NFC East: Daryl Johnston

Kevin Turner's rugged road

March, 16, 2011
3/16/11
1:06
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Kevin TurnerMike 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."

Kevin Turner
Todd Warshaw/Allsport The Eagles made Kevin Turner the NFL's second-highest-paid fullback in 1995.
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.

"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.

[+] EnlargeKevin 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.
But at the time, Parcells didn't want to lose Turner.

"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 helps run the 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.

[+] EnlargeDuerson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDave Duerson, who committed suicide, reportedly asked that his brain be examined.
"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.

"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 his 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."

Another prediction from Emmitt?

July, 19, 2010
7/19/10
2:38
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Some of you might recall Emmitt Smith predicting last summer that the '09 Cowboys would finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs. During a conference call Monday, I gave Smith the opportunity to make a prediction for this season. He stopped short of predicting a trip to the Super Bowl, but he's a lot more optimistic this time around.
"This year, they have a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to,'' Smith said of the Cowboys. "Hopefully those guys have taken this offseason and said next year should be our time. They made giant strides.''

Smith's 7-9 prediction stung some of the current Cowboys last year and they brought it up again when they finally won a playoff game. When I asked Smith on Monday whether he was willing to predict a Super Bowl appearance for the Cowboys, he said, "I think they have the potential to get there."

Sounds like a man who's gotten out of the prediction business. But the fact that Smith said this Cowboys team reminded him a lot of his '91 team is high praise. That Jimmy Johnson-led team broke through to win a wild-card game before being destroyed by Detroit the next week. In '92, the Cowboys bounced back to win the Super Bowl.

In other news, Smith said he's completed his Hall of Fame speech. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will present Smith at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, next month. Smith said he had to make a tough choice between Jones and Daryl "Moose" Johnston.

Asked if he'd try to match Michael Irvin's powerful speech, Smith said it's not something that had entered his mind. He said his speech will be the ultimate "thank-you opportunity," so I'd set the over-under on names mentioned at 50. I attended his retirement speech a few years back, and he mentioned so many names that it became comical.

Now if I could just figure out why a reporter decided to pepper Smith with questions about his experience on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." Didn't he win that contest like five years ago?

Best Cowboys Team Ever: 1993

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
11:00
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Notable players: QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith, FB Daryl Johnston, WR Michael Irvin, G Nate Newton, C Mark Stepnoski, OT Erik Williams, TE Jay Novacek, DT Russell Maryland, LB Ken Norton, DE Charles Haley

Emmitt Smith
Tim Roberts/AFP/Getty ImagesEmmitt Smith held out to start the season, but once he returned, it all came together for the Cowboys.
Analysis: I could make the argument that the ’94 team that lost to the 49ers in the NFC title game was the best, but I’ll save that one for another day. In ’93, Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys had an enormous target on their backs and the team began the season with Smith in a holdout. Disgusted by an 0-2 start without Smith, Jerry Jones quickly signed the running back to a new contract. The Cowboys ran off seven straight wins and finished the season 12-4.

Dallas sent 11 players to the Pro Bowl after the season, and they could’ve had a few more on defense. If not for Smith’s holdout, this was the type of team that might have made a run at a perfect season. The Triplets were unstoppable, and the Cowboys had perhaps the best offensive line in the league. The Roger Staubach teams of the '70s were formidable, but I just don’t think they were as deep as Johnson’s teams of the early '90s.

The Doomsday defense from the late '70s trumps the defense from the early '90s, but the Triplets surpassed what Staubach, Tony Dorsett and Drew Pearson accomplished.

Most impressive win: It’s too easy to say the Super Bowl, so give me the overtime victory in the Meadowlands over the Giants to end the regular season. The win gave the Cowboys the division title and a wild-card bye week. In that 16-13 win, Smith had one of the best individual efforts in club history. Playing with a separated shoulder, he rushed for 168 yards and caught 10 passes.

Best player: How can you not go with the guy who won the NFL’s MVP award, the Super Bowl MVP and the rushing title in the same season? Let’s go with Emmitt.

Honorable mention

1977: The Super Bowl champions were dominant on both sides of the ball. Dallas began the season 8-0. The Broncos didn’t belong on same field in the Super Bowl. Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Harvey Martin and Randy “Manster” White put the “Doom” in Doomsday.

1992: You almost forget how Jimmy Johnson could send waves of pass-rushers at quarterbacks. Tony Tolbert had more sacks than Haley in ’92. And Maryland and Leon Lett were just beginning to figure things out. The collection of talent was remarkable. The Triplets truly began to impose their will on opponents.

1971: Some of the great defensive players from the early days -- Bob Lilly, Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan -- finally got their championship. The offense scored 29 points per game and the Cowboys won by an average of 13.1 points per game.

Podcast: Ex-Cowboy D. Johnston; Steelers' Swann

February, 3, 2010
2/03/10
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Former Dallas Cowboy Daryl Johnston talks about what the Saints offense is going to do on the ground against Indianapolis, why Saints running back Reggie Bush has improved recently and why the Saints have to force turnovers to be successful.

Hall of Famer Lynn Swann reminisces about the great plays he made over his career.

The Skins' play-calling madness

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
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Watching the Redskins and Eagles on TV last Sunday, it was entertaining to hear Fox analyst Daryl Johnston try to break down Washington's playcalling process. Vinny Cerrato's hand-picked play-caller, Sherm Lewis, rarely talks to the quarterback Jason Campbell during the week, so it's a little odd that he's the one calling a lot of the plays.

But a triple-byline effort in The Washington Post on Sunday takes a deeper look at how the Redskins come up with a game plan. Talk about a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I can't imagine any other team in the league divides the workload in such a confusing manner. After reading this story, it looks like offensive assistant Chris Meidt has had a lot more say in calling plays than we have credited him for. It's also interesting to read what Jim Zorn's hand-picked offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said about the head coach:

"It was very difficult on Jim," Smith said of Zorn being stripped of his play-calling duties. "I don't think a lot of people understand just how much it bothered him, it hurt him, because he took it personally as a personal failure on his part. He felt like he had let the team down. He felt bad he had let Dan down, so he just was carrying all this guilt, I want to say, on himself, and he shouldn't have. But he's handled it well. It's been tough, but every day he comes in and he's being positive. He wants to be successful. He wants the team to do well. He's been a great example to all of us."

Candidates to replace Upshaw include former players, agent

August, 21, 2008
8/21/08
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Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Gene Upshaw

In his Q&A on what's next for the NFLPA, John Clayton mentions several potential candidates to replace Gene Upshaw, including former NFLPA presidents Trace Armstong and Troy Vincent. He also brought up former Vikings running back Robert Smith and current union president Kevin Mawae.

Another name that has been mentioned today is former Cowboys fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston, who has been very outspoken on behalf of retired players over the past couple of years.

And if you want another outside-the-box guy, I'm hearing some talk that super-agent Tom Condon could receive consideration. He's a former player (Chiefs) and he's worked with Upshaw in the past. He's obviously no stranger to players since he and his staff at CAA represent about 120 of them. And he's used to going toe-to-toe with owners. The more I think about this name, the more sense it makes.

The players should consider every option, and that includes someone from outside the football fraternity. If you were worried that Upshaw had been too close to the owners in the past, maybe you consider someone from Major League Baseball union chief Donald Fehr's staff (Michael Weiner). I know that sounds like an awful idea, but a lot of players have wanted the union chief to have a more adversarial relationship with the owners.

If that's truly what they want, now's the time to speak up.

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