Turner, a standout fullback for Prattville High School, the University of Alabama, the New England Patriots and the Eagles, was in his eighth season of professional football in 1999 when he was diagnosed with a narrowing of the spinal column.
He consulted with several specialists before giving up the game in January 2000.
“You get up there in the NFL, you’re so dadgum excited, it was a dream come true,” he said. “It’s something you dream of as a kid. The first six years were incredible. Looking back on it, I should’ve given it up earlier.”
He endured two surgeries to remove parts of his spinal column and thought a third was necessary when a doctor brought him the words no person wants to hear.
“About the first week in April, that’s when the words were actually spoken to me,” Turner said. “I didn’t know for sure until June. Well, I still don’t know for sure as far as I’m concerned.”
Doctors told him he had amyotrophia lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
There is no known cause or cure for ALS and no recovery.
It is a disease that prevents the brain from sending signals to other parts of the body, causing those parts to eventually wither and die. It is considered one of the most horrifying diseases because the brain continues to function in a normal state while everything around it starts shutting down.
“The first doctor said she thought I had 12-15 years,” Turner said. “Then I saw another doctor that said five or six. The third doctor said you have two or three years. Heck, I’m going to stop going to see doctors. I may not make it out alive next time.
“They don’t know. I’m pretending they don’t know.”
Turner was honored Thursday night as part of a Prattville YMCA benefit dinner that featured Turner’s collegiate coach, Gene Stallings. While many of the people turned out for the event to listen to Stallings and contribute to the YMCA’s “Coach-A-Child” campaign, two dozen former Alabama players showed up to pay tribute to Turner, part of a special surprise tribute planned by Willis Bradford Branch director Keith Cantrell.
“I believe all of them know,” Turner said. “Bobby (Humphrey) called me several weeks ago because he had heard about it. It was great to see everyone come out. Honestly, I thought they were just coming down to help me with the Y. I had no idea they were doing what they were doing.”
Former Alabama receiver Craig Sanderson, Turner’s college roommate, said all of the players had a similar reaction when they heard the news.
“It was devastating,” Sanderson said. “But right now, he and I act like nothing’s wrong. We have the same relationship we’ve always had. But it’s devastating.”
“It breaks your heart,” added former teammate Siran Stacy, who went through a personal tragedy of his own in 2007 when his wife and four of his five children were killed in an automobile accident. “This is our brother, our friend, and the affliction he’s going through is tough.”
Turner, 41, said he should have quit in 1997 when he had surgery on his lower back.
“I never really felt the same after that,” Turner said,
But he thought the latest problems that leave him with no feeling in his arms were the result of the cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that has left him in pain since 2000. Now, he said he has no doubt the ALS is a direct result of his NFL career.
“I know when I retired, they told me I had the spinal column of a 65-year-old man,” he said. “Any other fullback or linebacker probably has the same thing.”
A study by Canadian doctor Angela Genge is exploring a possible link between football and ALS. She noted that people in sports that suffer head trauma, such as football or soccer, suffer a higher rate of neurological disease than the rest of society where the disease affects two people in every 100,000.
The NFL is paying attention. The league commissioned a telephone survey in 2008, a year after Genge’s research first gained publicity, that shows players under the age of 50 were 19 times more likely to be diagnosed with memory-related diseases than the general public.
While that isn’t a direct link to ALS cases, it is a step in recognition of some serious problems.
Turner would like to spend the rest of his life trying to raise awareness of ALS, noting advances in treating other diseases such as breast cancer and AIDS that came as a result of raising public awareness.
While he hasn’t had any direct contact with other football players suffering from ALS, he knows of some past cases through Internet research.
Houston Oilers defensive tackle Glenn Montgomery was diagnosed with ALS in July 1997, and died 11 months later at the age of 31.
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg played on four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s and was diagnosed with ALS long after his retirement from the game in 2006 and died two years later at the age of 66.
Denver Broncos defensive end Pete Duranko finished his career in 1974 and was diagnosed with ALS in 2000. He has spent the last 10 years raising money for ALS research.
Oakland Raiders running back Steve Smith finished his career with the Seattle Seahawks in 1995 and was diagnosed in 2002. He remains alive on a ventilator and a feeding tube.
The hardest part for Turner was telling his three children: Nolan, 12, a seventh-grader at Liberty Park Junior High who plays basketball and football; Natalie, 10, a cheerleader and gymnast Kevin describes as the “best athlete in the family,” and Cole, 7.
While others in his hometown of Prattville and his former college and professional teammates know his condition — he recently had former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe call after learning of it — it hasn’t been easy for him to tell those closest to him. And while he has asked no one for help, his Crimson Tide family has rallied to his defense.
“We don’t want to do anything without his blessing on it, but in the future we want to do something to honor him, the man, and also the father,” Stacy said. “He has some beautiful children and we’ve talked amongst ourselves that maybe we can come up with some type of endowment or scholarship for his children.”
Stallings, who flew in from his ranch in Paris, Texas, for Thursday’s event, thought he was there to honor Turner but wasn’t immediately aware of the severity of his condition. Turner had not informed his coach about his condition, but others had.
“There’s not much I can say about that until he tells me,” Stallings said. “But what an outstanding young man he was and still is. Any time I can pay tribute to one of my former players, I like to do it. That’s the reason I’m here.”
Sanderson, who recalled Turner’s help when Sanderson’s father passed away, is eager to help his best friend.
“At some point, we’ll come together as a family to help him in whatever way he needs,” he said. “This is as devastating a thing that has ever happened to me because I consider him part of my immediate family. (There will) come a time when he needs a lot more help than he does now, and we’ll be there for him.”
Turner isn’t sure of the next step. He’s still researching the disease and visiting specialists, displaying the same determination he had as an undersized running back in the Southeastern Conference and the National Football League. He hasn’t consulted with NFL officials yet to see what assistance they may provide in his fight against the disease.
“I haven’t asked them yet,” he said. “If you play for eight years, that means you have eight years to file for any disability. I’ve been out for 10 years. That rule may have been for the best of intentions, but I don’t think it covers it.”
In the meantime, he hovers between acceptance and denial. The latest prognosis, that he has less than three years to live, was a devastating emotional blow. Acceptance was replaced by denial, a feeling that life could not be this cruel. Denial slowly gave way to reality and a grim determination not to give up his fight for life.
“If it is, we’ll just try and fight it like everyone else does,” Turner said. “Sooner or later, somebody will win.”