Pat Tillman: A Legacy of Leadership


with Jonathan Due and Ashley Nicolas of the Pat Tillman Foundation


Nov 02, 2018

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, pro football player Pat Tillman left the NFL to serve in the U.S. Army. Although Tillman lost his life while on active duty in Afghanistan in 2004, his legacy lives on through a foundation that helps turn soldiers into scholars.

Jonathan Due, Director of Programs and Scholarships for the Pat Tillman Foundation, and Ashley Nicolas, a Pat Tillman Scholar, join Paul Lisnek for a discussion about helping soldiers and their spouses transition from combat to college campuses.

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: Pat Tillman was the first professional athlete since the Vietnam War to put a lucrative and promising sports career on hold because he wanted to serve his country in the U.S. military. Now, sadly, Pat was killed in 2004 while on active duty in Afghanistan, but his values live on through his legacy, turning soldiers into scholars. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Paul Lisnek. Joining me to talk about this is Jonathan Due. He´s the director of programs and scholarships for the Pat Tillman Foundation. And also joining us is a Tillman scholar, Ashley Nicolas. Hi to both of you guys.

Due: Hello.

Lisnek: So, JD, I remember when Pat Tillman was killed, and it was national news and all that, so a little bit about Pat Tillman and who he was, because he lives on through his widow, Marie.

Due: Well, he certainly does, and he lives on, really, through this foundation and all the scholars that are there, really, fulfilling an important legacy. So, in Pat Tillman, you have an American, right? He´s an athlete, he´s a scholar, he´s a soldier, and he´s a leader, and when you think about those four nouns as they apply to that particular human being, he really created this legacy of lifelong learning, of uniting people, of bringing people together, and that´s really what´s at the heart of the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Lisnek: He was with the Arizona Cardinals. I remember that. And I´m just sort of curious -- If he were sort of looking at this effort, would he have said, "Yes, if something happens to me, this is the way I want my legacy to continue"?

Due: That´s a really interesting question. What really emerged is, immediately after his tragic death, the family just started to receive all these different donations. They did. And then friends of the family and the family themselves made this choice to really focus in on some of these things that really represented Pat, again, aspects of that leadership, aspects of humble leadership and of service, of having an impact and a passion to make the world a better place, as well as then to focus in on scholarship, as well. So if you ask his friends, many of them will describe where this started. They say it doesn´t start with the friends or the family. They will literally say that it actually started with Pat.

Lisnek: And it´s one thing to talk about this theoretically, Ashley, but we don´t have to talk about it theoretically because here you are. You are a Tillman scholar, about to be a practicing lawyer. Congratulations on that. Thank you both for your service, by the way. I don´t want to forget to say that. Ashley, talk about your path and how the Tillman scholar made a difference for you, scholarship.

Nicolas: Absolutely. So, I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2009 and commissioned as an army intelligence officer. I served for five years, including a tour in Afghanistan. And after I left uniform, I joined Teach for America and became a high school teacher, and in both those capacities, both as a woman in uniform and as a high school teacher in an underserved community, saw lawyers making a difference and really saw how the law reached into every aspect of a person´s life, so I decided to go to law school. And the Tillman Foundation gave me the freedom to be able to do that while also taking the jobs I wanted to take and pursuing the opportunities I wanted to pursue because I wasn´t beholden to my tuition, so it´s given my family and I the freedom to do that and to also make the kind of impact we want to make.

Lisnek: And, JD, let me ask you, when people want to apply for a Tillman scholarship, what do they need to have? What are the credentials? What do they have to bring to you to get one?

Due: Really, well, the requirements are pretty straightforward. You either have to be on active duty, a veteran of any of the military services, or, as well, a military spouse. Outside of that, what we´re really looking for is not only an inspiring story that´s been told in the past, but more importantly, an inspirational story of what´s going to be told in the future. So what we´re looking for is we´re looking for passion. We´re looking for impact in every field of human endeavor. We need poets that have stories to tell as much as we need engineers or lawyers, and that´s really the beauty of what this community of scholars is able to do -- take a unique experience of service, tie that in with outstanding education, but then also put it into a community where people are impassioned to make this world a better place.

Lisnek: I´m so glad, JD, you used the word "community," because, Ashley, when I think of community, it almost -- when people get a scholarship in life, they get a scholarship, and then they -- that´s it. Their life -- you know, they just do what they´re -- but that´s not true for the Tillman scholars. You have a community. Talk to me about your role, because you guys actually get together and talk and meet.

Nicolas: Absolutely. The financial contribution´s important, but it pales in comparison to the importance of the community we´ve built. These are like-minded people who are action-oriented, lifelong learners who are solving the big problems in our society. Here in D.C., where we have about 40 scholars in the immediate area, we can bring them together, we can solve problems, we can talk about big things and introduce them to opportunities and really build off of each other in a way that I´ve never experienced.

Lisnek: But, of course, when you bring all of those scholars together, JD, they´re not just -- they´re not all lawyers like Ashley´s going to be. They do all these other things, as you say -- poets and who knows what they´re going in to -- so what is -- is there a commonality among these scholarship recipients when you say, "We all have you in a room together. Here´s a program we´re gonna do that you all need to hear about"?

Due: Right, I think one of those commonalities, Paul, is really an ability to listen, not only to the communities from which they´re coming from and the communities they´re going to, but then to listen to other scholars. I mean, complex problems require complex solutions, and some of the basic sort of academic skills of synthesis, of integration actually all start with this art of listening to each other, developing compromises, developing solutions that are appropriate to very, very specific yet unbelievably complex problems.

Lisnek: Ashley, it´s so clear that you are very appreciative of what this scholarship has done for you, so for our viewers who are watching who might be in your shoes in the future, what message do you have for them -- current, active, or vets who want to get into -- back into education?

Nicolas: Apply to the Tillman Foundation. Take the risk. It´s a community of service-minded people who -- you know, the scholarship is not a reward for your service. It´s an investment in the contribution you´re going to make going forward. So apply, follow the things that you´re passionate about. Don´t be beholden to the tuition check or what you feel like you have to do. Follow that passion and apply to the foundation.

Lisnek: By the way, one of the things I think you both agree with is, is people sometimes underestimate the skills, the abilities, the accomplishments of what somebody who has been military can do, so I want to ask you, I know where you´re going after you finish law school. Can you just share that with our viewers?

Nicolas: Sure, I´ll be doing a clerkship here in D.C. with a judge -- a local judge. And I would say I think that veterans are almost their own worst enemy in that realm of underestimating the value of their skills but also their dedication to service, their ability to communicate and solve problems. I think that can be an asset in any industry.

Lisnek: I know I didn´t get a clerkship when I went to law school. Honestly, congratulations on that.

Nicolas: Thank you.

Lisnek: And, JD, finally, as you listen to Ashley´s story and you think of all the scholars that have gone through the program, how does it make you feel?

Due: It´s incredibly rewarding. It feels, in terms of every day, I´m a lottery winner, right? It is an extraordinary place that is invigorating. When you see the need in both the private sector as well as the public sector for outstanding leadership, it´s -- it´s inspiring to be part of an organization that is helping to build those leaders for the future who, in turn, are looking to write the story of a better future.

Lisnek: Well, I am absolutely certain that Pat Tillman looks down and would not be, could not be more proud of what you´ve accomplished and the work that you are doing in his name, and so I thank you both, Jonathan Due, Ashley Nicolas. Thanks for being with me. Congratulations to both of you again. Thank you for your service. And thank you all for watching us, as well. Appreciate that. If you want more conversations with leaders in your community and across our country, all you got to do is go to I´m Paul Lisnek.

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