Marine buddies join the battle as Navy football alum Tyler Tidwell fights ALS
By JENNI CARLSON | The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City | Published: April 16, 2021
EDMOND, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Alex Tidwell stepped onto her daddy's wheelchair and gave him the look.
Tyler Tidwell knew exactly what she wanted. He put his right hand over the control panel and set the motorized chair into a spin. First one way, then the other. The 5-year-old's blond hair flew this way and that as she went round and round with her daddy.
He beamed, every part of his face smiling, especially his eyes.
These days, those eyes are his only voluntary muscles not affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Two decades ago, Tyler Tidwell was a standout linebacker at Deer Creek High School, on his way to a decorated football career at Navy. A decade ago, he was an infantry officer leading Marines deployed overseas, on a trajectory some believed would lead to the highest levels.
Today, he needs help just getting out of bed and struggles to be understood when he talks, using an eye-control device to communicate via email and text with the outside world.
In only three years, ALS has eaten away at the 35-year-old's body. The neurological disease also known as Lou Gehrig's disease is progressive. Insidious. It slowly destroys muscles, rendering even the strongest unable to stand or walk, talk or breathe.
There is no cure.
"I tell people all the time, 'We're in an impossible situation,'" Tyler's wife, Cassi, said, "but the amount of help and support that we've had for a lot of people has made it not so terrible."
Tyler and Cassi, now living in Edmond, moved to Oklahoma from Maryland so they could be closer to his parents. Her mom relocated, too. They help with the kids. Help Cassi. Help Tyler.
But it's not just family who have been supportive.
Last year, a couple of Tyler's Marine buddies started a GoFundMe account. They wanted to do something. Had to do something, they felt. Tyler and Cassi weren't sure about asking for financial help, but Tom Upchurch and Corey Mazza assured them people who were scattered around the country and even deployed overseas wanted a way to help them.
The morning after the site went up, it had $50,000.
Now, it is over $300,000.
"I wish we were doing more," Mazza said. "What do you say to a person that's seemingly superhuman who all of a sudden lost their powers?
"What can you do for them?"
All anyone knows to do is keep going.
Tyler Tidwell doesn't remember exactly when he hatched the plan to live out his dream.
Sophomore year of high school seems likely.
He was playing varsity football then. Deer Creek was on its way to becoming a monster of a suburban district but, at the time, it was a remote high school on the western edges of Edmond. It was only playing Class 3A ball.
The Antlers had quite the team, though. Coached by Ron Smith, Deer Creek won the 2000 state title with several players who'd go on to play Division-I football. Paul Smith. Clint Coe. Adam Bates. And yes, Tyler Tidwell.
But he didn't dream of a career in football.
He wanted to be a Marine.
His grandfathers served in World War II, one in the Navy, the other in the Army Air Corps. His father, a Marine, earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. And with both of his parents working as police officers, service was in Tyler's blood.
"I remember looking at a brochure from one of the service academies ... and it just seemed to click," he said. "Excellent academics and athletics. Full scholarship. And a career waiting for you right after graduation."
Tyler spent the next couple years doing everything in his power to make sure he got accepted into at least one of the academies. He was great in the classroom, ending up as valedictorian of his class. He was great on the football field, too, doing well enough to draw interest from in-state programs as well as Harvard and Yale.
But he only had eyes for the academies.
He chose Navy.
"There were obviously some downsides associated with the academies, namely a total lack of what one might consider a 'normal' or 'fun' college experience," Tyler said. "But overall, I thought they sounded too good to be true."
His play for the Navy football team had a similar-too-good-to-be-true quality. As a junior, he set a single-season program record with 19 tackles for loss, ranking 14th nationally. He punctuated the season with a career-high 11 tackles, including three sacks, in the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl against Colorado State.
The next season, Tyler did more of the same.
His signature game came against Army. Late in the fourth quarter with Navy trying to put away its biggest rival, the linebacker came up with back-to-back sacks, the second of which resulted in a safety.
He ultimately landed a spot in the East-West Shrine Game, the only invitee from a service academy that year. The game showcases potential professional prospects, and while Tyler was somewhat undersized at 6-foot-2, 224 pounds, he more than held his own.
Could Tyler Tidwell have tried the NFL?
The policies for service-academy athletes going into pro sports were stricter than they are now.
"And pretty much every deal that had been worked out involved guys who were going into the Navy," he said. "I was headed to the Marines, so I didn't even think there was a viable option there to explore had I wanted to."
But he didn't want to.
"I was always far more excited about the Marines than I was about any professional sports prospects," he said.
And those around him were excited to see where that military path might take him. They saw a potential for greatness.
"The guy lives and leads by example," then-Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green told NavySports.com at the time. "He could be one of the great leaders we'll see in the next 10 years.
"Someday, he could be president of the United States."
Tyler Tidwell wasn't thinking about such lofty aspirations back then. He had set a goal of having a career in the military, and he was on the cusp of becoming a Marine. Nothing was going to deter him.
"While I absolutely loved football, it was more or less a known quantity," he said. "Life in the Marines wasn't.
"I was ready to find out what it was all about."
Uncertainty comes for Tyler Tidwell
Tyler Tidwell didn't nibble around the edges of being a Marine.
He took a big bite and went into the infantry.
Tyler deployed twice to the Middle East in his first six years of service, then in 2012 was assigned to the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. It was a three-year assignment, and during that time, he had duties at the White House, Arlington National Cemetery and other places around the nation's capital.
"You do these parades where we march around, and it's a very precise show that we train and practice for like a theater group," fellow Marine Corey Mazza said.
"You go from a rough-and-tumble Marine not showering for weeks on end in the field living in dirt," he said, "and all of a sudden, you care how sharply you are dressed and all the little detail-oriented things that the Marine Corps takes such pride in."
Mazza and Tidwell became close friends during those years, finding common ground with their football backgrounds — Mazza played at Harvard — and when the company commander and executive officer rotated out, Tidwell and Mazza took over those roles.
But even as they served together, Mazza knew Tidwell was different. Mazza had gotten into the Marines never intending to make a career out of the military. Tidwell had, and he had a level of professionalism that stood out even among an elite group like the Marines.
"Everything he was doing was focused on improving himself not to transition to a job somewhere else but to just be a better leader in the Marines," Mazza said.
Some thought Tidwell would one day be a general.
Mazza didn't know how high his buddy would climb, but even after Tidwell returned to Marine Corps Base Quantico to attend expeditionary warfare school, then was assigned to another infantry battalion out of Twentynine Palms, his roots grew deeper and stronger.
In 2018, Tidwell was promoted to major.
"There was no uncertainty about his future," Mazza said.
Then, Tyler Tidwell started slurring his words.
Friends, family grow concerned
Corey Mazza was at the store with his kids when he got a call from another Marine buddy, Tom Upchurch.
"Hey, have you talked to Tyler lately?" Upchurch said. "He's talking really weird."
"What are you talking about?" Mazza asked.
"He's just really slow," Upchurch explained, "almost like he's struggling to find his words."
Tyler had always had a unique way of speaking, his diction methodical and deliberate and precise, but after hanging up with Upchurch, Mazaa immediately dialed Tyler to see if something was different.
Mazza's heart dropped as he listened to Tyler.
"Oh, shit," Mazza thought. "It is noticeable."
In typical Marine fashion, he didn't tiptoe around the issue.
"What the hell's the matter with you?" he asked Tyler. "Why are you talking like that?"
Tyler came clean: he didn't know what was happening, but since the start of 2018, his speech hadn't been the only problem. He'd been having muscle twitches in his arm, too.
"I'm gonna get it checked out," Tyler assured Mazza.
But Tyler was stationed at Twentynine Palms in a remote part of California. Specialists weren't easily accessible, so Tyler just kept working. Kept going in the field. Kept doing training operations.
Even as everyone around him worried — from family to friends — the person who seemed the least concerned was Tyler.
"He probably, being so strong and so invincible for so long, just felt like, 'Shrug it off,'" Mazza said. "I feel like he kind of knew this was more serious, but he wasn't done leading Marines yet.
"He just wasn't ready to be done serving."
Tyler eventually decided to see a doctor. He was getting weaker. He had to deal with whatever was happening.
For the better part of a year, he was tested. ALS had been mentioned as a possibility early on, but it wasn't until the fall of 2019 that evaluations at Walter Reed Naval Hospital and the University of Virginia Medical Center confirmed it.
Tyler Tidwell had ALS.
Move to Oklahoma strengthens support system
Tyler and Cassi Tidwell decided they needed to move to Oklahoma last May.
Tyler was set to be medically discharged from the Marines, and while his military service entitled him to care and equipment — his ALS was classified as a service-connected disability — the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs could only do so much. They weren't going to help Cassi watch the kids when Tyler needed help eating. Or tidy the house of the debris of three kids under 6.
The Tidwells bought a house within a mile of Tyler's parents, Bobby and Linda.
Then Cassi's mom, Eileen, decided to move from Maryland to Oklahoma, too.
Most days, it takes everyone to make things work.
Tyler must be helped from the bed to his wheelchair, from his wheelchair to the recliner, and on and on. Tyler plays with the kids and blows through reading material — his study has bookcases filled with the classics — but Cassi often has to do for Tyler what he can no longer do for himself.
She feeds him, then Alex, 5, Bobby, 4, and Christian, 1, then finally herself. Even the smallest of tasks requires her help, including when Tyler has something stuck in his teeth.
"He can't get it out," Cassi said. "He's frustrated because he can't communicate with me where it is, but he also can't get it himself even though he knows exactly where it is."
Cassi also gives Tyler injections of an experimental drug, the latest one they're trying to slow the disease's march.
"That's outside of network," Cassi said of seeing doctors who prescribe such treatments. "Most doctors like that unfortunately that we've tried aren't within the VA or his network. You have to pay for them out of pocket."
Tyler and Cassi know the costs are high and the chances are low. Despite decades of research, ALS has no cure and very limited therapeutics. Sure, there have been a few success stories of patients who've seen improvement, but they haven't seen any breakthroughs.
"But that doesn't mean that we're wanting to stop trying," Cassi said.
Their friends feel the same way.
Moving forward into the unknown
Corey Mazza admits there's not really a plan.
That's a weird feeling for a Marine to have, marching forward without really having an idea of what comes next. But with ALS, there's no way of knowing what Tyler might need next.
So, what do you do?
"Just keep doing something," Mazza said, "until something works."
They keep looking for ways to help Tyler, Cassi and the kids. When the family's van could no longer hold Tyler's wheelchair, Mazza tapped into the deep-and-wide network of Marines who'd served with Tyler. Sure enough, a Marine in Kentucky, Matt Smith, had connections to a group helping wheelchair-bound military and law enforcement get adequate transportation.
Tyler and Cassi soon had a new van that could handle the wheelchair and the kids.
Mazza believes such help gives the family the thing ALS has rendered finite — time together.
"Go create more memories together," Mazza said.
Tyler and Cassi say their battalions of supporters have made fighting this battle a little more bearable. No good deed has gone unnoticed. The calls and texts and emails. The care packages. The donations to the GoFundMe.
They have come from Navy alums, the Navy football brotherhood, the Marine Corps, the VA and so many others.
The Tidwells feel the love.
"One thing I can unequivocally say is that I could not have a better network of support than what my military background has given me," Tyler said.
He shared those words on his communication machine that uses eye-controlled sensors to type and speak for him. He depends on it often because of how his ALS has affected his speech. Even though using the EM-12 Eye Mobile Plus is a slow process, but for a man whose world went from boundless to confined, every outlet is invaluable.
Those who know Tyler Tidwell best say he's never complained about any of this. His only worries are about Cassi and the kids.
They call him amazing.
But he says they've got it wrong. He says the amazing thing is all the support, all the love, all the care that he and his family have received.
"We have been incredibly blessed."
Want to help?
Tyler Tidwell and his family have out-of-pocket expenses related to his battle with ALS that aren't covered by insurance or his military service. Some of his buddies from the Marine Corps started a GoFundMe account to help the Oklahoma native now living back in his hometown of Edmond. Go to GoFundMe.com and search for "The Tidwell Family" to donate.
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U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Tyler Tidwell, company commander, Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, calls commands during a large scale assault range as part of Exercise Valiant Mark 2016 at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Oct. 7, 2016.
AKEEL AUSTIN/U.S. MARINE CORPS