Tradition: Arizona’s First Pat Tillman Classic

The Liberty Lions dominated the Leland Chargers on Friday, 56-7. For many, that’s where the story ends. Actually, that’s where it begins.

Everyone noted in the weeks leading up, that this was more than a game. For the first time ever, the alma mater of Pat Tillman visited the state where he created his college and pro legacy.

The night opened with 23 servicemen and women being honored and recognized by the crowd and members of the Arizona Cardinals Football Club on the field. The coin flip was performed by Master Sgt. John Accurso, or as Liberty captain Jace Accurso calls him, Dad.

The Lions burst onto the field waving the flags of all branches of the military. Both teams had special decals on their helmets, including Leland’s “42” decals they wear for their annual Pat Tillman Classic back home.

It was a special night for all involved, especially for the student-athletes who wore the name “Tillman,” on the backs of their camo uniforms. A uniform that every student had an opportunity to keep.

“It was a great night, a class night,” said Liberty head coach, Mark Smith. “Everything from the run through waving the flag, to the end with the trophy and everything in between. Hats off to our administration for putting on a classic event.”

Through donations and a 4.2-km fun run, Liberty High School raised $3,100 for the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was accepted at halftime by 2016 Tillman Scholar, Jay Vinnedge.

The Leland Chargers came from San Jose, California, 700 miles from Liberty. So, what were the plans for the team following this loss? Lots of pizza and maybe even some time in the hotel pool.

Chargers head coach, Mike Ward and his Charger football family understood what the game meant and made sure to embrace this unique experience the team will never forget.

(Carson Yates (JR), Parker Petersen (SR), and Borna Ebadat (SR) honor Leland alumni, Pat Tillman)

“It means a lot to wear his name on our back and go out there with that same passion and ferocity and love for the game that he had,” said Leland senior, Parker Peterson. “The turnout wasn’t what we wanted, but we’re going into the season happy and you just have to play like Tillman did.”

Leland senior, Borna Ebadat, who plays alongside his cousin on the team, agrees.  “We’ve had Pat Tillman’s teammates talk to us and they always tell us stories about how hard he played and that gives each of us a reason to play harder.”

It was obvious this match was important to the Leland athletes who try to honor Pat Tillman every single game.

“Before every Pat Tillman Classic game we have we watch the ESPN documentary on Pat Tillman. We have the ’42’ sticker on our left side for our hearts,” said quarterback, Carson Yates. “We take it seriously and it’s a big part of our community.”

The team was able to visit Sun Devil Stadium and their Pat Tillman statue on Friday morning. The three players declared in unison, “that was incredible.”

The Chargers were also able to honor another Charger football family member by bringing along a special jersey from San Jose. On the visitor bench sat a “55” jersey, the jersey worn by former player, Tristan Nguyen, who tragically passed away during track practice in 2015.

“Pat means a lot to this area and he means a whole lot to us,” said Leland coach, Mike Ward. “For us, it’s awesome to share that because it’s bigger than us and it’s bigger than a football game. It’s cool to have this experience and to share with them.”

“Coach Ward and his whole program has been first class,” said Smith. “I know they take the name Pat Tillman very seriously and we were just happy to be a part of this and we could help honor the tradition in Arizona that he left here too.”

Next fall, Liberty will become the first Arizona team to play in Pat Tillman Stadium, located at Leland High School.

(The press booth and scoreboard at Leland’s Pat Tillman Stadium. Photo courtesy of Mike Ward)

As usual, Smith and the Lions will be ready to play. “It will be a unique experience for us next year to head to Leland High School. Sometimes it’s tough to travel. It’s a business trip and we have to make sure we treat it like that.”

Liberty starts their season 5-0 for the first time since 2014, which was their last appearance in a state championship game, and has a bye week this Friday to get ready for regional play. Be sure to check out Tuesday’s “Best in the West: Week 5 Preview,” to read more about the west side action this Friday.

Leland heads back to San Jose with a 1-2 record, matching their loss total from last year, and begin league play next week.

“We have to stay healthy,” said Ward. “But we have to keep grinding. We’re really young on defense, and that showed at times tonight.”

The home-and-home series concludes next year, but both coaches hope that this game starts a new tradition to honor Pat Tillman with a yearly matchup, eventually held in a college or pro venue.

Arizona native, Devon Henry, joined the Sports360AZ crew in 2018 after graduating from Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Devon has avidly partaken in coverage of the Arizona high school sports scene since 2013 and has covered NASCAR and INDYCAR at Phoenix Raceway since 2017. Devon is also a play-by-play announcer, calling over a dozen different sports and hundreds of events.