Marine Corps veteran and form Navy football player Tyler Tidwell as seen with his wife Cassi and two of their three children.

Marine Corps veteran and form Navy football player Tyler Tidwell as seen with his wife Cassi and two of their three children. (Facebook)

(Tribune News Service) — A large contingent of the Navy Football Brotherhood gathered Friday in Oklahoma City to say farewell to one of their own.

Tyler Tidwell, a standout linebacker for Navy from 2003 through 2006, succumbed after a four-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The Oklahoma native died last Saturday at home surrounded by his family at the age of 37, Naval Athletics announced.

Tidwell, who was diagnosed with ALS in August 2019, passed shortly after the Dec. 10 Army-Navy game was completed. There is no cure for ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord. When those cells die, voluntary muscle control and movement are lost.

It is an insidious disease characterized by gradually worsening weakness due to muscles decreasing in size and most sufferers eventually lose the ability to walk, use their hands, speak, swallow and breathe. According to the ALS Association, the average life expectancy of a person battling the disease is two to five years from the time of diagnosis.

Knowing Tidwell was steadily deteriorating and the end was coming was of no comfort to his former teammates and classmates.

“We’re all just devastated. It’s just really heartbreaking and sad,” said Rob Caldwell, who started alongside Tidwell for two seasons and was a fellow Class of 2007 graduate.

Upon hearing the news Saturday night, Caldwell immediately launched a fundraising page on Facebook.

Because Tidwell was no longer on active duty, his family will see an immediate reduction in income and will have a tougher time collecting benefits. The Navy Football Brotherhood, a tax-exempt 501 (C3) organization, is seeking donations to provide support for the family and has set a goal of $100,000.

“At this point, we are turning our attention to doing everything possible to help Cassi and the kids, not only in the near term but for the future as well,” Caldwell said.

All-American boy

Tidwell grew up in Edmond, Oklahoma and was a four-time class president and valedictorian of his graduating class at Deer Creek High. The son of Oklahoma City police officers, Tidwell knew from an early age he wanted to serve in the military.

While recruited to play football by a wide range of schools, Tidwell only applied to the three service academies and wound up at Navy. Caldwell and Tidwell were both direct-entry recruits and met on Induction Day in June 2003.

“My first impression of Tyler was this tall, skinny, good-looking, square-jawed blonde kid from Oklahoma,” Caldwell recalled. “We were doing 15-yard shuttle drills and I was like ‘Wow, this kid can really run.’ It was obvious from the outset that Tyler was a really talented player.”

Tidwell was one of the few plebes to make the varsity and saw significant action on special teams. As a junior, he became a starter at the hybrid outside linebacker position known as “Raider” and was a breakout performer — ranking 14th nationally with 19 tackles for loss and setting a single-season school record with 10 sacks.

Tidwell capped that 2005 campaign by being named Defensive Most Valuable Player of the Game after totaling 11 tackles and three sacks in Navy’s 51-30 rout of Colorado State in the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl.

“It was fun watching Tyler develop into a dominating player despite being undersized for what was in essence a defensive end position,” said Caldwell, noting Tidwell was listed at 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds.

Over his last two seasons with the Midshipmen, Tidwell started 23 games and amassed 120 tackles (28 for loss) and 15 sacks. He had another signature outing in the 2006 Army-Navy game, putting the finishing touches on a 26-14 victory by recording consecutive sacks, the latter of which resulted in a safety late in the fourth quarter.

“The thing I will always remember about Tyler is his passion and the fact he was the toughest competitor. He was fearless on the field, but quiet, kind and always with a war smile off it,” said former Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who is attending the funeral in Oklahoma City along with almost two dozen of Tidwell’s former teammates. Niumatalolo, who has been the coach since 2008, was fired Dec. 10 following Navy’s 20-17 double-overtime loss to Army.

Tidwell’s sack record was broken this season by Navy outside linebacker John Marshall, who recorded 11 1/2 . Caldwell enjoyed watching Marshall, who reminded him a lot of Tidwell.

“Tyler was the same type of player — he was relentless and went hard and fast until the whistle. Just a constant overachiever,” Caldwell said.

Decorated officer

Tidwell was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer and attended The Basic School at Quantico, Virginia before beginning what would become a decorated military career.

As an infantry officer, Tidwell was deployed twice to the Middle East while with a battalion based out of Camp Pendleton. He served as company commander and operations officer while stationed at Marine Barracks Washington for three years.

Corey Mazza served as Tidwell’s executive officer during that period and the two became close because they had similar backgrounds. Mazza, who played football at Harvard, went to work for UBC, the multinational investment bank and financial services company, after retiring from the Marine Corps.

After Tidwell was diagnosed with ALS, the family turned to Mazza to provide financial advice and assistance. Mazza served somewhat as chief financial officer of an organized fundraising effort that was supported every step of the way by the Navy Football Brotherhood.

Over the last two years, donations from former Navy football players have helped pay for medical equipment, experimental treatments, therapy and ultimately nursing care for Tidwell. Mazza and leaders with the brotherhood initiated dialogue with the Tunnels to Towers Foundation and Home Depot Foundation, which resulted in the Tidwell’s mortgage being paid in full.

“There were a lot of people involved with helping Tyler with his fight, and it was uplifting to be part of it,” Mazza said. “It speaks volumes about Tyler as a person that so many people cared about him. Personally, I loved the guy and his friendship meant a lot to me. What a wonderful human being on every level.”

Mazza was one of the speakers at Tidwell’s funeral Friday morning and shared some funny anecdotes, such as how subordinates would secretly change the placement of items atop his desk, moving around a framed photo of his family, pen holders and coffee cups.

“Tyler always had a meticulously organized desk and we got a kick out of moving things a centimeter or an inch at a time,” Mazza said. “Tyler would convene a meeting and it was funny to watch him subconsciously put everything back the way it was.”

Ultimately, Mazza will relate to the mourners how Tidwell dealt with ALS and his steadily deteriorating condition with pride and dignity.

“Tyler’s toughness and how he handled pain that I can’t even comprehend speaks to how mentally and physically tough he was,” Mazza said. “That’s why he dominated every aspect of life. The guy is just a winner who had a way of making everyone feel special. He had that intangible factor that enabled him to exude warmth and compassion.”

In 2015, Tidwell returned to Marine Corps Base Quantico to attend expeditionary warfare school then was assigned to another infantry battalion based out of Twentynine Palms, California. He deployed again to the Middle East as a company commander and was based out of Kuwait, conducting missions and exercises in Iraq and other nearby countries.

Tidwell was promoted to major and served as an operations officer through 2018. However, when the battalion deployed again the following year, Tidwell was unable to go due to his increasingly difficult medical situation.

Passion for literature

Tidwell retired in June 2020 and said he was going to occupy his time doing his three favorite things — reading, writing and spending time with family. A steady stream of former teammates, classmates and fellow service members made their way to Oklahoma City to visit with him.

Bobby Tidwell, now retired from the Oklahoma City police force, said he and his wife Janet marveled at the number of folks who cared enough about her son to come spend time with him.

“While I knew him because I raised him, I still had no conception of how many lives Tyler had influenced in such a short period of time,” Bobby Tidwell said. “It really came to light once the illness happened and progressed. Just so many people reaching out and showing up at the house after traveling from the East Coast or the West Coast just to visit with Tyler for a day or two.

“I thought it spoke volumes about what Tyler was all about: Just a positive influence that boiled down to living a good life.”

Former Navy teammate Byron McCoy, now a farmer in Clinton, Missouri, probably spent the most quality time with Tidwell over the last years of his life. McCoy, who raises cattle and grows wheat and corn on his family’s 2,500-acre property, made the five-hour drive to Oklahoma City to visit with Tidwell and then was diligent about communicating through email.

“What strikes me most is, even with everything he was going through, Tyler remained one of the most positive, caring people I’ve ever met. He was always thinking of others,” said McCoy, who was a career backup linebacker and special teams performer at Navy.

Tidwell had a passion for literature of all sorts and enjoyed recommending books he had read to friends. One of his all-time favorites is the French historical novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. McCoy thought his friend somewhat embodied the primary character Jean Valjean, whose struggles for redemption are chronicled in the classic.

Renowned Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was another of Tidwell’s and he highly recommended The Brothers Karamazov, a murder mystery, to McCoy.

“Tyler is one of the most avid readers I’ve ever known and we talked a lot about books,” McCoy said.

When McCoy last saw Tidwell in person he was among a group of friends that visited the house together. In advance of the gathering, Tidwell had specially selected one book for each visitor. He presented McCoy with Life Is a Miracle by Wendell Berry.

“It made me feel special that Tyler took the time to really think about the book he felt was right for me,” McCoy said. “That’s just the way he was — a very special, caring, charismatic individual who had a way of making things better for everyone with whom he engaged.

“Tyler always left you with a better spirit.”

McCoy admitted it was difficult to see someone so strong, athletic and physically gifted steadily decline. He marveled that Tidwell continued to work hard to excel at whatever he was applying his energies toward.

“Tyler’s body may have been breaking down, but his mind and soul never did,” McCoy said. “You could still see in his eyes the charisma, the personality, the passion. He could still bring energy to the room and still had an aura that made you want to be there with him and not be sad.”

Frank Schenk, lead organizer of the Navy Football Brotherhood, said the organization is committed to assisting the Tidwell family for as long as it takes. They will continue various fundraising efforts to help replace lost family income and to set up scholarships for the three children — 7-year-old Alexandria, 6-year-old Bobby and 3-year-old Christian.

In addition to his wife Cassi, three children and parents Bobby and Janet, Tyler Tidwell is survived by his brother Justin.

Anyone wishing to donate to the Tidwell family can visit this facebook page.

(c)2022 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

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