COLUMN: Reflection of Turner’s life brings both happiness and sorrow
By Tim Gayle
PRATTVILLE – We all knew for a while this day was coming, but it didn’t make the funeral of Kevin Turner any easier.
What did make it uplifting, almost inspiring, is that everyone likes to turn a sad event into a “celebration of life.” Turner, along with his family and friends, was able to do that.
And the approximately 500 people who crammed into the Easter Sunday service at Hunter Hills Church of Christ came from all walks of life because Turner touched just about everyone he came into contact with.
For me, it was a relationship that started more than 30 years ago. And while he was habitually terrible at returning phone calls over the years, it was always a reward in your day to get a call from Turner.
I watched from afar and, like everyone else, thought Kevin Turner’s exploits on the gridiron at Prattville in 1984 on the way to the Class 6A state championship was just a prelude to more highlights over the next two years. Instead, there were more losses than wins and many of his accomplishments were overlooked by the Lions’ struggles.
But covering Prattville High in 1985 and 1986 showed me another side of Turner, one that is almost always overlooked. He was the center on the basketball team, an undersized but gritty competitor for Bennie Lee Justiss. The veteran coach had a ton of colloquial sayings about Turner – “you can’t slide a piece of paper under his feet when he jumps” – but he loved Turner’s competitive character and also understood that more fans than had witnessed Prattville High basketball in years came out to watch Turner. (By the way, Prattville High won more basketball games than it had in several years, posting an unlikely winning season with Turner on the court.)
When he signed with Alabama, I told him to remember me when he made it to the big time and needed a book written about his exploits. I thought about reminding him of that line a few years ago because I desperately wanted to publicize his fight with ALS in a book but it sounded too commercial, like I was trying to cash in on his personal tragedy. In retrospect, I wish I would have at least found a way to put the idea in his head because Kevin taught us so much about how to fight the impossible fight with class and dignity and a sense of humor. It’s a story everyone needs to hear.
He went to Alabama under a new coaching staff and no one knew what to expect from Bill Curry or Kevin Turner. What Turner did in that remarkable year of offense at Alabama in 1989 was set receiving records for fullbacks that exist to this day. And while he never got that chance in 1990 and 1991 under new coach Gene Stallings, he fine-tuned his ability to block and run and landed a job in the National Football League.
Think he didn’t make an impression? Gene Stallings sent a videotaped message that was played at Turner’s service on Sunday afternoon. Curry appeared in person and spoke of Turner’s character and how it earned him the Ed Block Courage Award in 1996 after missing much of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 1995 season with a knee injury before returning the following year and blocking for Ricky Watters, who led the league in rushing yards.
“If you had kids growing up, you’d want them to be like Kevin Turner,” Stallings said.
His professional career was cut short (if you call eight years short) by a neck injury in 1999. After talking with countless doctors, he figured the risk was too great to continue playing. Little did he or anyone else know the damage was already done.
He would get into private business but was never too busy to help out the Prattville YMCA with an annual fund-raising golf tournament that would eventually bear his name. He helped out former high school teammate Kyle Glover as an offensive coordinator at Wetumpka High one year and served as an assistant for Dabo Swinney when the latter was named interim coach at Clemson in 2008.
“Quickly, he became one of my heroes,” said Swinney at Sunday’s service, recounting how the different paths for a walk-on from Pelham and a scholarship athlete from Prattville merged during a practice when Turner came to Swinney’s defense in an altercation with linebacker Will Brown because that’s what teammates do.
Nearly 30 years later, the roles would be reversed as Swinney assured Turner he would be there for anything the latter’s children needed.
“I’m not scared of dying,” Swinney said, repeating Turner’s plea. “But not being there for my kids terrifies me.”
There wasn’t a dry eye among the 500 mourners in attendance, including Swinney, as he read a text message from Turner thanking his friend for taking the time to talk with Nolan, a sophomore safety at Vestavia Hills at the time, at a summer football camp at Clemson. Swinney continued reading from his phone, relaying his reply back to Turner that finished with “if you get to Heaven before I do, you can help me with a pass, a run or a kick somewhere.”
At that moment, Swinney paused and looked up, thinking of January’s loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
“He could’ve helped me with that onside kick.”
This year, if a very talented Clemson team makes it back to the CFP National Championship and wins, think of Swinney’s helpful angel in Heaven. He was always there for his friends.
Turner was a jack of all trades, but he was the master when it came to class. He handled everything in that manner, especially when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2009. I learned to spell that phrase (most people simply say ALS) because of Kevin and came to hate it for what it meant. No hope. No cure.
Kevin taught us all to have hope. He taught us all to fight for the cure. And when he learned the NFL would offer benefits for players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), he doggedly took up the fight to establish a link between ALS and CTE, becoming the face of a multimillion dollar lawsuit filed by former players against the NFL.
Turner always found a way to laugh off his problems. He had searched his heart to find a reason for the crippling disease and decided it was his role to serve as a spokesman for ALS. At one of his recent trips to Prattville for the YMCA golf tournament, he lapsed into thought about his sons Nolan and Cole, who play football, and talked of how his youngest son should probably take a year off from football until his body develops more to absorb the impact of all those terrible hits that could lead to CTE.
(Neither Kevin nor I would think of banning a sport that is so interwoven in the South’s identity, but the sport’s link to CTE and ALS is something we all need to consider in the future).
As you glanced around the room Sunday at former high school, professional and college teammates as well as residents of Prattville and Vestavia Hills, you couldn’t help but think of his positive impact on the River Region.
Just in the sport of football, he helped put Prattville on the map. Sure, there had been others that had come through Prattville before Turner, such as Shon Lee at Alabama and Chip Powell at Auburn, but Turner was sort of the trail blazer, the one who showed you great things were possible if you just lowered your head and pressed on. Jeremy Walker (another fullback who had his career cut short by a neck injury), Roman Harper, Kyle Tatum, Bobby Greenwood, Travis McCall, Nick Gentry, Nick Perry and now O.J. Howard are among those athletes who came through Prattville on the way to Alabama, learning a little from the trail blazed by Turner.
“I think my life will at least mean something,” Turner predicted in a video that played during his service Sunday.
What an understatement. Perhaps it was God’s intention of turning a gifted athlete into a helpless shell of a person afflicted with an incurable disease just to show the rest of us how to tackle life’s obstacles.
Right up until the end, Turner took on the challenge with class and dignity, always armed with a smile, a sense of humor and an indomitable spirit.