Elijah Hartley-Johnson does not remember much about his godfather.
He has to be reminded that when he was just a baby, he was at the center of the Arizona State football team. A teammate has a boy, the son of a Sun Devil, and the little man becomes a mascot.
Elijah, a junior on the Sahuarita football team, has to be reminded that as the Sun Devils broke from practice, his father, then-ASU linebacker Larry Johnson, would hand his boy to another then-ASU linebacker, who would hold him gently and talk to him softly.
And he has to be reminded that Pat Tillman rocked him in his arms and swayed back and forth.
Every so often, particularly when he’s on the football field, he reminds himself.
“I wish I could’ve gotten to know him on a personal level, but when we’re at practice, doing sprints, and I have those thoughts like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to play football anymore,’ then I realize I don’t just want to follow in my dad’s footprints, but someone else who was great — Pat Tillman,” he said.
He speaks in deliberate thoughts, choosing his words, displaying the poise of a man, not a boy.
“I always think, in the back of my mind, if I were to do something, ‘What would Pat think of me?’ Elijah said. My dad said he was a serious player, always gave full effort in practice — and I try to think to myself, if I don’t do that, what kind of person will I be?”
Elijah does not bear the legacy of Tillman, a former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals standout who died in Afghanistan as a member of the Army Rangers, lightly.
He carries it with pride, with humility, with awe.
He is an honors student at Sahuarita with aspirations of joining the Navy “if football doesn’t work out.” He follows the righteous path, and he does so in part to preserve the heritage of his heroes, Tillman and his grandfather Norris, a 22-year Air Force veteran.
Even at 16 years old, he understands and embraces duty, discipline, honor. He knows the Tillman story well, and he shares it with others.
As the family — Elijah, Tasha, Elijah’s stepfather Marcel Harrell, little brothers Javon and Lorenzo and baby sister Journey — has moved extensively during the last few years, Elijah has spread the Gospel of Tillman. To those in Richmond, Va., who had heard little about the Tillman story. To those in Columbia, S.C., who’d heard nothing.
He tells them the tale of an undersized football star who gave everything he had to his team, to his family and friends, to his country. Of a man who spurned a multi-million dollar contract to enlist in the armed forces after the Sept. 11 terror attacks rocked him to his core.
“Whenever I think of his story, why he gave up that contract, most people think he’s crazy,” Hartley-Johnson said. “He’s not crazy, he’s not stupid. If you have the ability to make sure your mother, your little sister, your brothers on the football field are safe … I would take that risk.’”
Sahuarita coach David Rodriguez said, “We do still have those young men who have that quality in them, and when it’s their turn to have kids — later than sooner, I tell them — they’ll instill it in their children, and this thing called America will continue to flourish.”
Elijah has had discussions with his mother about eventually joining the service — “you know how moms are; she’s scared but wants me to follow my heart” — and with his grandfather and stepfather. He’ll soon discuss it with his father, who lives in California, but he knows to expect full support.
“My dad has this picture framed in his room, with pictures of Pat in his Arizona Cardinals uniform and in his service uniform,” he said. “I’d ask him, “Dad, who’s that, who’s that?” and he’d say, “That, son, is someone you want to be like.”
Tasha Cunningham Harrell is filled with stories about Tillman, but one sticks out.
Just a month before Elijah was born — “I looked about 1,000 months pregnant, couldn’t see my feet,” she said — the boy’s paternal grandfather, Larry’s father, died of a heart attack.
Larry and Tasha had to take care of the immediate future. School was to be put on hold, so, too, football. The couple headed to the computer lab, in the days before laptops and smart phones, to attend to some business.
Tasha was in tears. Larry was stoic.
“Pat sensed something and came over, and he just broke down,” Cunningham Harrell said. “He embraced me and comforted me, and slightly rolled my chair to the side and composed the letter for us. No one had to tell him what to say; he just knew. … That’s how I understood he could leave the NFL career and everything — he just always knew how to do the right thing.”
When it came time to pick godparents for their newborn, the decision was easy.
“When Larry and I talked about who we wanted to be Elijah’s godfather, Pat was the first name who came to mind for the both of us,” Cunningham Harrell said.
“It’s not that we knew he would turn out to be this amazing man, but he was sweet, he was kind, he would give Elijah the kick in the butt he needed, and he treated everyone with respect. Didn’t care if you were white, black, Latino, Asian.”
Elijah shares that attitude.
As his family has moved often in recent years, he has been introduced to new cultures. Or, more appropriately, new settings have been introduced to him. Just in the past few years, the family has lived in Reno, Nev., Richmond, Va., and Columbia, S.C., before settling in Sahuarita.
For some teenagers, that could be a curse, constantly picking up and moving, tearing out the roots that were just beginning to form.
Elijah instead treasures the opportunity to “see a different color every day” as he, wants “to see black and Asian and Mexican and white. I don’t just want to see one people in particular.”
He has only one goal when he gets to a new town – “Every place that I’ve lived, I’ve always wanted to leave a piece of me there,” he said.
It hasn’t always gone swimmingly.
“People made fun of me because of the way I talked in the South; all you hear is ‘Hey y’all’ and ‘Sup, dog?’ ” Hartley-Johnson said. “I would say, ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ and they’d say, ‘Why you talkin’ like a white boy? I’d say, ‘I’m not, I’m talkin’ like me!’ ”
That is part of the reason why Elijah hopes to join the Navy.
Not just for duty to country, but because he’ll be able to explore the world and add to it. It is something he covets; like Tillman, he wants to be a citizen of the world.
“I don’t want to deprive myself of seeing the world,” he said. “I’ve never traveled outside of the United States, but I want to one day. I want to be able to go to Italy, South America, China, Japan. I want to experience how different cultures interact with each other.”
On April 22, 2004, in the dusk of the mountainous terrain in the hills of the Spera District in the Khost Province of Afghanistan, Tillman was shot and killed by fellow Army rangers in an act of friendly fire. His death, and the ensuing coverup of the grim details, became a fixture on the evening news.
Cunningham Harrell remembers the horrible day, getting home from work, still in her heels, purse on her shoulder, turning on the television, about to get dinner started. The news comes on, another story about the War on Terror, another soldier killed. “Nine times out of 10 — 10 times out of 10 — you don’t expect to know the name,” she said.
She walks past the television to check on Elijah in his bedroom, barely glancing at the screen, at the small box that holds a man with a strict jaw line and a tan, tilted Army ranger beret. She takes two more steps before it registers.
“ ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, show me something!’ ” she screams, before the news anchor moves on to the next story, and the next, and the next.
They don’t have cable at the time, so she waits, hoping her worst fears are not realized.
Finally, the story comes up again on another station.
“When I finally heard it, I was numb,” she recalls, nine years later. “You can’t believe the kid stretching on the field or eating shrimp fajitas or rubbing your belly like it’s an idol for good luck, that he’s gone? I was crying, and Elijah runs out, ‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’ At the time, I wasn’t prepared to tell him. I called Larry; ‘This isn’t true, right? It’s another Pat Tillman!’ He said, ‘No, it’s true.’ And nothing else was said.”
Elijah, then 7, did not quite understand the magnitude of the event.
“I remember I was on the phone with my dad, and he was telling me about Uncle Pat,” Hartley-Johnson said, his voice falling, sitting outside the ROTC room at Sahuarita, which is situated next to the football film room where his teammates prepared for Friday’s matchup against Safford. “I didn’t honestly understand. As a kid, you don’t watch the news. I had to do my research on it.”
Now he knows the story, the gruesome details, the what and the when and the where.
But the why?
“It’s hard for a 7-year-old to know that someone is gone,” Hartley-Johnson said. “Recently I was with my younger brother, playing Call of Duty one day, and you know how in Call of Duty, it has the re-spawning system, where you die and come back? I was trying to explain, in real life, you don’t come back when you die, and he didn’t understand that concept. And that reminded me of when I was 7. I didn’t get that concept. I thought Pat had left and would come back.
“Then I realized, oh … he’s not coming back.”
It is now Friday night, and the Safford Bulldogs are on the menu.
The Sahuarita Mustangs are pumped. They’re about to get more pumped.
They sprint onto the field, through a giant banner held by cheerleaders standing on shoulders of cheerleaders, eyes closed, bracing for impact. The Mustangs break through and onto their sidelines, where Rodriguez is already pacing, ready for action.
Elijah finds a solitary patch of grass and drops to a knee to pray. He bounces up and finds his grandparents and little brothers in the stands and he waves. He beckons his youngest brother Lorenzo from the stands, grabbing him over the short fence from middle brother Javon, and places him on the bench. Then he goes to work.
“If you scared, be quiet!” he screams at his teammates.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” they scream back.
“If you scared, be quiet!” he screams at his teammates.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” they scream back.
He has become more vocal now, as a junior, a key contributor for the first time on varsity, though he’s been at the level at previous stops. Now, he feels obligated to speak.
“When we played Catalina, we got off to a shaky start, and we went into the locker room, and everyone was down even though we were winning — ‘We need to get this done, we need to do this right,’ — and I said it’s not all about what we didn’t do,” he said. “One thing my dad got told by Pat Tillman was, ‘No team is going to be great unless they play together,’ and I told that message to our team.
“And I’d never told anybody that. I don’t know if my words changed it or it was our coaches yelling at us, but after we came out of the locker room, it was a totally different team.”
Elijah takes his place on the field, on the kickoff return team, where just a few weeks ago, on Sept. 6, he showcased his talents, taking a kickoff back 75 yards for a touchdown in a 45-14 win over Empire.
He jumps up and down, a tightly packed bundle of frenetic energy.
For the next 48 minutes, he’ll pace the sidelines on offense, gripping the top of his jersey tight. He’ll star on special teams, delivering hits on both sides, including a beautiful block to spring a returner on a kickoff.
On defense, though, he’ll make a real impact.
He gets to the quarterback for a big loss after an errant snap late in the third quarter. His grandmother pumps her fists.
He blindsides the Safford quarterback 7 yards deep later in the game. Rodriguez screams, and a vein pops out on his neck.
A few plays later, sack No. 3.
It’s a beautiful play to cap off what is a beautiful, if chilly, night in Sahuarita. The Mustangs win 33-21 behind quarterback Rocko Vega’s five total touchdowns, three passing, two rushing.
After the game, Elijah is joined by his family, the ones who raised him into the young man he is and the man he is to become. A teenager, but a football player and a future officer, son of Larry and Tasha, godson of Pat Tillman.
“When I’m running on the field, I believe that Pat is with me, and I believe Jesus is with me,” he said. “Sometimes, I don’t think I can accomplish anything I do without having both of them with me. Wings on each side. Jesus, Pat. Without having them there by my side, I don’t think I’d even consider going into the military.
“With them two, I think I can do anything.”