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Rod Tillwell jersey on a chair next to a locker
Chasing The Kwan: Where Did Rod Tidwell Go?
Cardinals wide receiver went from near-stardom to anonymity
By Darren Urban Apr 01, 2016
Photographs By Arizona Cardinals

Professional life was never going to get much better than this moment for Rod Tidwell, standing in the hallway outside the Sun Devil Stadium locker room of the Arizona Cardinals. He just didn't know it yet.

The wide receiver just had nine catches against Dallas on "Monday Night Football" – the last of which went for a game-winning 17-yard touchdown with a controversial aftermath, but more on that later – and his team still had a chance to make the playoffs.

Swamped by reporters before he could even reach the interview room, Tidwell couldn't stop the tears. It was an emotional win. He was an emotional guy. He knew that new contract he coveted – the big one, not the disappointing extension he had been offered before the season -- was now a likelihood. It was almost like an ending to a movie.

He was the local kid who was primed to break out, this former star at Arizona State University. Maybe even become the face of the franchise.  

For a while, Tidwell had been using a word for this potential bliss: Kwan. It was all-encompassing.

"It means love. Respect. Community. And the dollars too," Tidwell once told a friend. "The entire package."

The Kwan was within Tidwell's reach. It just turned out to be more fragile than he ever imagined.

When the Cardinals renovated their Tempe facility last year, a big story was the preservation of the locker once used by the late Pat Tillman. But during the efforts to clear out that area, another locker drew attention. Stuck in a crevice of a stall – the one where Tidwell once called home – near the showers was a small gold chain, the number "85" dangling from the end.

That he had somehow lost it was surprising, but perhaps not as much as how quickly Tidwell was lost to history himself. Two decades have passed since Tidwell's glorious personal quest. Bad luck quickly took Tidwell out of his star orbit. A generation of fans doesn't know him. To mention a famous wide receiver for the Cardinals, it's Larry Fitzgerald. It's not Kwan but Quan, as in Anquan Boldin.

His story was no less fascinating, however. To understand Tidwell … well, it's possible no one ever really did.

Tidwell grew up fatherless (The senior Tidwell, Tommy, did try, once, to call at the height of his son's NFL popularity. Tidwell hung up on him.) His mother, Alice, worked multiple jobs to keep the household together, but life was never easy. Tidwell's older brother Mehki – who was considered a better athlete than Rod -- tragically lost his leg after a bass-fishing accident. Then there was Tidwell's younger brother, T.P. (He liked to tell people it stood for "The Prince" but in reality, it stood for his given name, Terrence Phillip.) T.P. Tidwell fed into the worst parts of Rod, encouraging his myopic behavior at the worst times and for the worst reasons.

Rod Tidwell was not the same guy playing football as he was off the field. There was a switch flipped somewhere there, a chip loaded onto Tidwell's shoulder every time he walked into the locker room or on the field or did anything football-related. With his family, that's when Tidwell was most genuine, a love for his wife, Marcee, and two children that wouldn't be matched.

If it was Marcee tethering Tidwell to the family side, it was, somewhat surprisingly, his agent who provided an anchor of sanity to the football side. Jerry Maguire wasn't particularly close with Tidwell when Tidwell first went pro. That changed.

Theirs was an odd relationship. Maguire had been one of the best agents in sports, working at the top of the food chain at powerful Sports Management International. Then came a controversial split. The official story was that Maguire simply decided to open his own practice. Sources inside SMI said Maguire inexplicably tried to undercut those running the company and was bounced because of it. Given that Tidwell ended up as Maguire's only client for a long time, the claim would seem true.

Perhaps it said something about Tidwell that his best friend turned out to be his agent.

At what point does money equal respect?

It's a question every person has to answer for himself. For Tidwell, both were wrapped up in one big ball of Kwan. The dollars were never far from his thoughts, however. He was a fourth-round pick coming out of ASU, after a career in which he filled up the stat sheet but concerns about his size and speed lingered. Fourth-round picks don't get big contracts.

He emerged in his third season, gaining 1,199 yards and scoring seven touchdowns on only 77 receptions. By then, he wanted a raise. He still wasn't regarded as one of the top receivers in the league. Of this he was acutely aware. Many teammates remember his favorite phrase whenever Tidwell would make a catch. It wouldn't matter if it was in a game. He even started spouting it if he managed to grab an errant toss from the quarterback against air in practice or warmups. "Show me the money!" Tidwell would bellow.

(Although 20 years can shade a memory. Some of Tidwell's teammates remember Tidwell yelling, "They owe me the money!" SMI sources recall Maguire yelling one or the other before he was dismissed, although they couldn't be certain which.)

Maguire told Tidwell to "bury the attitude a little bit." That didn't go over well with Tidwell, but when a quality extension offer never came, reality set in. Humbled, the wide receiver did the only thing he could do. He tried to forget about the contract, and bet on himself.

Fans began to fall in love with him, and Tidwell didn't have a problem with that. In some ways, the fans were an extension of his family, and whenever he could block the money factor out of his thinking, Tidwell was always better off. Maguire tried to use such analysis to rein in Tidwell.

"You play with your head and not your heart," the agent told Tidwell after one game. "Personal life? Heart. But when you get on the field it's all about what you didn't get, who's to blame, who underthrew the pass, who's got the contract you don't, who's not giving you your love. That is not what inspires people."

Such raw advice didn't always immediately set well with Tidwell, but down deep, he preferred the honesty. He needed the honesty.

"(Kwan) means love. Respect. Community. And the dollars too. The entire package."

- Rod Tidwell

That's how Tidwell found himself making the last of his nine receptions against Dallas on that chilly Monday night at Sun Devil Stadium, scoring a touchdown to beat the Cowboys and keeping the Cardinals' playoff hopes alive. Tidwell went high for a pass and came down on his head, leaving him seemingly unconscious. It was actually pure theater for Tidwell, who later admitted to friends he feigned the injury in an effort to milk the moment.

Somehow he convinced the team's athletic trainers to let him get up on his own. He bounced around the end zone and breathed in the admiration of 70,000 screaming Cardinals fans as "In Rod We Trust" flashed on the Jumbotron. ESPN played the highlight incessantly for a week.

The Cardinals offered him a hefty extension a couple of days later with an announcement on ESPN's "Up Close" talk show, a mechanism which basketball star LeBron James used as a guide years later for his infamous 'Decision.' Tidwell jumped at the contract.  At $11.2 million over four years and a $2 million signing bonus, the dollars were what he had dreamed.

The Cardinals did not make the playoffs, losing their finale, but there was optimism for the future. Tidwell made the Pro Bowl, riding his 89 receptions, 1,376 yards and 13 touchdowns to Hawaii. Reebok called, offering him that endorsement deal he had craved. Tidwell jerseys flew off the shelves in sporting goods stores.

Fans couldn't get enough Tidwell. An autograph session at a local store caused enough traffic to shut down a nearby road. His shoe commercial got rave reviews. He did the talk show circuit, his personality a hit on Leno, Letterman and Conan. He was part of a group that opened a restaurant in nearby Scottsdale, named simply "Tidwell's." He even was in talks for a small part in a big-budget movie, although he ultimately turned it down so he wouldn't lose precious offseason time away from Marcee and the kids. (Tidwell, always his own biggest believer, insisted he could have become an Oscar-winning actor had he chose that path). He had seemingly achieved his Kwan.

Like any NFL contract, however, the Kwan came with little guaranteed.

The Cardinals and Tidwell were the NFL's darlings going into training camp the following season. No longer did Tidwell need to boldly predict his greatness because there were plenty of analysts who were willing to do it for him. The fever pitch around Tidwell couldn't have been more intense as the Cardinals played their season opener. Tidwell dominated, with 80 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Then, in the third quarter, Tidwell tore ligaments in his left knee. His season was over.

Tidwell was devastated, but insisted he would return. Football had never been more popular in the Valley. Arizona State had come within seconds of an undefeated season. Tidwell, because of his injury, got to see his alma mater multiple times in person and was in the end zone at the Rose Bowl when David Boston broke every Sun Devil's heart. ASU's star quarterback Jake Plummer was a second-round pick of the Cardinals. Thoughts of a Sun Devil-to-Sun Devil connection exhilarated not only the fan base but Tidwell, who attended Plummer's introductory press conference.

Two weeks later, Tidwell was doing some light running when a routine step left him clutching his left calf. It didn't take a diagnosis for Tidwell to fear the worst and the doctors confirmed his fear: a torn Achilles. Tidwell never did play again. By the time Plummer led the 1998 Cardinals to their first playoff appearance since moving to Arizona, Tidwell was already a memory.

By 2003, Boldin arrived on the scene for his magnificent rookie season. The next year, Fitzgerald was drafted, starting a career arc that Tidwell once believed was meant for him. By then, Tidwell had faded from much connection with the team.

After his former locker was ripped from the wall during renovations and the chain with the "85" on it spilled to the floor, it wasn't hard to remember where it had come from. Where the chain's owner had gone, though, that was a different story.

Damien Anderson, the former Cardinals running back who now runs the team's alumni program, had reached out to Tidwell multiple times with no response. Anthony Edwards, a fellow wide receiver on those mid-90s Cardinals and now the team's senior director of player development, couldn't remember the last time he spoke to Tidwell.

He hadn't disappeared, or even left his beloved home state. He and Marcee simply moved north, building a house on the outskirts of Prescott. His new contract couldn't guarantee him stardom, but the near $7 million he collected from that deal was plenty to live the life he wanted.

A visit to the nice but not lavish home finds no real sign that Tidwell was once a Cardinal, nor a bombastic celebrity. There is no hint a former professional athlete lives there – especially one who captured the state's attention, if for only a brief time.

A knock at the door and a press of the doorbell brings no answer, even as a shadow moved behind the curtained window. If Tidwell is going to revisit his time as a Cardinal, he might need another 20 years. But it's hard not to notice the small handpainted wooden sign hanging on the porch near the front door containing a simple message.

"The Kwan."

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