An American Hero – Malagrifa recalls his friendship with football star Pat Tillman

September 10, 2010
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Former Lynn Tech principal Al Malagrifa will go see the “The Tillman Story,” a documentary about former NFL star Pat Tillman in theaters this week, with a personal appreciation for Tillman’s football career and the heroic sacrifice that he made for his country.

Tillman was an NFL All-Pro defensive player for the Arizona Cardinals. After the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman and his brother, Kevin, enlisted in the U.S. Army. On April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. The Army awarded Tillman the Silver Star.

Malagrifa’s friendship with Pat Tillman dates back to 1996 when his nephew, Kevin Wolthausen (Malagrifa’s sister Mary’s son) was coaching the Arizona State University (ASU) football team. Wolthausen, who now coaches with the Las Vegas team in the United States Football League, was the ASU linebackers coach.

That ASU Wildcats team was a powerhouse, featuring not only Tillman, but future NFL quarterback Jake Plummer and linebacker Derrick Rogers. ASU was undefeated during the regular season and played Ohio State in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, for the national championship. The Buckeyes won 20-17 in dramatic fashion, scoring the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left after Plummer had directed the team to the go-ahead TD with 1:41 remaining.

Because of Malagrifa’s connections, he was granted access to all of ASU’s practices and he stayed in the same hotel as the team.

“I was in Pasadena for the whole week and I was able to be on the field for all of the practices ” said Malagrifa. “It was a great time. What I remember most is meeting Pat Tillman, talking with him at length at breakfast, and playing table tennis with him.”

Malagrifa said he could relate well to Tillman, who grew up in California and played high school football before receiving a scholarship to Arizona State.

“Being an ex-high school principal and Pat Tillman having his hair long, I got along very well with him,” said the now 77-year-old Malagrifa. “He was a great kid, an outstanding, well-spoken individual. He could have been a kid growing up in Lynn. There was nothing phony about him. He was real.”

Through his nephew, Malagrifa kept in contact with Tillman after college and continued to follow his career after he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 1998 NFL Draft.

Malagrifa said he was devastated when he heard that Tillman was killed in Afghanistan.

“It was so sad that a great young man like Pat Tillman – who gave his life for his country – was taken from us,” said Malagrifa. “I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary. It will bring back some very good memories of Pat and what a real American hero he was. He was the American dream. How many kids go to college and play on a team like Arizona State that played for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.”

Malagrifa still has some photos and ASU memorabilia from his days as a Wildcats fan. During his Rose Bowl week experience, he also had the opportunity to have dinner with Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Now enjoying retirement after finishing his career as principal of Lynn Tech, Malagrifa, a former football player at Charlestown High School, still follows the game closely. He will get together with his nephew when the Las Vegas Locomotives play the Hartford Colonials in Connecticut in November.

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