Why Kevin Turner's son chose football, the sport that likely killed his dad
Nolan Turner may not play in the national title game this week, but he's proud of the decision he made
TAMPA, Fla. -- The results came two months ago showing why former NFL and Alabama fullback Kevin Turner likely died from Lou Gehrig's disease.
Boston University researchers studied Kevin's brain and found the most severe form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a traumatic brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head. Kevin's CTE was "extraordinary and unprecedented for an athlete who died in his 40s," neuropathologist Ann McKee said in November. Though it's not possible for an autopsy to determine whether the CTE caused Kevin's disease, McKee concluded "this is the best circumstantial evidence we will ever get."
Nolan Turner, Kevin's son, understands the link between CTE and football. Of all people, Nolan knows what this violent game can take away.
Nolan is saying this while wearing a No. 24 Clemson warmup shirt at the College Football Playoff media day on Saturday. That was Kevin's jersey number, too. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Kevin's teammate and close friend at Alabama, made sure Nolan got the number after unexpectedly offering him a scholarship shortly before Kevin died last March.
Kevin Turner brought awareness to football's dangers and sued the NFL, but he never blamed football. So his son is playing.
"There were no second thoughts," says Nolan, who is redshirting as a Clemson safety. "I love football."
This is football in 2017 as America. We're still grappling with how to love a dangerous game, make it safer and be honest about what we're watching. But at least this struggle now comes with more information for the participants to make informed opinions.
Talk to Joyce Marie Turner, Nolan's mom and Kevin's ex-wife, and you hear the concerns in her voice. She explains how football has become safer and that Kevin made Nolan promise to remove himself from a game if he has concussion-like symptoms. Yet she also knows that repetitive hits to the head -- not simply concussions -- can cause long term health problems.
"I'm very happy for Nolan," Joyce says. "It's an amazing opportunity for Nolan and I could never say, 'No, you're not playing.' My wish is he just gets through college ball healthy and gets out and gets a normal job. We're not thinking NFL. That would really scare me."
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Nolan was set to be a preferred walk-on at Alabama. Then Clemson unexpectedly lost safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse to the NFL Draft after the 2015 season, along with cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Swinney looked closer at Nolan, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound safety with offers from UAB and Troy, and offered his friend's son not long before Kevin died.
"It couldn't have happened at a better time," Joyce says. "Kevin was dying. We knew Nolan was a really good football player but probably was overlooked. His life was turned upside down for a long time at such a young age with our marriage and his dad's diagnosis. It was overwhelming when Nolan called and told me. I sat down and cried."
Kevin Turner and Swinney went back 25 years as friends. They played together at Alabama. They worked together selling commercial real estate in Birmingham when Swinney couldn't get a coaching job. Turner was even an emergency graduate assistant for Swinney when he became Clemson's interim coach in 2008.
"It's like I'm around KT every day," Swinney says of Nolan. "It's like I'm back in 1988 and 1989 because he's the spitting image of KT. Unbelievable. He just carries himself the same way."
According to Nolan and Joyce, Kevin never pushed his son into football. But there was Nolan playing football in the first grade with Kevin as his coach.
"Kevin came home after the first practice and said, 'You're not going to like this, but Nolan is a natural,'" Joyce says. "I was like, 'You're right, I don't want to hear it.' I wanted him to do anything else but football because of all the problems his dad had, but I let him. When Kevin got diagnosed (with ALS), he took Nolan out of football in middle school. We reassessed in the ninth grade and felt they were making the game safer and were assured Nolan wouldn't play with a concussion."
That's not exactly how Nolan tells the story of why he stopped playing football in the eighth grade.
"It was my choice," he says. "My dad used to say he pulled me out because it let people think he was being safer with his child. I think he said that for a better story, I guess. But we didn't have a very good football team, and I was playing basketball year-round so you know what? I just want to play basketball. I don't want to play football. After that one year, I'm like, 'I've got to play again.' I missed it too much.
"If you play football, you know the constant pounding on the head. They're focusing more on tackling, taking the head out, the targeting stuff now, but there's definitely a relation (to CTE). You're going to get hit in the head when you play football. It's just the amount of times you want to limit while you're playing and sit out a certain time when you get a concussion."
Nolan says he has sustained one concussion -- his senior year at Vestavia High School -- and went through the proper protocol before returning after about a week. AL.com wrote a story about the concussion in September in which Joyce was quoted as saying, "He got hit hard, and the trainers missed it, and he played another quarter not knowing where he was. And I was so mad. ... That's the stuff they're ensuring us is not going to happen anymore."
Joyce says now the trainers didn't miss the concussion the way the article made it sound.
"The second the trainers noticed he was acting different, they pulled him out of the game immediately," she says. "We had to go to different appointments and doctors, one being a neurologist, before they cleared him. I felt really good about how they handled it."
Joyce says Kevin believed football players didn't need to start playing until the ninth grade in order to be good. Yet their 13-year-old son, Cole, is now playing football in middle school too.
"There's no way Cole, at his age, they'd let him play with a concussion and to me, that makes all the difference," Joyce says. "I'm not saying I would start them at 5, 6 or 7 years old. For a while, there was panic about whether people would let their child play football. But to be honest with you, the game is a lot safer. It just really is."
In a way, Joyce says, Kevin helped make football safer for his kids by speaking out many years after he retired in 1999. He started the Kevin Turner Foundation. He was the subject of an HBO documentary. He became one of the loudest critics of the NFL, which was accused of hiding the dangers of repetitive hits to head from players.
Kevin was one of the plaintiffs who reached a $1 billion settlement with the NFL that is still being finalized. Joyce says the NFL took care of most of Kevin's medical expenses. Kevin's family stands to receive $5 million if the settlement remains unchanged, The New York Times reported last spring.
The NFL's ability to settle and avoid discovery about what it knew "was a slap on the hand," Joyce says. "However, I believe Kevin would have done whatever he had to do to play, even if we had all this knowledge back then. That's what I think Nolan wouldn't do and that helps as far as how I feel about him playing."
Or as Nolan put it about him playing football, "Yeah, my mom freaks out."
For the most part, Joyce says her friends and family understand why Nolan is playing the game he loves just like his dad.
"I'm sure in the community some people that don't understand the game of football like we do probably think, 'Good grief, why would you let them play?'" Joyce says. "I've seen so many changes and it's a lot safer. It would be like telling Dale Earnhardt Jr., 'Your dad just died, you can never race again.' It's just not going to happen. They love it."
So here's Nolan, experiencing big-time college football, just like his dad and his coach shared together. At Kevin's funeral, Swinney shared the farewell text he sent to Kevin, according to The Charleston Post & Courier: "If you get to heaven before me, maybe you could help me with a great catch, block, kick, etc., from time to time when I need it. You could have helped me with that onside kick (against Alabama in last year's championship)."
"It's pretty cool for (Nolan) to experience this moment," Swinney says.
Deep in his heart, Kevin believed so many hits he sustained to his head contributed to ALS. "Even the guys who are playing now, they don't want to hear about it and I know why," Kevin told me in 2011. "You can't play scared thinking about all this stuff. People just need to know and weigh their options."
Nolan knows and he's not scared.
"We used to talk about (the risks of football) a lot, me and my dad," he says. "He never had any problems with me playing football. He let it be my decision."
Nolan chose football.
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