and love it now! What a touching photograph that needs no words! :)


4:36 AM  
Blogger Christopher Record said...

Great story and photo. Thanks for sharing.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Peggy Gero DaValt said...


Great story!! just gotta work on that book idea....

Keep up the GREAT/INCREDIBLE work!!

Hugs to Nicki and Kate.

Peggy :)

10:06 AM  
Blogger Million Dollar Mary said...

what a great entry. i love rehearing it.....peg's right...a book about your adventures and the set ups for the shots would be totally amazing. not just to your the rest of the world, too.

you are one talented and gifted person, paul.....i love your work and it's like a great bottle of gets better and better with age.

love ya millions,

11:04 AM  
Blogger Pauli said...

Wow. (one more time)

9:53 AM  
Blogger Cory Ann said...

I've been thinking and reading up on Pat Tillman a bit lately. I did not expect to come on here and see this awesome image and your story to go with it.
It is so true that we just need to listen to our subjects in order to get them. I bet Pat's family loves this image and because you listen it isn't merely manufactured, but truely representative.
Very nice work. I hope you are doing well.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Joe in Indy said...

Paul, another riveting story behind one of your pictures. (book) Thanks so much for taking the time to compose this (book) vignette, which obviously played such a key role in your (bookwriting) professional development. You spin a tale as (book) well as you capture an image! OK OK ... was my attempt at sumbliminal messaging persuasive? (grin)

7:34 PM  
Blogger Paul Gero said...


Thanks for the push...I appreciate's really been on my mind...especially now that creating a prototype is so easy with a company like blurb.

I really do appreciate it especially since I think I remember who one of my first editor's was (you).



3:14 PM  

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