TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Doctors told Jeff Okrepkie and Stephanie Ottolini not to expect children. Though her cervical cancer had been in remission since 2012, the odds of conception were minimal.
So when Stephanie became pregnant, the couple wanted a special name for what they considered a miracle baby.
Girls’ names came quickly: Quinn, Arabella and Olivia.
Boys’ names sparked tension, with one suggesting a name and the other quickly vetoing it.
During one contentious round of name swapping, Stephanie became irritated and suggested, in jest, to her fiance that they name him Sparky, after Arizona State’s mascot.
“If that’s the case, we could name him Patrick Tillman Okrepkie,” Jeff responded.
Stephanie instantly scoffed at the idea, then paused. She did like the name Tillman.
Jeff went to Arizona State, watched Tillman play football from the student section and attended a memorial for him at Sun Devil Stadium after his death. Stephanie was the daughter of an Army sergeant, so she had strong military ties.
A nephew was already named after her father, so Tillman seemed like the perfect fit.
“It was kind of a serendipitous thing,” said Okrepkie, a commercial insurance agent in Santa Rosa, California. “It was a special birth and kind of inspired by strong personality, by sacrifice.”
Tillman Bruce Okrepkie was born Nov. 10, 2015 — 11 years to the day after Stephanie’s father, Michael, was killed in Iraq.
Pat Tillman lived his life with an exuberating gusto, attacking every aspect with a do-it-great-or-not-at-all passion.
He was a fan favorite at Arizona State and with the Arizona Cardinals, an underdog morphed into a star behind a relentless work ethic.
Tillman became a hero to many when he walked away from a lucrative NFL contract and a newlywed bride to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His death in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2004 — later revealed to be by friendly fire — struck even more of a chord.
Some parents became so inspired they named their children after Tillman; many as a first name, others as the middle name.
“There’s such a connection to him here that if you’ve got a little dude and you want a different name, that guy is the kind of guy you want to name your son to be like,” said Arizona State media relations director Doug Tammaro, who remained friends with Tillman after his graduation in 1997.
Many had ties to Arizona State. Hearing Tillman’s story was enough for others.
Debra Cummings was six months pregnant when Tillman died. Not long after that, her husband, Jack, told her the baby’s name would be Tillman. No debate. Tillman was the name.
Debra was OK with the name though concerned about the gravity of it.
“She said, ‘That’s kind of a big name for a little kid,'” said Cummings, a real estate agent from Manhattan Beach, California.
Cummings had no ties to Arizona State and was not a Cardinals fan yet felt a connection with Tillman.
His father was a colonel in the Air Force and as he followed Tillman’s story, from the time he left the NFL to his funeral, Cummings came to admire the unflinching way Tillman lived his life.
“Just the fact of what he was willing to give up, what he was willing to leave behind to do something he believed in, that was something I had never seen in my life before to that level,” he said.
Debra’s father’s name is Jackson, so they made a compromise: Their son could go by T.J. if the weight of his name was too much.
Tillman Jackson Cummings was born on July 24, 2004. He prefers to be called Tillman.
Alabama is full of Bears and Bryants, named after former Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant. Texas is loaded with Landrys, after former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry.
In Arizona — at least outside of Tucson, home to rival University of Arizona — Tillman is a favorite.
The U.S. Census Bureau does not have information on the number of people named Tillman, and it’s impossible to know how many Patricks were inspired by him.
The Pat Tillman Foundation, which helps service members and their families earn degrees or complete certificate programs, often gets word of people named Tillman.
The biggest collection of Tillmans comes at the annual Pat’s Run, the foundation’s main fundraiser.
Kids who were named right after Tillman’s death now are old enough to participate in the full 4.2-mile run, and their names have shown up more frequently as they’ve crossed the finish line the past few years.
“Kids are getting to the age of 11, 12, 13, where people would have named them right away,” said Tammaro, who helps announce finishers at the race. “Sometimes it’s a middle name, but it’s not like Jim or John or Bob. If you’re named Tillman and you live in this area, you probably got named for him. It’s a pretty cool thing.”
The decision to name a child after a historical figure like Pat Tillman comes with an inherent responsibility.
Okrepkie and Ottolini, who will marry next April, can’t tell their infant son that he is a namesake just yet but will when the time is right.
The Cummings began explaining who their son was named after when Tillman was 6 and started piecing it together as he talked to an Army Ranger friend of Jack’s. Now Tillman Cummings tells people he will be either a pro football player or an Army Ranger when he grows up.
Tillman Cunningham has already embraced the legacy of his name.
His father, Scott, began attending Sun Devils games when he was 8 and once was taught by Tillman at a football camp. He admired the way Tillman carried himself, his dedication and sacrifice, and he attended the Sun Devil Stadium memorial after his death.
When it came time to name their son, Cunningham figured his wife, Jessica, might take some convincing. She was all-in, as long as they could use her father’s name with it.
Tillman James Cunningham was born Oct. 3, 2006.
“I’ve heard a lot about him, like how he joined the Army with his brother and all the stuff he’s done,” Tillman Cunningham said. “It’s pretty cool to be named after such an American hero.”