By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch
In 2000 and 2001, Kwamie Lassiter and Pat Tillman played together with the Arizona Cardinals, Lassiter as the starting free safety, Tillman as the starting strong safety.

In May 2002, Tillman gave up his NFL career and joined the Army Rangers.

"That was Pat Tillman," said Lassiter, signed by the Rams last week as a free agent. "If anybody would do that, it would be him. It wasn't a surprise to me at all."

Tillman, 27, was killed April 22 in Afghanistan.

"That was a surprise," Lassiter said. "A guy like that, who's going to give everything for you, not only for the team, but for his country, you want to see him come back home. But Pat, if he's going to die, he's going to die hard."

Lassiter signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted rookie out of Kansas in 1995. Tillman arrived three years later as the team's seventh-round draft pick, No. 226 overall.

Tillman, an All-Pacific 10 Conference linebacker at Arizona State, impressed with his hard hitting and soon was a mainstay in the lineup.

"People would say, 'He can't do this, he can't do that,' and he proved them wrong. He overachieved," Lassiter said. "He would get the game plan, focus on it, study it, and then go out there and get the job done. He was that type of guy. The game became second nature to him."

In 2001, the Rams tried to sign Tillman as a restricted free agent. Tillman decided to return to the Cardinals for less money. A year later, he turned down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from Arizona and enlisted.

"A lot of guys aren't able to walk away from fame and fortune," Lassiter said, "but Pat was a different guy."

Lassiter remained with the Cardinals through the 2002 season. Though he'd started every game for four seasons in a row, Lassiter was waived in February 2003.

"It's a business," Lassiter said. "I found that out a long time ago, when guys like Larry Centers, Lomas Brown and Aeneas Williams left (the Cardinals). Those are guys you want to retire at your place."

San Diego signed Lassiter, and he started the first 10 games before a torn knee ligament ended his '03 season. The injury didn't require surgery, and Lassiter was with the Chargers throughout the preseason. He was released Sept. 5, apparently because the team wanted to go with younger players.

"I never really got an answer when I left there, so I couldn't really tell you exactly what it was about," said Lassiter, who has 25 interceptions and 572 tackles during his career.

Sitting out the 2 1/2 weeks before the Rams called wasn't easy.

"I wasn't panicked, but ... this is what I like to do," said Lassiter, 34. "So, I'm glad to be back in uniform."

On Sunday, he'll be back on the field when the Rams (1-1) meet the New Orleans Saints (1-1) at noon at the Edward Jones Dome.

The Rams have moved Williams to cornerback from free safety while corners Travis Fisher (broken arm) and DeJuan Groce (sprained knee) mend. Rich Coady is expected to start in Williams' old spot, but Lassiter should play, too.

"He's been a terrific player in this league for many years, so it was good to be able to get him on the roster," coach Mike Martz said. "We're very fortunate that he was available."

Lassiter played for several years under Larry Marmie, the former Arizona defensive coordinator who is in his first season in the same role with the Rams.

"He understands the system," Martz said. "He should be able to come in and play immediately in some packages."

Lassiter, who worked as the nickel back in practice and also will play on special teams, agreed that integrating himself into the Rams' system should be a snap.

"Football is football," he said. "I'm going to have fun Sunday. I'm playing with some winners now."

In Lassiter's eight seasons in Arizona, the Cardinals went 45-83 and finished last in their division four times. The Rams, conversely, have endured just one losing year after their 1999 Super Bowl championship.

"These guys, they expect to win every Sunday," Lassiter said. "It's a different feeling. I'm going to have fun."