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Enshrining a legend

August 29, 2017

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

Arizona State University has unveiled a new statue of American hero Pat Tillman, who played football at ASU before sacrificing his life as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan in 2004.

On Wednesday evening, a maroon-and-gold wrap dropped to reveal the life-size bronze figure of Tillman, shown in his ASU uniform, ready to sprint onto the field. Including a pedestal, the statue stands 7½ feet tall in front of the new Tillman Tunnel that leads players onto the north end of Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium.

Kevin Tillman spoke at the unveiling ceremony, telling the crowd that his brother’s likeness is everywhere at ASU but that the university had a big impact on Pat as well.

“Pat spent his whole life trying to be the best person he could be. He didn’t focus on money or things or a pretty statue,” he said. “It was, ‘How do I make myself better in all of these different facets in my life?’ And ASU gave him the opportunity to do that.”

ASU Coach Todd Graham said the football team will start a new tradition of touching the statue as they charge onto the football field.

“I want to challenge our players with this,” he said. “If you come out and touch that statue, you need to pour everything you have onto the field and play with passion because that’s what his life was about — having a passion for what you’re doing.”

Artist Jeff Carol Davenport, an ASU alumna, created the statue, which portrays a younger Pat Tillman with a fringe of hair peeking out from under his helmet.

“I’m an ASU graduate and I had followed Pat’s journey, and I always thought it would be wonderful to do a sculpture of Pat,” said Davenport, an art teacher at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix who spent nine months on the project.

“It’s a great honor to do this.”

Tillman was a student-athlete at ASU from 1994 to 1998, earning a degree in marketing, and then played football professionally with the Arizona Cardinals. Reacting to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Tillman brothers enlisted in the Army together in May 2002. Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan in 2004.

Tillman’s influence still touches the ASU football team, whose members wear number 42 on their uniforms every year. Graham said the team watches highlights of Tillman almost every day because his passion for playing inspired his teammates to excel.

Arthur Pearce II, a Mesa businessman and third-generation Sun Devil, donated the statue after hearing Graham’s vision for it.

“I’ve always admired Pat, as everybody has in Arizona,” said Pearce, who earned a degree in business from ASU in 1975 and watched Tillman play in the 1990s.

“Pat symbolizes courage and persevered to be the best he could be,” said Pearce, who pulled the cord that unveiled the statue at a ceremony attended by the Tillman family, ASU leaders and football players.

“This will be a lasting memory of Pat that will be here 100 years from now so students from Arizona State will know who he is.”

Pearce asked Davenport to create the Tillman statue because he was so pleased with the 2014 sculpture she did of Pearce’s grandfather, Zebulon Pearce, that sits in downtown Mesa. Zebulon Pearce played football at the Tempe Normal School — now ASU — in 1899, graduating with teaching credentials. 

Sculpting is only one of Davenport’s careers. She earned her master’s of elementary education in 2008 from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU and has been teaching while also making art in her studio in New River.

“I taught fourth grade my first year teaching, and for our field trip we went to the state Capitol,” she said. “I told the students that I made the police K-9 memorial that’s there, and when they saw it, they started asking for my autograph.”

Davenport was so excited when Pearce asked her to do the project in November that she started sketching out the model that night. She began by looking at every photograph of Tillman that she could find.

“In the original image I was given of Pat coming out of the tunnel, his hands are just at his side in a more relaxed pose, but I wanted to tell a little more of the story,” she said.

“So in the final form, his glove from his right hand is in his left hand because in my mind, he’s so anxious to get onto the field that he didn’t put his glove on.”

The sculpting process started with an 18-inch-tall maquette, or model, made out of clay. Originally, she designed it with Tillman not wearing a helmet. But ASU and the Tillman family asked that she create the image with a helmet. She bought a helmet from Tillman’s era so she could get the Sparky logo just right.

The final maquette was taken to Bollinger Atelier, a fine-arts foundry in Tempe, where the staff made a digital scan and then created a three-dimensional version in foam. The foam was coated with rubber and then clay to make the molds.

Bronze ingots were heated to 2,030 degrees and poured into the molds. Because the statue is so large, it was divided into several molds. After cooling, Davenport took a sledgehammer to the molds to reveal the bronze pieces underneath. The pieces were then welded together.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Davenport wanted a specialist to work on the finish, or patina, of the statue, so she had ASU alumna Aiya Jordan come from San Francisco to spend a full day completing the exterior. Bronze is somewhat flat in appearance, and applying special patinas creates a glowing finish with a hint of color.

Jordan spent several hours one day recently with a huge blowtorch in one hand and a squirt bottle of chemicals in the other, climbing up and down a ladder, coaxing out the image of Tillman in his uniform. Sulfurated potash, a dark substance, created definition in the folds of the socks and the veins on the forearms. A touch of maroon pigment brought the jersey to life.

After the patina process, a clear coat was applied, making the 400-pound bronze statue nearly impervious to damage from the Arizona sun.

Jordan, who earned a bachelor’s of fine arts from ASU's School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in 2004, worked with Davenport at Bollinger Atelier several years ago.

“I was super excited to do this because I’m an alumnus and because it’s Pat Tillman,” she said.

Davenport found the entire process to be emotional.

“For those who know me, I'm sure they would not be surprised to hear that I have shed several tears along the way, both happy and sad,” she said.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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