Kevin Turner's rugged road
March, 16, 2011
By Tim Graham | ESPN.com
Mike Cellucci/ESPN.comKevin Turner, who played fullback in the NFL for eight seasons, was diagnosed with an incurable neuromuscular disorder 10 months ago.Kevin Turner couldn't sit still on that April afternoon in 1992. The Alabama fullback tried to watch the NFL draft for as long as he could, but a combination of tension and monotony increased with each pick. Every 15 minutes another name that wasn't Kevin Turner was announced.
Turner stepped into the backyard of his parents' Prattville, Ala., home for some fresh air and hopefully a diversion. He still laughs at the memory of what happened next. His father bolted out the door and blurted the big announcement: "The Boston Patriots!"
Turner gently corrected him. Actually, it was the New England Patriots. They selected him 71st overall, the second fullback off the board.
The moment was exhilarating for a father and his only child. Raymond Turner coached Kevin from 5 years old until junior high and nearly wept the first time he saw his son enter Bryant-Denny Stadium decked in crimson and white.
Now his son was headed to the National Football League. He loaded up his maroon 1991 Ford Bronco and, with Guns N' Roses blaring, headed off to Massachusetts, where he began an eight-year, $8 million NFL career, met his future wife and scored some touchdowns.
Yet if he knew then what he knows today, he'd be torn about pulling out of Prattville.
"If they would have come to me and said, 'I've seen the future. This is what happens.' Of course, I would stop playing immediately," Turner said. "But, as we all know, nobody can see the future. For me, it just falls into a long line of bad decisions."
Turner is divorced. He went bankrupt on bum real estate investments. He was addicted to painkillers for a couple of years. None of those problems are the worst of it.
Ten months ago, the 41-year-old father of three was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Turner's arms don't work well, his hands even less. His pinch strength, a measurement of the strength generated by the thumb and forefinger, is one pound. That's comparable to an infant. He doesn't have enough might to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube.
Forget about buttoning a shirt. It can take him half an hour to wiggle into his blue jeans with nobody there to help, but he said, "socks are the worst."
The body that produced 30-plus receptions five times for the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, made him the second-richest fullback in the NFL and impressed then-Patriots coach Bill Parcells as a prototypical West Coast fullback is failing.
Todd Warshaw/Allsport The Eagles made Kevin Turner the NFL's second-highest-paid fullback in 1995.
"It's quite a different way of life," Turner said. "It's pretty embarrassing, but cleaning yourself after going to the bathroom becomes very difficult when you can't use your hands. These are just things you don't think about.
"You have to be very creative. I can't pull down my zipper. I got what I call zipper-getters. It's a little hook with some fishing wire that goes around the zipper of my pants so you can go to the bathroom."
Doctors have told him his speech probably will be the next to go. His throat and jaw muscles cramp, reminding him ALS is as relentless as he was on the football field.
Eventually, it will kill him. Maybe within another year or two. ALS is undefeated.
Recent scientific data strongly suggests repeated head trauma can cause a condition that mimics ALS. The neuromuscular disorders are virtually identical -- so alike the difference is detectable only by autopsy.
"Football had something to do with it," said Turner, who has no family history of ALS. "I don't know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys."
To raise research funds and awareness about sports-related head injuries and ALS, he formed the Kevin Turner Foundation.
Dr. Ann McKee said Tuesday the latest information shows NFL players have eight to 10 times the likelihood of being diagnosed with ALS than the average citizen. McKee was the lead neuropathologist for the study that linked head trauma in collision sports to the ALS variant.
The effects of head trauma are a hot-button NFL issue. The league has included ALS as an automatically qualified condition under the 88 Plan, which assists former players with medical expenses related to head injuries.
Cases continue to emerge about retired players experiencing early dementia, memory loss, depression, aggression or erratic behavior. Last month, four-time Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson committed suicide after complaining of severe headaches, vision impairment and an increasing inability to form coherent sentences.
Parcells said he was "sick" to hear about Duerson's death. Duerson played for Parcells on the New York Giants' 1990 championship team. Parcells coached Turner for two years in New England.
"Look, we all know that this is hazardous to your health," Parcells said in a somber tone last weekend. "We do know that. And fullback is a very high-collision position. It's not like playing wide receiver or corner. He's either running the ball and getting tackled, catching the ball and getting tackled or blocking somebody.
"I've seen a lot of big collisions in football. We all know when we sign up for this that there's an element of risk involved."
'A special kid'
Turner wasn't a superstar in terms of decorations. He didn't go to Pro Bowls. But he was far from an NFL commoner.
"He had a heart that just wouldn't stop," Raymond Turner said of his son. "From the time he put the gear on to the time he took it off, he was a competitor. Never once in my lifetime did I have to tell him to hustle. It was there. It was built in. He knew what he wanted to do."
The Eagles loved Turner enough that they signed him to a three-year, $4.125 million offer sheet with a $1.5 million signing bonus when he became a restricted free agent in 1995 after two seasons with the Pats. They outbid the Washington Redskins. Daryl Johnston of the Dallas Cowboys was the only fullback with a bigger contract.
The bemused Patriots couldn't match the Eagles and settled for a third-round draft choice as compensation. New England fared well with the transaction. The draft pick turned out to be running back Curtis Martin.
But at the time, Parcells didn't want to lose Turner.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," former Patriots coach Bill Parcells said.
"There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," Parcells said. "This kid had everything. He was a special kid.
"He was a first-down player and was capable of playing on third down because he had such great hands. He really was an all-purpose back. And you don't see those fullbacks anymore. Kevin was a traditional, old-time, versatile, run-block-and-catch fullback."
Turner's best season was 1994 with the Patriots. When not blocking for Marion Butts, Turner made 52 receptions, gained 582 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns -- all career highs. Turner scored an overtime touchdown in Week 11 to beat the Minnesota Vikings. His catch in the left corner of the end zone was Drew Bledsoe's 45th completion on his 70th attempt, a record that stands by one throw.
Whatever glory Turner experienced came with a price. He absorbed punishment. That's how players often win their team's Ed Block Courage Award, as Turner did with Philadelphia in 1996. They're admired for their perseverance.
Turner knows of only two concussions he suffered in the pros. One came with the Patriots in 1994 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He twisted awkwardly while trying to catch a pass near the goal line, and his head struck Riverfront Stadium's hard artificial turf.
The other known concussion happened with the Eagles in 1997, while Turner was running the wedge on a kickoff return against the Green Bay Packers at Veterans Stadium.
"The next thing I remember," Turner said, "I was asking our backup quarterback, Bobby Hoying, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but are we in Green Bay or are we in Philly?' I was looking around that stadium and could not figure it out.
"I stayed out for two, maybe three series of downs, got my senses back and finished the game. It was a fairly significant injury to my brain, and I just kept pounding on it."
Turner's father is aware football probably contributed to the ALS diagnosis. He often wonders what hit wrecked his son's brain.
Was it the wedge? Was it the time Turner collided with Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle so violently at the goal line he knocked Tuggle out? Was it his final NFL play in 1999, when he barely got a piece of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Cornelius Bennett but both arms went numb for 15 seconds?
The probable answer is all of them contributed amid an accumulation of other hits that didn't register.
"I never thought about my head, the way I was abusing my head, the pounding my head was taking and the long-term consequences," Turner said. "Playing the position I did, I leveled my head every time I was on a lead block. It was part of the three points: my two hands and my head. That's how I was taught to do it."
A wicked game
McKee is director of the VA Brain Bank at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. The center has studied 46 brains of athletes who sustained repeated, sports-related head trauma. Research indicates concussions aren't necessary to induce frightening symptoms.
Many retired NFL players, such as Turner, Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler and Patriots cornerback Mike Haynes, have pledged to donate their brains for research.
"It's very tough now to look at the sport and not listen to the voices inside your head that are very, very much aware this game is associated with significant risks," McKee said. "And we may not fully understand the depths of those risks.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDave Duerson, who committed suicide, reportedly asked that his brain be examined.
"Every month, we've been getting more cases into the brain bank and seeing more cases of [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and some with this [ALS] variant. It's more and more difficult to embrace this sport as it's currently being played. With each month of this work, it just seems worse."
McKee isn't some fuddy-duddy intellectual, trying to undermine football's place in society. She was raised in a football household just outside Green Bay. Her father played for Grinnell College. She attended every game her brothers played.
"Football is a way of life there," McKee said. "It's huge. It's how we define ourselves. I'm sure I would have played if I'd have been born a boy. Football is an enormous part of my heritage. I do understand that football is so much more than a sport to people. It's what we do."
But is football evolving into a culture of regret?
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who has a long history of concussions, recently told HBO's "Real Sports" that if he had a son, the boy wouldn't be allowed to play football. Four-time Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop didn't make an edict but showed off his scars until his son decided not to play, which suits dad just fine.
Turner's jovial patter quickly switched to an agonized sputter when asked whether his two sons should play football. Nolan, 13, has been playing for a while. Cole, who will turn 8 next month, started last year.
Turner doesn't let his kids (10-year-old Natalie is a cheerleader) drink sodas because he doesn't think it's good for them, yet football maintains a powerful influence in their family. Turner hinted he won't let Cole play this year because he's perhaps too young. Nolan's situation sounded more complicated.
"It's something I struggle with every day, whether to just lay the law down and say, 'No, we're not playing,'" Turner said. "Or do I let him live his life and take a chance? But, God, I can't tell you how hard a question that is, especially in Alabama. I'm still not sure that I'm going to let him."
Turner was 5 years old when his dad began coaching him. In many ways, it turned out well.
Colleges began recruiting him as a high school sophomore. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden came to their house, but Alabama won out. The Crimson Tide chose Turner for their commitment to excellence award his junior season. He was a captain his senior season. He left with a finance degree and lived a fantasy some folks would give a limb to experience.
"If they'd have told me when I was 23 years old, in the best shape of my life and just got the dream chance of my life to play in the NFL -- first week of practice in New England, I'm in awe of Andre Tippett, Irving Fryar -- but in 17 years, you're not going to be able to pull up your pants ... you could not imagine it,” Turner said.
"Most people would say, 'If there's a 10 percent chance of that happening, I'll take my chances.'"
'You know it's coming'
Chances are, Turner doesn't have long to live. One of his doctors gave him two years. That was almost a year ago.
ALS has no cure. There are no treatments to stop or reverse it. Fifty percent of ALS patients do not live three years beyond their first symptoms. Only 20 percent reach five years.
One by one, motor neurons steadily shut down. As they do, muscles wither. Although Turner's brain will remain sharp, he will lose his ability to walk, speak and swallow.
ALS eventually reaches the muscles of the chest wall and diaphragm. Suffocation and pneumonia are the most common causes of death.
"There are still times, and let me say it's not very often, in the past year where I'll sit there and become completely overwhelmed and break down and cry," Turner said. "Every now and then I'll let myself think about it. I'll see something or hear something that reminds me of the inevitable. You know it's coming."
Turner said he intends to immerse himself in his children's lives and his foundation's cause. He travels the country for speaking engagements to raise funds. Country-gospel singer Ty Herndon dedicated the title track of his Grammy-nominated album, "Journey On," to the Kevin Turner Foundation. Turner and his children appear in the poignant video.
Turner’s father, meanwhile, can't help but worry. He admitted he and his wife, Myra, feel helpless -- a disconcerting sentiment when it comes to any child, let alone an only child. Raymond is 67 years old, and he's dealing with the likelihood he'll outlive his once-vigorous son. The unavoidability hit home the day a packet arrived in the mail, detailing the process of donating his son's organs.
Turner's mom and dad are considering moving from Prattville closer to Birmingham, Ala., where their grandchildren live, about 85 miles away. Raymond wants to make sure they have a father figure nearby.
"The fact that I'm healthy lets me think I'll be around to see the kids through," Raymond said. "This is not supposed to be this way. Just things you've got to think about and don't want to think about, but you've got to be realistic."
So much has transpired in the 19 years since Turner drove that Ford Bronco from Prattville to the NFL. He made it a point to swing through Manhattan on the way, getting a slice of New York-style pizza and some cheesecake from Carnegie Deli just in case his ride didn't last very long.
The possibilities were infinite. Today, they're decidedly limited. But Turner insists he will make the most of the time he has left and maybe -- just maybe -- be the first person who beats ALS.
On Tuesday night, Turner’s father pondered how amazed he was the first time he glimpsed at his son in an Alabama uniform and saw "Kevin Turner" scroll across the bottom of his television screen on draft day.
And then, he considered how pleased he is with Turner today. The feeling doesn't pertain to football at all anymore.
"I swell up and tell him so often about how proud I am of him, most part for being a man of good character," Raymond said. "That's meant more to me than anything."