Commentary

Column: Turner upbeat despite ALS

Former Alabama FB Kevin Turner keeps a positive outlook and wants to help find cure

Updated: February 21, 2012, 11:54 AM ET
By Alex Scarborough | TideNation

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- I stood outside the pizzeria waiting for Kevin Turner. It was cold in the open air, but I didn't want to miss seeing him arrive for our scheduled lunch. I needed to see him before he saw me. I needed to see him as himself, before he was on the spot and my recorder was out.

[+] EnlargeKevin Turner
AP Photo/Itsuo InouyeFormer Alabama FB Kevin Turner scores a touchdown in 1992 at an All-Star game in Japan.
Without thinking, I paced back and forth by two empty handicapped parking spots near the restaurant's entrance. If he asked, I would have said it was the only spot in the sun -- a place where the bitter wind wouldn't gnaw at my thin skin. If he could have seen through me, he would have caught the lie. Like the presumption that all boxers are violent or all librarians quiet, I thought I knew what to expect of him.

After a few minutes impatiently walking my corner of the parking lot, I saw Turner come up the hill in a shiny white pickup truck. I picked out his balding head and distinct goatee behind the steering wheel. I was surprised. It looked like he was alone. I thought certainly he would have someone drive him.

He turned into the shopping center and appeared to be headed toward the empty space where I stood. Before I could wave him down he turned left and went up another crowded row of cars looking for a spot. More than 100 yards away he pulled into an empty space and parked. That didn't make much sense, I thought. Not 15 minutes earlier I circled the lot twice looking for a better place to park. Surely he wanted more room to situate a wheelchair or walker.

As I waited for him to get out of his vehicle I wondered if I had spotted Turner at all, if it was another middle-aged man I was paying entirely too much attention to.

Before I could scan the rest of the parking lot, Turner was out of his truck and upon me, walking toward the restaurant without a cane, walker or any other assistance. It was him, alright. The face matched the pictures I had pulled up on my computer earlier that morning.

"Alex?" he asked before I could blurt out his name. I nodded silently. His thick, deep voice sounded as healthy as a horse. I was shocked. This wasn't the man I read about days earlier -- the man who was diagnosed nearly two years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. This wasn't the man I had driven to Birmingham to see.

Kevin Turner was supposed to be a shell of himself, nothing like the bruising University of Alabama fullback who went on to play eight years in the NFL.

Kevin Turner was supposed to be feeble, deteriorating even.

Kevin Turner was supposed to be dying.

Kevin Turner wasn't supposed to be walking up to me with a smile on his face.

Personal contrast
I don't remember my grandfather smiling much in the years before he passed. Parkinson's robbed him of lot, but more than anything, his attitude changed. His joy for life seemed to disappear, wilting away like a flower holding on through the fall before surrendering to the cold reality of winter. He watched himself waste away, and it sapped the life from him.

Parkinson's didn't kill my grandfather as much as his pride did. He couldn't accept the disease that inhabited him, shaking his hands uncontrollably and snatching from him the memories he so cherished. He had been to scores of countries, stepping foot on all the earth's continents. He built the family he never had as a young boy in Michigan. He saw his two children become adults, get married and have children of their own. He beamed with pride when he finally got the granddaughter he always wanted, the youngest of five grandchildren. The life he fought to make so much of was slipping away, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

My grandfather wasn't always a pleasant man, but for his family he smiled and laughed and made his home a warm place. When Parkinson's struck, it sent a chill through him. The thought of dying was overwhelming. While the disease did its work on the body, the stress took his mind. So my grandfather gave up, distraught from the pain and depression.

He wasn't himself when he passed. That's what I told myself. If it wasn't his mind, it wasn't his fault. But the truth -- the thing that I knew but couldn't accept -- was that it was his choice. He surrendered to the certainty of death and it killed him long before his final breath.

Fighting through
When I sat down to lunch with Turner and watched him struggle to grip his glass of raspberry tea, I swallowed hard. I saw his shaking, clenched hands and expected the next hour to be a brutal reminder of my grandfather. I got something very different.

Setting down his drink, Turner smacked his lips and smiled. "Not bad," he said. "I wanted to try something different today. It's very sweet, but good."

He ordered his pizza, and when it came he fought to tear two uncut pieces apart. He couldn't bend his elbows and grip the crust at the same time. I flinched, wondering whether or not to lend a hand. I remembered the embarrassment in my grandfather's face when I had to help him up from a fall years earlier. We were walking to dinner and people saw him stumble and hit the floor. Physically, he was fine but you could see the shame in his face.

My voice cracked as I asked Turner if I could help. He said yes as I leaned over to help separate his pizza.

"That's the other thing, asking for help," he said, letting out a sigh. "Some of the simplest things, I have to ask someone to do it. It takes them a second, but for me to do it, it's a big, drawn out process. It's just hard to ask for help."

He took a big bite of crust and went on.

"I get very frustrated when I can't do something," he said. "I get up at night and just want something to drink. I go in the refrigerator for a bottle of orange juice, and I can't get the top off. I wind up screwing around with it for a few minutes and then put it back in the fridge because I can't get it off.

"You can't describe it. Your hand won't go there, or you can't push it hard enough -- things you wouldn't think of as being a problem."

Turner I've always felt like I've had this charmed life. I just feel like everything is going to turn out rosy.

-- Former Alabama FB Kevin Turner

He kept coming back to the feeling of frustration. But while his disease bothered him, it didn't weigh him down. He enjoyed his pizza and downed two glasses of the raspberry tea. He even eyed my pie and wondered aloud if he should steal a slice. He talked about his future more than his past and came back to hope rather than falling on the side of despair.

The thing that troubles him is not the pain or the inability to perform everyday tasks, it's wondering if he's doing everything he can to find a cure.

"Sometimes I think I'm not doing enough, because I can still speak, and I'm able to eat and swallow and breathe without any problems," he said. "As frustrated as I get with other things, I can still do those things, and I may not attack (the disease) as much. All these things I get emailed to me saying, 'Try this,' or 'Try that.' You would love to just go do all of them and try it all, but it's just some days I just want to lay around and just relax.

"I'm still very optimistic they -- or we -- will find something to stop it. ... I haven't given up yet."

Not afraid
Turner spent most of our time together talking about possible treatments and how modern medicine might not be doing enough to find a cure. He spoke of detoxifying the body and toyed with the idea of stem cell research.

It struck me that in the three years or so that my grandfather had his diagnosis, he didn't once talk about treatment or doctors. He loathed his medicine cabinet and wished we'd all just leave him alone about it.

As Turner rattled off all the experimental procedures he had read about, I found myself drifting back to my grandfather. The juxtaposition of the man in front of me versus the memory of my grandfather was as stark as night and day.

"I'll get on the Internet and I'll talk to different people with ALS," Turner said. "I get people from everywhere who want to help and tell me what they know. I try to pull it all together and try some things to see if they'll work."

My grandfather never touched a keyboard in his life. He said he didn't need the hassle. His link to modern medicine was the physician he avoided and the specialists he was too tired of listening to.

It took 45 minutes with Turner to realize it: He was not afraid. Not once did he mention ALS as being a death sentence. He was focused on the here and now. He wanted to see his sons play football and watch his daughter graduate from high school.

He'd tell me later the reason he was late for lunch was because he had stayed up late the night before helping his daughter study for a math test. He said he was excited to see his oldest son was starting his first year of high school football next week.

It occurred to me that his life wasn't something he was watching waste away. He was living it, breathing it and getting the most out of every day he could.

The truth is, Turner doesn't know how long he has left. One doctor told him he has about 12 years to live, another said five years, and another guessed 24 months.

"They don't know what this is," he said. "They don't know. They're going off what other people with ALS did. The No. 1 thing is, I have no control over it. I'm going to try and do everything I can to get well, but no one knows how long I'm going to live. There may be a discovery tomorrow that heals it and reverses it."

Talking about the endless possibilities before him, Turner found his way back to the past. He smiled as he recalled the excitement of signing with Alabama out of high school more than 20 years ago and the shock of being drafted by the Patriots. He laughed about not having any business in the NFL because of his slight stature and reminisced about catching the winning touchdown in an overtime game that saw Drew Bledsoe complete an NFL record 45 of 70 passes. In all, it's been full life, he said.

"I feel comfortable," he said. "I'm at peace. I don't want to die, but I'm not afraid to. I look at it as a new adventure."

"You look at it like what?" I asked in disbelief.

[+] EnlargeKevin Turner
Ezra O. Shaw/Getty ImagesFormer Eagles fullback Kevin Turner carries the ball against the New York Giants in 1999.
"I've always felt like I've had this charmed life anyways," he said. "If you look at it, you'd think, 'How could he think that?' I just feel like everything is going to turn out rosy."

His enthusiasm was beyond anything I had expected earlier that day. The Kevin Turner I envisioned while driving to Birmingham that morning was nothing like the man before me, seeing life through his rose-colored glasses.

He was slow to get up as we left the restaurant. He said he was sore and joked that, "if not for this pain in my neck, I'd be perfectly fine."

We both laughed and paid for our meal before chatting a few minutes by his truck in the parking lot. He asked how the Alabama basketball team was doing, and I wanted to know more about his son playing football at Vestavia High. We shook hands and promised to grab a bite to eat next time he was in Tuscaloosa.

As I walked back to my car I found myself wishing my grandfather had met him.

I wanted my grandfather to see a man who wasn't afraid to live his life and did his best to enjoy every minute left to him.

I wanted my grandfather to be more like the stranger I met at a pizzeria, struggling to eat and drink, yet happy to sit down for a meal and talk.

I wanted Turner to know that no matter what happened to my grandfather, Turner had given me hope.

Alex Scarborough covers University of Alabama athletics for TideNation. He can be reached at alexscarborough.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexS_ESPN.

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter