By Mark Carlisle
West Valley Preps
In a game to honor Pat Tillman’s legacy, players from both teams wore Tillman’s name on their backs. By halftime, the Liberty players had added his number to the scoreboard.
In its first Pat Tillman Classic game, Liberty (5-0) jumped out to a 42-0 halftime lead over Tillman’s alma mater Leland from San Jose, California (1-2). The Lions’ defeated the Chargers by a final of 56-7 Friday night at Liberty in Peoria.
“This is a meaningful thing right here,” Liberty coach Mark Smith said as he handed the football-shaped Pat Tillman Classic trophy to his players after the win. “Don’t take this for granted. You guys deserved this trophy. You guys played the right way, you played hard.”
The game brought the team from Tillman’s alma mater to his adopted state of Arizona where he became a football icon, playing as a linebacker for Arizona State and a safety for the Cardinals. After the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman left the NFL to enlist in the U.S. Army and later died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2004.
Leland has held a game in honor of Tillman each year since his death and traveled to Arizona to help christen Liberty’s first Tillman Classic, where the school honored military members, police and firefighters. Students also raised $3,100 in donations that were present to the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides academic scholarships to military members and their spouses.
Next year, Liberty will travel to Leland for a Pat Tillman game.
Smith said his team entered the game ready for anything. Leland isn’t known as a pushover. Smith pointed to Leland’s 11-2 record and loss in its section’s championship game last season.
“We weren’t taking them lightly,” Smith said. “We were going to play this game like it was a state qualifying tournament game, because that’s who we’re playing. We’re playing a playoff team from last year that went to their final game of the year. So, to have that result is a little shocking to me, but you know, our kids come ready to play, and I’m really proud of them for their effort and their attitude tonight.”
The game didn’t turn out to be much of a contest. There was a running clock in the second half and Liberty pulled most of its starters.
The starters had done plenty of damage in the first half, though. Senior running back Jett Kinsch led the way with 94 rushing yards and three touchdowns on nine carries. The 10.4-yard average was Kinsch’s best this season despite often having a short field to work with.
The Lions’ defense and special teams gave the offense dream field position. The Liberty offense started five of six drives in the first half in enemy territory. Two began inside the 25.
The Lions’ defense stifled the Leland run game and sacked junior quarterback Carson Yates five times, twice by junior linebacker Jace Accurso. Liberty also blocked a punt.
With the sacks, the Chargers netted just 3 yards rushing on 23 attempts. Yates didn’t have much more success through the air either. He completed 5 of 11 passes for 42 yards and one interception, which was returned for a touchdown.
Leland finally got on the board in the fourth quarter when junior Jesse Cavanna returned a kickoff 91 yards for a score. Cavanna squirted out of a pile of blockers and defenders to nothing but green grass ahead and ran it in for his team’s only score.
Liberty emerged as the stronger team from the start, when the Lion offense gained at least 15 yards on each of its first three plays. But an 11-0 score after one quarter hardly signaled a blowout.
However, things got out of Leland’s hands quickly in the second quarter. Thanks largely to outstanding field position, the Lions mounted four scoring drives before half – and each took a minute or less off the clock.
Liberty’s final score in the half came when Yates picked the wrong Lion to throw a pick to. Yates’ errant pass dropped into the hands of senior cornerback Eli Pittman, who had two would-be punt return touchdowns negated by penalties in the game. This one counted though, as the speedy Pittman swerved around defenders for the 40-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Liberty junior quarterback Jonah Guevara didn’t have to do much but was efficient when he did throw. Guevara completed 5 of 7 passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. The Lions never turned the ball over.
The Liberty backups carried the torch well for the starters in the second half. Sophomore quarterback Brock Mast completed all five of his passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. Junior running back Joseph Forney carried the ball six times for 81 yards, and senior running back Jake Morris had 45 yards and a touchdown on four carries.
Players from both teams wore a “Tillman” nameplate on their backs. The jerseys also featured a camouflage design of each team’s colors — red and black for Liberty; blue and gold for Leland — on the numbers, team name, shoulders and Tillman nameplate.
Leland wore a “42” American flag detail on its helmets in honor of Tillman, which the team wears each year for the Pat Tillman game it hosts. Tillman wore 42 at Leland and ASU. He switched to 40 with the Cardinals.
The Liberty field featured these same red-white-and-blue 42s in the end zones and below the Liberty L at center field.
The pregame ceremony of the game included gifting active members of each branch of the military as well as police and fire with a commemorative mini helmet and a military hat, provided by the Cardinals. A former player, two cheerleaders and mascot “Big Red” were on hand to represent the Cardinals.
The crowd also applauded all current and former military and first responders in attendance.
Future Tillman Classics
Smith said he and Liberty hope to build the Pat Tillman Classic into an annual event featuring four games between four Arizona schools and four out-of-state schools and hoped it could eventually be played in ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium or the Cardinals’ State Farm Stadium, or when traveling to Northern California, in a college stadium there or in the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium.
Leland coach Mike Ward said his team’s fans are a small but close-knit group. More than 50 fans made the trip from Northern California for Friday’s game.
“We honor Pat in our little game, close-knit community thing, but to come down here and to help you guys try to build it, because I know what his presence was here and still is here, it’s awesome for me, for us, to be a part of it,” Ward said. “…He means a lot to both places.”
Slideshow by Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia.