AFC East: Conrad Dobler
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."
"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.
"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.
"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."
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas is one of a growing number of NFL players vowing to donate their brains to research.
At least 20 times, the memory came crashing back for Don Hasselbeck.
In a flash, he was a teenager again, a star tight end for La Salle High in Cincinnati. His quarterback had thrown an interception against Purcell. Hasselbeck went into hot pursuit. The rumbling ball carrier veered toward him, driving a knee into Hasselbeck's head.
A few moments later, Hasselbeck regained his senses and sat upright and surveyed the La Salle teammates and coaches that had gathered around him on Purcell's field.
Only he wasn't a teenager anymore. He was a New England Patriot in Schaefer Stadium. Or a Los Angeles Raider in the Coliseum. Or a New York Giant at the Meadowlands.
"Every time I was knocked out -- bang! -- I thought it was the first one in high school," Hasselbeck said. "I can be in the ninth year of the pros, and think I was on that high school field. What is that in my brain that gets triggered to make me think I'm 18 years old?"
Hasselbeck estimated his number of concussions "on the 20-plus side" before his nine-year NFL career was over in 1985. He traveled back in his cranial time machine on every nasty headshot.
He's worried those repeated brain injuries will impact his life.
"I get concerned when I read articles of guys killing themselves or being depressed or dementia or Alzheimer's," said Hasselbeck, a mostly healthy 54-year-old and a longtime Reebok executive. "That scares you. You don't want to see these guys falling apart in front of you."
Hasselbeck is among a growing crowd of retired and active NFL players who have pledged to donate their brains to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine to research the long-term impact of football-related head trauma.
The registry for what's known as "the VA CSTE Brain Bank" -- housed at the New England Veterans Administration in Bedford, Mass. -- is up to 250 players who want to further a cause that began when Chris Nowinski, a Harvard alum and former pro wrestler, got inquisitive about his future after suffering six concussions.
Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee founded the center. Their findings from CSTE research -- that players are highly prone to clinical depression and early onset of Alzheimer's -- has triggered sweeping changes in the way the NFL views head trauma and could transform the way the game is played both on the practice field and on Sunday afternoons.
"We've made remarkable headway," Nowinski said. "I don't think I ever dreamed the NFL would agree there was a problem. For legal reasons, I just didn't think they'd admit it. It was the pathological research, the brains of the deceased players, pressure from the active and retired players who were courageous enough to stand up."
Nowinski's passion is collecting autographs and game-used equipment.
The autographs are signatures of players such as Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey, former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas and Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes; the game-used equipment he gets them to consign are their brains.
"Once I'm dead, I'm not going to need it anymore," said former Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler. "I plan on being cremated. I always wonder what they do with all those parts.
"But if I'm going to be cremated anyway because I don't feel like laying in a casket and having worms eat my body for eternity. My brain will live forever to help some others, and to let the world know that I actually had one."
Nowinksi wrote the 2006 book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues." About a month after the book was released, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide. Nowinski convinced Waters' family to donate his brain for research, a seminal moment for the brain bank.
Waters' brain was examined by Dr. Bennett Omalu in Pittsburgh, and it resembled those of Mike Webster and Terry Long, former Pittsburgh Steelers who died young after bouts with depression and dementia.
"We started with guys who were disasters," Nowinski said. "Now we're moving on to guys who might or might not be impacted in varying degrees. But these are people who are committed and recognize the problem and want to be a part of the solution."
Nowinski's cause has reached a level of consciousness where players are approaching him to will their brains without him needing to deliver a sales pitch.
"I told him I would donate my brain," former Bills offensive lineman and SI.com columnist Ross Tucker said. "I was never diagnosed with a concussion, but I can remember at least four plays during my career where the collision was just different. When you play football for 18 years, you can tell when something's different.
"For 10 to 15 seconds after, I was thinking 'Wow. That was crazy. I don't know what happened there, but I don't like it.' "
The CSTE scored a major victory in December, when the league announced it would impose stricter guidelines on players returning from concussions and teamed up with the Center for Disease Control to produce a public-service announcement that urges youth coaches, players and parents to be educated on the dangers of head injuries.
"That showed me there was no going back," Nowinski said.
The next step is enacting rules that protect players from Pop Warner and up.
Nowinski referred to testimony Houston Texans guard Chester Pitts gave before Congress. Pitts declared he would forbid his son from playing football because it was too dangerous.
"That's kind of creepy that he's exposing himself to a violent game he wouldn't let his own son play in," Nowinski said. "That's a sign we need to change things."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appeared Sunday on "Face the Nation" and told host Bob Schieffer the league would consider eliminating the three-point stance. Nowinski, citing research that shows 75 percent of head shots occur in practice, raised the possibility of no-contact, helmet-less workouts.
"There always will be four downs," Nowinski said. "A touchdown will be worth six points, a field goal worth three points. But how we hit each other, how we collide has to change."
While Tucker dismissed abolishing the three-point stance as meaningful (linemen don't build up enough momentum in such a short space to make that type of contact significant), he lauded the NFL's decision last spring to eliminate the wedge on kickoff returns as a step in the right direction.
Players on return and coverage teams generally are the last 10 players who dress on game day, the most easily replaceable parts.
"How hard they run down there and how hard they hit that wedge is the difference between 650 grand and going back to Columbus, Georgia, to find a job for 12 bucks an hour," Tucker said. "If those were your options, you'd hit that wedge pretty damn hard, too."
Tucker also would like to see certain drills outlawed. He described what he and his Washington Redskins teammates called "the headache drill" in 2007. Offensive linemen would take on a linebacker at full speed, the frequent result being a helmet-on-helmet collision.
"We hated it," said Tucker, a Princeton alum who retired that year because of herniated discs in his neck and back. "I remember feeling my brain rattling around.
"I don't think it has truly impacted me, but there are times when I forget stuff that I shouldn't. I've always been known for having an amazing memory, but it just seems there's short-term stuff I don't remember sometimes.
"I'm not concerned about it, but there's probably something going on, and if I can help in any small way, I'm willing to do that. Guys are only going to get bigger, only going to get faster. Unless we do something, it's only going to get worse and worse."
From their first season in 1967 to the paper-sack-wearing Aints days, the franchise has endured a lot to win their first NFC championship and finally reach the Super Bowl.
"It didn't take us but 43 years to figure it out," said Archie Manning, a local icon who quarterbacked the Aints and still resides in New Orleans.
To get an idea of how much pride Saints alumni are feeling in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIV, I asked Danny Abramowicz, Conrad Dobler, Henry Childs, Bobby Hebert and Manning to share their memories of some not-so-pleasant days.
Abramowicz (an original Saint -- drafted in the 17th round -- and Pro Bowl receiver and later a Saints broadcaster): "I can remember running out on the field the first day, opening game at Tulane Stadium in front of 85,000 people. We ran the kickoff back for a touchdown, and it went downhill."
Hebert (a Baton Rouge, La., native and Saints quarterback from 1985 through 1992): "It was always 'Wait 'til next year.' They didn't have a winning record their first 20 years."
Abramowicz: "We were involved with one of the biggest fights of all time [Oct. 8, 1967 against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium]. All the fans were pouring out onto the field. We had a guy on our team named Doug Atkins, who really was a freak of size. The last pass to me in the game against the Giants was a Hail Mary-type thing, and it was incomplete. I look up the field, and they had Doug pinned down and were beating him with helmets.
“I thought 'Well, I better get out of there.'
“In Yankee Stadium, you had to go through dugouts. I looked back one last time to see what was going on and missed the top step. My head hit the top of the dugout. I had to go back to the locker room and sit down in a chair. Guys were coming in with their shirts torn, and they were bleeding. A lot of silly stuff happened in those times."
Manning: "You never get used to losing. The Saints can tell you, the Colts can tell you, when you win those games, the next Sunday comes around too quick. It's such a great feeling. The atmosphere is so good. But when you lose, that next Sunday almost won't get there."
Abramowicz: "People came to our games for the halftime shows. We had Al Hirt, Pete Fountain. There were some great times, but an awful lot of bad times, a lot of butt-whippings."
Abramowicz: "The lowest time in the franchise for me was in 1973. We opened the season, and everyone's fired up. Everyone thinks we're going to the Super Bowl on opening day. If you don't feel that way, then get the hell out of the game.
“We opened against the Atlanta Falcons, and that was our big rivalry at the time. They beat us that opening game, 62-7, just whipping the you-know-what out of us. This wasn't the Dallas Cowboys. This was the Atlanta Falcons. That was, in my time, the lowest.”
Thomas was named to the NFL's All-Decade team Sunday. He played linebacker for 13 seasons. He attempted to make it 14 last year, but the Kansas City Chiefs cut him after he suffered another concussion in training camp.
"I would like to make sure the game of football survives," Thomas said in a story by Palm Beach Post reporter Hal Habib. "The scientific findings to date are clear that repetitive trauma to the head results in [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] in many athletes. I want to do my part to help the researchers understand this disease and to discover treatments and an eventual cure.
"This is not just about professional athletes who may know there are risks to the game. This is about making sure that the game is safe for all of those children playing the game today and in the future."Thomas was a hard-charging, overachieving tackle machine for the Dolphins. But that reputation gave way later in his career. The Dolphins released him after he missed most of 2007 with a concussion that was soon followed by residual affects exacerbated by a rear-end auto collision on his way home from a game.
Rather than think of a great player, many observers feared for Thomas' safety, knowing that one more concussion could be devastating for him.
"They labeled me with that, as prone for concussions," Thomas said after the Dolphins cut him and he joined the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. "Everybody just thinks I'm some guy out here that's punch drunk, running around."
Thomas was one of 19 active or retired players to join the Boston University registry. Others with AFC East ties include former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, former New England Patriots cornerback Michael Haynes and Patriots tight end Don Hasselbeck.
- Tom Curran of NBCSports.com calls Dallas' decision to cut Terrell Owens the second-best offseason move and the Bills' decision to sign him the second-worst. Also on the list: the Patriots giving away Matt Cassel and the Jets drafting Mark Sanchez.
- The NFL Network ranks Owens the No. 6 most outrageous character in league history. Conrad Dobler is No. 9.
- For a Father's Day story, Andy Kent of MiamiDolphins.com visits with receiver Brandon London about being one of seven children to University of Richmond coach Mike London.
- South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Mike Berardino takes a look at sixth-round pick Andrew Gardner, a 6-foot-6 tackle who's expected to sign Friday.
New England Patriots
- We finally know who saved Tom Brady from his overturned kayak while trying to race in the Charles River.
- WEEI.com's Christopher Price shares his thoughts on what he saw of various Patriots at minicamp.
New York Jets
- Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden talks with the people who made rookie head coach Rex Ryan the man he is.