One night in January 2004, Arizona State sports information director Doug Tammaro sat at dinner in Seattle with friend and former ASU player Pat Tillman and asked for a small favor. Tammaro wanted to put a picture of Tillman, who had starred in football at ASU and in the NFL before giving up the game to serve in the Army, wearing his military uniform in the football team's media guide.
"He said, 'No, no, I don't want that,'" Tammaro recalls. "But he told me, 'Doug, when I'm done, I'll do whatever you want, anything to help ASU.'"
Tammaro tucked away ideas in the back of his mind, but those plans never came to fruition. Tillman was tragically killed about two months later in Afghanistan. But that hasn't stopped Tillman from helping his alma mater and members of the military.
Now in its eighth year, Pat's Run has grown bigger and more popular than ever, a testament to Tillman's lasting and ever-growing legacy.
The 4.2-mile run on Saturday — a nod to the number 42 that Tillman wore at Arizona State — is sold out for the first time in its history, with 28,000 runners filling every spot possible.
"The first year, we got to 5,000, and I'm a guy that likes to exaggerate, so it probably wasn't 5,000," Tammaro said. "That included everybody that came and picked up trash. The numbers we're at now, it's astonishing.
"It's crazy how big it's gotten. And it hasn't gotten big in a bad way — it's just gotten big."
Tammaro played a key role in organizing that first race and recalls the "chaos." There was no public address system, just a couple of megaphones. There were no professionally printed banners, just large sheets of paper covered in magic marker. And there was certainly no live TV coverage.
Now, the run has become more than just a run, but an entire day. Participants come from far and wide to toe the starting line at 7 a.m. and finish at the 42-yard line in Sun Devil Stadium. Among them are numerous Tillman Military Scholars, who have received financial assistance from the Pat Tillman Foundation in their pursuit of post-military degrees.
The Tillman Scholars program might not have been possible if not for the enormous success of Pat's Run. When the Foundation saw how big the event was getting, an opportunity was seen to do even more. The scholarship program, which started in 2008 and saw its first class in 2009, is funded by proceeds from Pat's Run and will award about $1 million this year to military veterans and spouses. Over the past three years, the program has provided financial aid to 171 veterans at 59 institutions in 32 states.
"You can kind of see the national impact of this program," said Hunter Riley, director of programs at the Tillman Foundation. "We're really working to provide that opportunity for these Tillman Military Scholars to continue Pat's legacy, but most importantly, while doing that, create a legacy of their own."
Robin Williams received a Tillman Scholarship in 2010 and is pursuing her doctorate in audiology through a joint program at San Diego State and University of California-San Diego. She served in the Marines from 2000-04 and was in Iraq when she heard of Tillman's death.
Being able to carry on Tillman's legacy through the scholarship means more than Williams can explain.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to get to that level he was at, but it's definitely an honor and humbling to be considered worthy of being part of his legacy," she said. "If I could be an eighth of what I feel like Pat Tillman was, I'd go to my grave a satisfied person."
Williams will run Saturday for the second time and is not surprised at how popular the Tempe event has become because she hears all the time how much Tillman means to the people who never even met him.
"A lot of people, when they find out I'm a Pat Tillman Scholar, everybody knows who he is," Williams said. "It doesn't matter whether they support the war on terror or what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan still. Everybody still knows who he is and respects what he stands for. That's part of the run."
"Probably the biggest thing for me now is when you see the kids race and you see 7-year-old kids running," Tammaro said. "Those kids weren't alive when Pat was alive, but they are learning what he was all about from their parents."
Spreading Tillman's story was part of the reason the scholarship program was created, along with the success of the Foundation's Leadership Through Action endowment at Arizona State.
"ASU students, anyone in the San Jose or Bay Area or Phoenix metropolitan area — Arizona and California in general — they know Pat's story and they understand his legacy," Riley said. "We knew we wanted to bring that feel national."
Riley said when word got out that the run had sold out, the Foundation was flooded with phone calls from people ready to do anything for a spot. If the event could handle more runners, there's no telling how big it might get.
So what might Tillman say if he could see that he inspired roughly 35,000 people to turn out at 7 a.m. on Saturday for a 4.2-mile run?
"The first thing he'd do is say thanks, because he was very respectful and very appreciative," Tammaro said. "And he'd probably think we're all nuts, but I think he'd be really happy because it's for a really good cause."