What's in a name? Quite a bit at the new Pat Tillman Middle School in Phoenix

Kent Somers
Arizona Republic
View Comments

Eighteen years after his death, Pat Tillman’s name, image and likeness are everywhere. A bridge, a foundation, a community run and a veteran’s center are named after him. Two statues of him stand at Valley football stadiums. Thousands of Arizona State and Cardinals jerseys have his number on the front and name on the back.

But until Friday morning, no school had taken his name. That officially changed when a ribbon was cut and Balsz Elementary School, located on 44th Street about a block north of the 202, became Pat Tillman Middle School.

It was a change years in the making. Voters in the Balsz School District had to approve a $17 million bond to fund renovation of the school. The Tillman family had to approve of putting Pat’s name on it. And the pandemic had to subside to allow everyone involved to celebrate it.

At 8:10 Friday morning, 700 or so students filled the bleachers and seats on the gymnasium floor and were silent until a speaker asked one question:

"Who are we?"

“Warriors!” they shouted.

Four of Tillman’s teammates with the Cardinals were there. So were present and former district officials whose vision was being fulfilled. So was a representative of the Pat Tillman Foundation and several of Pat’s friends from Arizona State, including several of those who created and nurtured Pat’s Run. Former ASU coach Todd Graham was there, as were members of Tillman’s family, including his father, Patrick, Sr., and brother, Kevin, who enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat in 2002.

Kevin Tillman (brother of Pat Tillman) speaks during the ceremony, August 12, 2022, at Tillman Middle School, 4309 E. Belleview Street, Phoenix, Arizona.

Kevin rarely has talked publicly about Pat, because when he does, as he explained to a full gymnasium Friday, “I can simply fall apart. So bear with me.”

Everyone did. Many in the crowd knew Pat well, and nearly two decades after Pat’s death, they also can simply fall apart when they talk about him.

“I’m a hot mess emotionally,” one of Pat’s friends texted me during the assembly. “This is amazing.”

Kevin paused to gather himself, looked at his family sitting on the front row, and continued.

He explained how much Arizona meant to Pat, how ASU welcomed him when he arrived as a freshman at 17, how he had found a home away from his San Jose home. And how in his four seasons with the Cardinals, Pat often visited elementary schools to read and hang out with kids.

Kindergarten volunteer:What Pat Tillman did when no one was looking

“He loved visiting schools with energy,” Kevin said. “I walked in here and I could barely breathe. There’s so much energy here and he loved that. The fact that this community has named a school in his honor, he would be quite tickled with that.”

A mural of Pat, painted on a gym wall by muralist Mike Sullivan, was unveiled, and afterward Tillman’s family and friends posed for pictures in front of it.

The school and surrounding community seem a good fit with the Tillman name. Families with kids at Tillman Middle School don’t have much. Many come from other countries. Every enrolled kid qualifies for Title 1, which qualifies them for federal aid.

Around 700 kids attend sixth, seventh and eighth grades, but that figure has been known to balloon to 750 or so, principal Devon Shehan said. Among them, at least 17 different languages are spoken.

Dr. George Barnes (left) and Gail Knight (right, both holding scissors) cut the ribbon, August 12, 2022, at Tillman Middle School, 4309 E. Belleview Street, Phoenix, Arizona.

“That right there, that speaks to the Tillman spirit of scholarship, to service,” said Bernard Wilson, a teammate of Pat’s with the Cardinals. “And what this community has done for these kids? That’s a huge testimony right there.

I asked Shehan what she liked about working with such a diverse population.

“Everything, because I’ve been here for 20 years. My entire career,” she said, smiling. “From teacher to assistant principal to principal. I just love the opportunities we can bring and the growth we can bring to students.”

The Tillman family, with Kevin in the lead, saw this, too. After being approached about the name change. They talked with administrators, took tours and did their research. And they they approved.

Phoenix firefighter Vee Ith (left, family friend) talks with Patrick Tillman, Sr. (father of Pat Tillman) after the mural unveiling, August 12, 2022, at Tillman Middle School, 4309 E. Belleview Street, Phoenix, Arizona.

In the spring of 2018, the Balsz Governing Board announced plans to rebuild and rename the school.

Renovations were finished in 2020, but COVID-19 concerns delayed the ribbon-cutting ceremony until Friday.

By 10 a.m., kids were back in class. Speakers, guests and media were gone. The stage and blue, gray and white balloons would soon follow. Left behind was the Tillman name, and more importantly, a caring community that made a new school possible.

“That’s what really matters in the end,” Kevin said.

Reach Kent Somers at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Follow him on twitter @kentsomers. Hear Somers every Monday at 7:30 a.m. on The Drive with Jody Oehler on Fox Sports 910 AM.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today. 

View Comments