They could be heroes 

When Sir Charles Barkley said in a Nike commercial, "I am not a role model," few disagreed. In addition to being known as one of the most prolific scorers and rebounders in NBA history, Barkley was infamous for speaking his mind (once telling a white reporter, "That's why I hate white people"), spitting on a little girl during an NBA game (give him a break, he was aiming at a heckler and she got in the way) and throwing a young man through a window in a bar on Church Street because the guy was being rude. When asked if he regretted the latter incident, Barkley said, "I regret that we were on the first floor."

And though his behavior has been less than exemplary, at least Charles Barkley had the chutzpah to admit he was not to be emulated. So many parents erroneously look to the world of sport to find morality idols for their kids, which, as you probably know, is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. At least it was until Pat Tillman came along.

By now, the media -- especially the sports media -- has breathlessly exhausted nearly every angle on the Tillman story. In case you haven't heard the story the 9,000 times it was repeated, Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army. After the events of Sept. 11, Pat felt he wasn't doing enough to serve his country. He and his brother signed up for the Army Rangers, and after a tour of duty in Iraq, they both found themselves in Afghanistan. Tillman was leading his team to help some comrades who were caught in an ambush, and in the process, he lost his life. At the age of 27, when most young men in the NFL are thinking of little more than shoe contracts and free agency, Pat Tillman gave up a life of comfort, wealth and fame all derived from playing a game to heed the calling of the patriot within him. Parents would do well to use this as a lesson to their children: No matter how comfortable you become, always strive for more.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Pat Tillman story is how much it contrasts with stories from most of the rest of the NFL. While the quality of football played on the gridiron is comparable to years past, the ethics, principles and character judgment of today's NFL athlete has never been worse. If parents can use Pat Tillman's story as a motivation to their children, then they can certainly look at the actions of some of the more unsavory characters in the League to warn their children about the dangers of excess and poor decisions.

Take the case of Leonard Little. In 1998, Little did something too many of us decide to do when we've had a few too many. He got behind the wheel of his car. After celebrating his 24th birthday with copious amounts of adult beverages (his blood alcohol content was almost twice the legal limit), Little plowed into Susan Gutweiler's car and killed her. Little pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, had to do 90 days in the city workhouse and perform 1,000 hours of community service, and was actually suspended for half the season by the NFL. Surely such a harsh punishment would teach him a lesson, no? No. In the early morning hours of Saturday, April 24, of this year, Leonard was speeding through a suburb of St. Louis. When police pulled him over, they noticed his bloodshot eyes and slurred speech, and they issued him a sobriety test. Big surprise here: He failed.

I'll concede the point that many of us have been tipsy behind the wheel before, quite lucky that we didn't find ourselves on the wrong end of an involuntary manslaughter charge. However, if I still had a commitment to going out and getting "crunked" after I killed a mother and wife, I'd make sure I had a driver.

It's possible that Little could have simply been trying to top the notable achievement notched up the previous day by another bad-driving NFL miscreant, Michael Pittman. Pittman is a running back for the Tampa Bay Bucs, and in case you haven't heard of him, allow me to bring his off-the-field feats to light. On April 23, Pittman was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Not for the two domestic violence charges he racked up in 2001 or the accompanying criminal trespass and criminal damage charges. This 30-day sentence was due to Pittman's slightly over-the-top reaction to losing an argument with his wife. I'm pretty sure he lost, because he did what any exemplary father and husband would do when faced with resolving a conflict on the losing end: He rammed his Hummer into a Mercedes-Benz that, at the time, contained Mrs. Pittman, a baby-sitter and the Pittmans' offspring. The force of the crash pushed the Mercedes over the median and tore one of the tires from the rim. Unbelievably, Mrs. Pittman didn't want to press charges. More unbelievably, Pittman is still on the roster for the Bucs.

Little and Pittman are but two of the many professional athletes who feel they don't have to abide by the same rules as the rest of us. While they are (somewhat) accountable for their own actions and decisions, it's easy to see how their judgment could have been clouded by a system that singles out young and gifted athletes, teaches them that what happens on the football field is far more important than lessons learned in a classroom and then rewards them with millions of dollars simply because they can hit hard or run fast. When my son is old enough to comprehend influences and role models, I'll tell him the story of Pat Tillman.

But rather than stressing the "duty to country" angle that media seems to be making the most hay out of, I'll make sure that my son knows how admirable it was for Tillman to walk away from a career in football to simply listen to his inner voice. It would have been as laudable in my book if Tillman had gone to a career as a teacher, rather than a soldier, simply because he chose to challenge himself. And that, more than anything else, is what separates -- or, even better, elevates -- a guy like Pat Tillman from the Leonard Littles and Michael Pittmans of the sports world.

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