Pat Tillman loved football. He played linebacker for Arizona State University and was instrumental in bringing the team to the Rose Bowl his senior year. In 1998, he became a professional football player in the National Football League with the Arizona Cardinals.

But after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman's dreams changed. He turned down a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals in 2001 so he could enlist in the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, after serving several tours of duty, Tillman was killed during a friendly fire accident in 2004.

"His decision and choice was very publicized because he was in the NFL," Marie Tillman, his wife who just wrote a book about dealing with the loss of her husband, said. "I've met a lot of people who had a strong reaction to Sept. 11. It's a tough decision for anyone to make."

Pat's decision involved many tough discussions over the course of several months with Marie. They were newlyweds and Pat's career was taking off in the NFL. He was in his prime and poised to become one of the great safeties in the league.

"It was definitely something we came together to discuss over several months," she said. "It was something that he really took seriously. You could just see it in his eyes and the way he talked about wanting to make a difference."

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In her book, "The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life," Marie describes how one of her husband's final letters gave her the strength to overcome her grief.

"Before he deployed to Iraq he had left a letter for me. It was one of those `just in case I don't make it letters.' It ended up being something I went back to time and time again," Tillman recounted. "It really helped me over the last eight years."

What did the letter say? She says it was a simple yet powerful message.

"His request was basically that `I ask you to live.' He didn't want me to just wallow in my grief," she said. "To have this sort of last letter and request by Pat on how I should move forward, it was amazing and inspiring."

It was so inspiring that it spurred Tillman to establish the Pat Tillman Foundation, an organization that assists veterans and military spouses through education and community.

Beyond that, Tillman hopes her book can help others deal with their own grief and loss.

"I decided to write the book a couple of years ago. After Pat was killed and I was dealing with his loss, a lot of what helped me during that time was reading other people's stories. So many people had gone through something similar," she said. "As time passed, being out there and talking to people who lost loved ones, I realized that my story could help people in that same way. So there is this hope that by sharing my experience and journey I have taken, that would inspire others in the exact same way I was inspired by them. In a way it's about giving back to the community that has helped me so much already."

But it isn't just about those affected by military loss. Tillman hopes her story can bring solace to anyone.

"My personal journey may be different from someone else's, but I hope it can still help," she said. "I think even though someone else's experience might be different, we have all reached a point where everything isn't turning out the way we thought it would. My hope is that people can latch onto that and be inspired continue to live life to the fullest."

Tillman will speak at the 2012 Center for Hope annual luncheon May 8 at 11 a.m. at the Country Club of Darien. All proceeds benefit the Center for Hope and The Den for Grieving Kids, Family Centers' programs offering critical illness and bereavement support to residents of lower Fairfield County. For ticket information or sponsorship opportunities, visit www.familycenters.org or contact Aleksa Lazarewicz at 203-869-4848 or alazarewicz@familycenters.org.

Family Centers is a private, nonprofit organization offering education and human services to children, adults and families in Fairfield County. More than 1,700 professionals and trained volunteers work together to provide a wide range of responsive, innovative programs. A United Way, Community Fund of Darien and New Canaan Community Foundation partner agency, Family Centers is a member of the Connecticut Council of Family Service Agencies and the Alliance for Children and Families and is accredited by the Council on Accreditation and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The agency is licensed by the State of Connecticut Department of Public Health. Visit www.familycenters.org or www.facebook.com/familycentersinc for additional information.

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