Friendship Through Tragedy: Fulfilling a Friend’s Last Wish
Contributed by Melinda Davison
It’s been said that tragedy can either tear people apart or bring them closer together. The latter is rarely truer for the horse industry. We tend to have a unique bond that runs deep in our hearts for our passion for horses and those who share it with us. While on the road at shows, we share many milestones together, whether it’s birthdays, achievements, defeats, heartbreak, and triumph, which often leads us to developing a “second family” that becomes just as special as our first.
On July 5th, the PHBA and horse industry suffered an unexpected and heartbreaking loss in the sudden passing of Captain Jeff Player of Naples, Florida. “The Captain” was a multiple PHBA World Champion, a PHBA National Director, and dear friend to many.
Close friend, Steve Tidwell of Tallassee, AL, explained, “He was a wonderful man, a wonderful friend. When I had heart surgery, he drove 10 hours from Florida to Montgomery, no questions asked and wouldn’t take no for an answer. That’s just the kind of friend he was.”
As with many who knew him, his death hit the Tidwell family hard. Like the Tidwells, Player had been preparing for the 2014 PHBA World Championship show in which he hoped to make a comeback after suffering a tragedy of his own last year, when his world champion stallion, Totally Golden Kid, was found dead in his stall one day.
“Jeff was absolutely crushed. Just heartbroken,” Tidwell remembered. “That horse was his pride and joy, and he would just light up about him. He did all the work himself and earned every bit of the success he had with him.”
Eventually, with the support of his friends and family, Player found another halter prospect to start rebuilding his hopes and dreams with. Kids Classic Diamond, “Cotton”, was a 2012 palomino stallion who appeared to be just an average horse to many people. Many doubted what Player saw in Cotton, and there were even a few times he doubted himself. However, Tidwell reminded him to trust his instincts and give the young stallion time. Player’s instincts turned out to be right, as Cotton finally blossomed into the halter horse he had seen in him from the beginning, and began his plans to return to the PHBA World Show. However, he would not see that day come to pass.
“We were all shocked to hear of his death. I actually heard about it through someone, and thought they were joking because surely his wife, Kathi, would have called me,” Tidwell said. “I immediately called her, and she confirmed that it, unfortunately, was not a joke. She had found him in the barn, sitting in a chair in front of a fan where he had stopped to rest. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Tidwell decided the best way to honor his friend was to finish what Player had started. He would find a way to get Cotton to the world show and have him shown.
Tidwell, himself, actually didn’t have room in his trailer due to commitments to his clients. However, that didn’t stop him.
“We probably had about three different people help us get Cotton to Tunica. Come hell or high water, we were going to find a way to get that horse to the World Show.” Tidwell exclaimed.
Last Tuesday, July 14, Tidwell’s daughter, Kimberly Tidwell-Davis, led Cotton into the Two Year-Old Stallions class and emerged as a Reserve World Champion.
According to Tidwell, “Jeff was like another daddy to her. He meant a lot. For her to show Cotton for him in his memory meant a lot to her too.”
“We lost a great man.” Tidwell-Davis added. “It took my breath away to hear of his passing, and it was an honor to show Cotton for him and make ‘The Captain’ proud.”
Player’s wife also took to the show pen in Amateur Two Year-Old Stallions, and came out placing third.
“It’s just such a tragedy, what happened to Jeff,” Tidwell said. “However, we’re one big family, and that’s what families do for each other. I’m glad we were able to complete his last wish after he worked so hard to see it through and after he endured his own heartbreak. He would have done the same for any of us.”