An Army dentist drove 350 miles overnight from El Paso, Texas, to Pinetop-Lakeside, arrived at 4:30 Saturday morning and slept in his car, so he could run 4.2 miles in the Pat Tillman Honor Run.
Rick Ly, a lieutenant-colonel stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, was among the full capacity of 50 participants in Saturday’s Pat Tillman Honor Run at Mountain Meadow Recreation Complex. The event was held locally for the third time in four years and occurred two days after the 17th anniversary of Tillman’s death in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger.
“Pat Tillman — my hero. This was an absolute blast. It’s an honor to serve in the military, but to honor him. … He is the epitome of an American hero,” said the 46-year-old and Vietnam-born Ly, a refugee from that nation in 1978 as a 3-year-old. “I’m just a dentist, an Army dentist. I’ve been meaning to do this run for years. This was very convenient. Six hours was not bad, although it was dark.”
Ly said he took two naps on his journey that included State Route 191 through Clifton and Morenci on the way to Pinetop-Lakeside. His main objective, he said, was to avoid animals while driving. “As long as I don’t hit any deer I’ll be fine,” he said.
He commandeered a mattress topper from Fort Bliss and used it to sleep on in the back of his SUV in the recreation complex’s parking lot until it was time to report for the Tillman run at 0930.
Although he was eager for the run, Ly was no aware of all the circumstances. He completed the 4.2 miles — 42 being Tillman’s uniform number as a football player at Arizona State — Ly said he did not know his time, nor did he care.
“I was just happy to finish without any assistance,” he said. “I don’t want to embarrass the Army. I was hoping to break 40 minutes. I am not a runner. As much as I love the military, even 2 miles is too long for me. I had to train for the 4.2 to be totally honest.”
A Whiteriver resident, Steven Ovah, who is Hopi, completed the course in 27 minutes 56 seconds and was first to cross the finish line, accentuated by the No. 42 by the town’s Public Works Department.
Ovah, 36, said he competed for the first time to honor Tillman and other men and women in service.
“It’s a good cause, the Pat Tillman run. I’m just promoting health and wellness, and to everybody who serves the country. They’re making the biggest sacrifice. I want to show my appreciation,” Ovah said.
Another runner, James Gilbert, of Concho, ran in the Honor Run for the third time and has also competed in the Tempe-based Pat’s Run several times. “I want to live to be 100-plus,” said Gilbert, born in 1942 and his 78 years old.
Tony Alba, community services manager for the town of Pinetop-Lakeside-Lakeside, has spearheaded the Tillman Honor Run since he moved to the area four years ago. Alba had worked for the Pat Tillman Foundation in Tempe, and also is an ASU alumni. So it’s a personal endeavor for him.
“I’m a Sun Devil fan. I have a background in athletics. I used to work for the Fiesta Bowl. I was the PR director down there. It was personal for me. The first time I met Marie Tillman, Pat’s widow, and his brother, as impressive as their persona is when you meet them in person it just sticks with you,” Alba said. “And I had the opportunity to meet and interact with a lot of the military veterans that became Tillman scholars and to see the things they were able to do. It inspired me. You can’t be around that organization and not have it become part of you. It was personal.”
Since Tillman’s legacy represents much more than just ASU, the events locally, in Tempe and throughout the country transcend allegiances to any colleges, Alba emphasized.
“I know there are a lot of ASU folks up here, a lot of UA folks up here. The nice thing about Pat Tillman and his legacy is it really transcends all of that. So on one day a year, the day of Pat’s Run, you’re not a Wildcat or a Sun Devil or a Lumberjack or anything. You’re running to support Pat Tillman,” he said.
A major objective of the Tillman run in Pinetop-Lakeside is to raise funds for and support academic scholarships for high school students in the White Mountains. There are two scholarships awarded each year, and the recipients must be ASU-bound.
“I think it shows the community what we give of ourselves and participate in this and raise funds for recipients to further their education,” said Bruce Bishop, chairman of the White Mountains chapter of the ASU Alumni Association. Bishop and his wife, Susan, also have been organizers of the Tillman Honor Run since it began four years ago.
“It’s amazing our servicemen give so much and they go through a lot of turmoil,” Bruce Bishop said. “This event shows that the community gives back. As far as our alumni chapter, we’re very pleased to sponsor this because these events occur only when an alumni chapter steps forward. They’re all over the country. It takes courage to give back. We had well over 100 (runners) a couple of years ago and Flagstaff had none. Now they have 50 up there doing the same thing we’re doing down here.”
Well-known Valley sports announcer Jeff Munn has handled the announcing duties at the Tillman Honor Run from the beginning, and also announces the event in Tempe, and does so because he wants to help Tillman’s significance continue for new generations.
“There’s a number of reasons. I always feel doing volunteer work is a way of giving back, utilizing the gifts I’ve been blessed with to help others, which I think is really important,” Munn said Saturday at the event.
“And I’m a Sun Devil. And the name Pat Tillman means a great deal to me. So you add all those things up it’s very easy. I look forward to getting up here and being a part of this. I was familiar with him and had met him. I was very familiar with his story. It’s always impressed me — whether it’s been the run in Tempe or it’s been the run here — his legacy remains so strong.
“Kids know who Pat Tillman is and it’s obviously something they’ve learned from their parents. That is so impressive.
“There’s a lot of events we do where we honor somebody from the past and we don’t really know who it is.
“But Pat still remains a very vibrant figure to the ASU community, to Arizona, to the military and that really makes me very happy that people are still very well connected with it.”
This year’s event did not have a typical post-run ceremony with speeches, awards, etc., but Alba believes those functions will return for the 2022 run.
“Hopefully next year we’ll be back to doing a post-event celebration onsite under the tent where we can do silent auctions and musical entertainment.
“We’re looking forward to bringing that back because it’s a big part of why people want to get together afterwards, share stories, talk about Pat Tillman, talk about their experience of running the event,” Alba said.