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Rick Scuteri, Associated Press
FILE - Arizona State's Josh Pokraka (82) and teammates touch the Pat Tillman statue before an NCAA college football game against New Mexico State, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz.

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Seven years ago, Carl and Lori Churchill joined with about 28,000 people in honoring the legacy of former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinal football player and U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.

U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman

“There were people walking (a 4.2 mile run honoring Tillman) leisurely,” Carl Churchill said.“There were folks in wheelchairs, there were vets rucking it, people running with sandbags and competitive runners. It really hit home how many people were affected by Pat and wanted to honor him and raise funds for the Tillman Scholars program.”

The experience was made more impactful after they met Tillman’s widow, Marie. They ended up running in a few Tillman Honor Runs around the country.

Eventually, Churchill ran the event in Utah, which was organized by the ASU Alumni Utah Chapter.

When only 20 people showed up, he decided to see if he could help with the annual event, as he wanted it to be a fitting tribute to Tillman.

Last year, event organizers increased the number of participants to 60, and this year they’re hoping to break 150 participants in the 4.2 mile race on Saturday at 8 a.m. Churchill, who owns Alpha Coffee in Cottonwood Heights, said Tillman’s story resonates with him for many reasons.

“Pat was a unique individual who chose principles and service over fame and fortune, turning down a $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother Kevin and deploy with the 2nd Ranger Battalion,” Churchill said. “He was a patriot, but a fiercely independent one who didn’t want to be used as a political prop and someone who was a deep thinker who believed it was important to live his life based on good human values. Pat was tragically killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire during his second deployment.”

A bit undersized as a linebacker— at 5-foot-11 — Tillman, nevertheless, became a standout at Arizona State as a star linebacker, earning the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997. He was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and started 10 of 16 games in his rookie season. In 2000, he earned all-pro honors. Then, in May 2002, Tillman, who was deeply troubled by the terrorist attacks of September 2001, turned down a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to join the U.S. Army.

In the wake of his death, those who knew him and those who were inspired by him have been trying to honor both his life and his sacrifice in a variety of ways. The Pat Tillman Foundation set up Pat’s Run on the campus of Arizona State in 2004. According to Elisha Hayes, the ASU-Utah chapter president, alumni associations across the country now host Tillman Honor Runs in 37 cities across the country.

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“This run embodies the warrior ethos and the values of service and giving back to the community,” said Churchill, who now helps host the Utah Tillman Honor Run starting at his coffee shop, Alpha Coffee, in Cottonwood Heights. “That is a core part of our family’s personal ethics and a core part of our company’s mission to give back. So it’s been incredibly satisfying to see the community in Cottonwood Heights and across Utah embrace it and help us grow this.”

Churchill said he hopes the run becomes the largest Tillman Honor Run in the country. He said he and his wife, “love the fact that the Tillman Foundation supports veterans and their families with merit based scholarships that fund college degrees for scholars dedicated to serving others.”

Participants can register online at tillmanhonorrunutah.eventbrite.com or register at Alpha Coffee, Saturday at 7:15 a.m. in person.