From the moment of his hiring, Arizona State head football coach Todd Graham has shown a deep respect for the history of the program.
The Sun Devils’ past is full of incredible players, but to Graham, one man transcends them all. He firmly believes that Pat Tillman was the Sun Devil ideal, both on and off the field.
[SLIDESHOW: ASU unveils Pat Tillman statue]
When speaking about the ASU legend, Graham’s admiration is immediately clear.
“He sets the standard when it comes to what a Sun Devil is all about," Graham said. "Smart, character, discipline, tough...not tough, TTH—tougher than hell."
[RAW VIDEO: Pat Tillman statue unveiled at Sun Devil Stadium]
Over the years, Graham has made Tillman the subject of several efforts to keep his legacy at the forefront of the minds of both his players and the ASU community.
“I think that as the present coach of this team, it's important that we recognize our past,” Graham said. “That we recognize who we are. Pat goes way past being a Sun Devil. His love of his country. Denying one’s self. Being a giver. Being a person who is willing to sacrifice and sellout.”
The highest-profile tribute has come in the form of Tillman Tunnel. Debuting in 2013, it was a redesign of the existing tunnel in the south endzone that most prominently featured a large image of Tillman on the gate, allowing him to symbolically lead the team onto the field on game day.
“That’s why we have Tillman Tunnel, because we want our guys to embody that heart of a champion he had,” Graham said. “He embodies what being a Sun Devil is all about. Service. Sacrifice. Badass tough.”
This year, the renovations to Sun Devil Stadium and the construction of the new Student-Athlete Facility on the stadium’s north side would mean that Tillman Tunnel would be moving.
“When we started to move over here, it was really hard to move this tunnel where every Sun Devil comes through, but we have to,” Graham said. “If we’re going to move over there, we need to make Tillman Tunnel better.”
The Pearce family’s connection to Arizona State University is stronger—and almost certainly longer—than just about any other.
Zeb Pearce played football for the then-Tempe Normal School Owls in the 1898 and 1899 seasons before becoming a teacher and a leading member of the Mesa community. During his life, he served as a city councilman, mayor, and businessman, opening a produce store in 1911 and later becoming the Phoenix-area distributor for Coors beer after the repeal of Prohibition. He also was a founding member of ASU's Sun Angel Foundation.
Over the years, both Pearce’s son and grandson attended ASU, as did multiple other members of the family. That grandson, Art, became the head of the family business and is now, in his words, “semi-retired”.
Art Pearce has been a long-time supporter of Sun Devil football, and last year, he had an idea for a new project for the university that he wanted to begin.
"I took the idea to the athletic department and ran it up the pole,” Pearce said. “It went all the way to Ray Anderson, and Ray Anderson loved the idea. When it got to Coach Graham, he said, 'That's a wonderful idea, Art. But I need to do Pat Tillman first.'"
That didn't deter Pearce.
"Why don't we do both at the same time?" Pearce replied.
So they did.
With the green light given, it was time to find the right artist for the project, someone who could capture the essence of "PT42". So Pearce turned to a sculptor that he had commissioned for a number of other projects, Jeff Davenport.
Ever since she was a child, Davenport has been “sculpting anything I could find". She received an art degree from NAU with an emphasis in sculpture, and in 2008, she graduated from ASU with a degree in elementary education. She currently teaches art at a Valley high school, while also working on her sculpture projects.
She first heard about the Tillman statue project last November and quickly went to work.
"I had originally done a pose and presented it to the committee at ASU,” Davenport said. “They said that there was a particular pose that they wanted. It was a very simple pose. It was an image of Pat leaving what is now the Tillman Tunnel on his way out to the field. That was the original image that I worked to redesign the maquette."
That initial maquette was an 18-inch tall clay sculpture that took about a month to complete. During the early process, there was one major change.
“Originally, I did not have a helmet on his head, but I believe his family wanted the helmet on,” she said. “After doing all the detail on his face and his beautiful hair, I had to cover that up. I was a little bit sad about that.”
With the maquette done, it was then that the project entered the high-tech phase. The clay maquette was sent to Bollinger Atelier, a fine arts foundry located in Tempe.
"They scan the original sculpture and then put it into a computer program,” Davenport said. “With this huge block of foam, there's a drill that goes in and cuts the image exactly like the smaller maquette in whatever size you want. We went a little bit larger than life size.”
It was then time for the finishing touches.
“From there, I added clay to the foam and then did the final sculpting, and that was another two months,” said Davenport.
Davenport’s talent for capturing details is evident in the Tillman sculpture.
“I really enjoy doing portraits of people, and so this project was really exciting for me,” Davenport said. “Just capturing the person’s image and their likeness is very important to me. I really felt like I did a good job on this sculpture.”
Davenport has lived in Arizona since 1964, and along with her time as an ASU student, she has a firm grasp on how important Tillman is to the community. Honoring him is something that she thought about shortly after hearing of Tillman's death in 2004.
“I remember thinking someone was going to be able to this amazing sculpture, but I never thought it would be me," Davenport said. "I’m just very honored. It’s a dream come true for me.”
Since his death, Tillman's family has preferred to carry on his legacy in a behind-the-scenes capacity. They took a leading, if quiet, role in the creation process of the statue.
"We're grateful to Arizona State University and the Sun Devil community for honoring Pat's legacy," said Marie Tillman, Tillman's widow and Board Chair and Co-Founder of the Pat Tillman Foundation. "Pat made his mark as a student, athlete and soldier. We hope his statue stands as a reminder of the principles he lived by and his dedication to empower those around him on and off the field."
It’s been 20 years since Tillman played for the Sun Devils, but Graham feels that his legacy still hits home with today’s players.
“I think the most powerful thing is to watch him play,” Graham said. “He played the game the way it’s supposed to be played: with an unbelievable passion. I think that really resonates with the players.
“We try to show them that this is what a being a Sun Devil is all about.”
That statue will now become a powerful reminder every game day.
“Five generations from now, you show them that tape, you get a gist of what Pat Tillman was all about,” Graham said. “And because he embodied all the things, not just one, he wasn’t just a great football player, he was a person committed to his family. He was an unbelievable teammate. He had unbelievable character because he denied himself every day. His attitude and his effort, he served his team with it every day.”
The New Tradition
On Thursday night, Graham will lead his Sun Devils out of the new Tillman Tunnel for the first time.
“We’ll start a tradition that we won’t come out of the gate anymore,” Graham said. “We’ll come out around the statue, everybody touches the statue, and then we take the field.”
Led by Pat and for Pat.
The unveiling of the Pat Tillman statue pic.twitter.com/Oeeqyv81k9— Brad Denny (@BDenny29) August 31, 2017
But what would he think of seeing his statue on the field? Graham has an idea.
“He’d say ‘If you’re going to put it out there, get your ass out there and get after it. If you’re going to do that, let’s go!’” Graham said. “As far as being a Sun Devil, I think he set the bar. If we’re going to put that statue out there, let’s go out and play. Let’s go out there and shoot for that mark.”
The team's entrance will surely be en emotional moment for every Sun Devil. Even thinking about it now brings some chills.
“I’m so happy to be a part of the project,” Davenport said while fighting back tears. “Having my work out there for everyone to see is a great honor.”
"In 100 years from now, when all of us are gone, people are going to know who this individual is,” Pearce said. “He's going to live on forever. People will be able to research him and find out the type of individual that he was."