First Man In, The Kevin Turner Story
First man in…that was Kevin…first man in…always the first man into that swirling vortex of violence called line of scrimmage…first man, lead man, into the hole, a missile-tipped helmet seeking out targets of opportunity...first man in…yeah, that was KT.
Fullback, it’s called. And blocking back. But what it is, really, is a human battering ram. In physics they have a formula for this: Mass times speed equals wreckage.
It’s what puts dents in cars.
Also, in fullbacks.
Kevin Turner was the prototype. No one could remember ever seeing him take a step backward.
There was, of course, a price to be extracted for being first man in. Arms go numb. Electric jolts course through the spine. And scariest of all, your memory is…poof!—gone. Gone and most of the time never coming back. Now, from a distance of many miles and years, through the fog, Kevin Turner can remember bits and pieces, part of a game, this one game, and this one play, Green Bay at Philadelphia, and he is on a wedge…ahhh, yes, the wedge…suicide wrapped in a neat little package…colliding helmets clacking against each other like rutting mountain goats, men grunting, some screaming…a frothy mix of adrenaline and urine and blood lust…and KT has hurled himself into that mayhem full-bore and…and…and…he has a question: Where is he? Green Bay? Or Philly?
He sits out a series. Or is it 2? Or maybe 3? The numbers don’t matter. Well, at least for now they don’t. But how about 15 years down the road? How about the collateral damage from going back in and knowing things are off, just the slightest out of focus but you go back in anyway?
Because you are First Man In, that’s why.
Because you are The Red Badge of Courage, that’s why.
Sweet Home, Alabama.
Where football is king. Where you smear a slash of lampblack underneath each eye, warrior paint, and pinch off some chew and tuck it in the lower lip and dream of being First Man In.
KT lived that dream. He was an undisputed BMOC. An alpha male. His senior season he was captain of Roll Tide, Rolllllll.
He had started playing competitive football when he was 5. Early on he was coached by his father, Ray, who was intensely proud of his son, and rightly so because all through his career, it was said of KT, by coaches and peers and teammates and opponents, you’d want him in your foxhole.
So then, here you have a man who has muscles in places where most of us don’t have places, who is positively glowing with radiant health, a newly minted multi-millionaire thanks to the open wallets of the New England Patriots who have made him the 71st pick in the National Football League draft, and boy howdy, life is sweet…Sweet Home Alabama…top of the world, Ma, and who among us wouldn’t trade places in half a heart beat with KT?
But what if it meant that somewhere down the road, after all those helmet-to-helmet collisions—how many was it anyway…a thousand…10 thousand…a hundred thousand—what if they read to you in the fine print, the clause that said somewhere down the road your body, that perfectly sculpted machine, would begin to betray you…what if you could hardly dress yourself and speak in slurs and lose control of bodily functions? Knowing all that, would you take the gamble? Would you sign Satan’s seductive offer?
KT guesses some would. Maybe 10 percent. Maybe more…but just a tad more. And how about KT himself?
“If I knew now,” he says, “if I knew how things would turn out…well…of course not. But there is no second chance in these things. No one can see into the future.”
No, no they can’t.
But if only they could…if only…if only…if only…
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis…
Such a mouthful. So let’s shorten it. Make it familiar. Call it Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS.
And call it for what it is: Pitiless. Merciless. Without cure.
There is no history of ALS in the family of Kevin Turner. So why would it single out an innocent? Why would it choose to visit its horrors on him.
KT is pretty sure he knows.
Repeated blows to the brain pan. An unrelenting kettle drum chorus. Over and over and over…the penalty for being First Man In, and no it’s not fair, it’s not fair at all, but that is the way it is and the terrible truth is that it will not, cannot, be changed.
Research shows that there is an undeniable correlation between ALS and head trauma of the sort that is striking down an increasing, alarming , number of athletes, professional football players accounting for many of them.
In the summer of 2009, Kevin Turner noticed something amiss with his hands. They began to act as though they had minds of their own.
“I was out on the lake with some buddies,” he remembers, “and I had my guitar and, you know, life was good.”
And then what came out of the guitar were notes he’d never heard. Months later, the troubles persisted, he went to a doctor and the thought was a pinched nerve.
“So let’s go in surgically,” he said they said, “but now it was my arm, and pretty soon the other arm.”
And finally this chilling diagnosis: ALS.
And it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked from that cold, antiseptic, impersonal examining room.
But wait…that can’t be right, can it? Are you sure? He was, after all, years removed from football, distanced from those eight brutal, battering ram years in the NFL. So shouldn’the have escaped? Shouldn’t he be safe? Shouldn’t he be one of those who made it through?
Ah but ALS is a sneak thief, vile and cowardly, with neither conscience nor compassion. It waits in ambush and then it coils itself around an unsuspecting 41-year old father of three and begins to squeeze the life from him.
Kevin permitted himself one good cry. Not then, though. Not at that moment of the deliverance of the chilling verdict…but later, on the sofa one night, watching a movie (he cannot recall the title) and suddenly the tears, like scalding rain, sneaked up and began to fall on him.
And that was it, that was all he would allow himself to surrender to that son-of-a-bitch. They have gone and pissed him off. Maybe ALS could take away a lot of things from Kevin Turner, but Kevin Turner’s spirit, that fierce, unbending, unyielding, indomitable spirit, that he damn well would not surrender.
Bring it on, said First Man In…bring it on…
In the dark era of sports medicine, players like Kevin Turner were prized by the medicine men for their valor, their lust for battle, their willingness to play on when their bodies, especially their brains, were screaming at them: Go lie down in the shade, Idiot. Listen to your brain.
On the sidelines of professional football games frantic triages were routinely performed, with diagnoses that often were as much guess work as precise science.
Here’s how, as KT recalls, they were deemed fit by trainers and doctors to play on even if they were concussed.
Kevin: “Follow the fingers.”
Kevin: “They’d sit you down and take off your helmet and hold up some fingers and ask you how many you could count.”
That was it?
Kevin: “They’d ask you if you were seeing stars.”
Kevin: “They’d ask you if you were hearing bells.”
Not exactly precise. Not exactly the cutting edge of sophisticated medicine. The patients didn’t object, of course. Football was their thing…football was their everything.
Kevin: “I look back on it now and think, how ignorant was that? Ah, but we were just dumb jocks, right? What did we know?”
So back into battle they were sent. Willingly, of course, because of the law of machismo, the law that says there is no room for cowardice, the credo of the team, always the team.
And the hallowed credo of First Man In.
Kevin: “They’d ask you, is it pain, or is it injury? It was understood which one you were supposed to pick. With pain, it meant you could go back in.”
Even if you shouldn’t.
He knows that maybe he makes you uneasy, so he tries to defuse his situation with some humor. Just about the bravest man you’ve ever met tries to get you to smile, or better yet, laugh.
Kevin: “The first doctor I saw said he’d give me 10 to 12 years.”
Kevin: “Yeah. So I went to another doctor, and he said he’d give me 5 to 6.”
Kevin: “Yeah, so I went to a third doctor, and he said he’d give me 2 to 3, and I said I’m not going to see any more doctors ‘cause at this rate I’ll never get out of the examining room.”
It’s OK to laugh. In fact, he wishes you would.
His favorite doctor, he says, is the one who told him the good news was he would live a good long time, but the bad news was he’d spend a lot of it frustrated and aggravated because ALS has a way of turning the ordinary everyday acts into grinding tests of patience.
“Just things you take for granted,” he says. “Like reaching to get something out of the refrigerator.”
Or an hour to get on a pair of pants. And don’t even think about socks.
But listen…and this is important to KT, really, really, really important: Just about the bravest man you’ve ever met is not, repeat is not, bitter. He has every reason to be, every reason to curse his lot in life, but that man refuses to give in. And mind you he has run a gauntlet of punishment but he remains undaunted.
“Everybody,” he reasons, “has crosses to bear. You live long enough, you’re going to hit some rough patches. Besides, how can I feel sorry for myself when I look at my life…I had great parents…wonderful childhood…got my college degree…played for Alabama…3 great kids…got to play in the NFL…made a pile of money…”
So just about the bravest man you’ve ever met has come to terms, and who among us can’t help but wonder this: What we would do?
Mothers know. Mothers always know.
Family. They know that family is all. Cherish it. Weep together, laugh together, mourn and celebrate together, sustain each other in times of turmoil and tumult, doubt and certitude…through it all family is all. The highest compliment that can bestowed is: “You raised him right.”
“He was a good child, never a lick of trouble,” says the mother of Kevin Turner. “I know most mothers say that, but really, he…well, other kids would call him at night for help with their home work and Kevin would have to do his in the morning. He never minded though…all he wanted to do was help.”
Which is, of course, exactly what he is doing now on a far larger and more meaningful stage.
Maybe because he is their only child, Ray and Myra Turner did the whole parental cycle. She can recite it by heart: “Baseball, basketball, football…Little League, junior high, senior high, college, professional.”
Number of games missed: Not worth counting.
“I was always Kevin’s Mom,” she said. “Not Myra, not Mrs. Turner…Kevin’s Mom. This is Kevin’s Mom.”
Her pride comes shining through. Can there be a name more cherished?
Along the way, Myra did what mothers do when the hitting starts:
“I’d have to look away sometimes. It was worse in the pros. I know college football is hard, but the NFL…ohhh…all those collisions …all those collisions.”
And it is the result of all those collisions that has left Kevin Turner…well, where, exactly?
“He’s handling this better than we are,” Myra Turner said. “It’s frustrating for him because it’s hard for him to ask for help. But every once in a while he’ll say, ‘OK Mom, you can help me with these pants or else I’ll be here for two hours.’”
They have all those family ties, all those memories when families tailgated in golden autumn sunsets, lingering long after the game was played out, reluctant to leave, and all those memories from which to draw emotional sustenance.
The Circle of Life.
“We’re trying to be with him as much as possible,” she said.
There is a long pause as she gathers herself to say: “I know I couldn’t do what he is doing.”
What he’s doing is going out resisting, resisting with a passionate, determined fury, in a desperate crusade racing against time, to find a cure for the incurable. To that purpose, then:
The Kevin Turner Foundation.
All donations welcome. Prayers, too.
You collect an audience and he’ll speak to them, and what he says will be unsparing. California. Aspen. Boston. Atlantic City. Coast-to-coast he travels, fired by an evangelist’s fervor.
He shines a light into all those dark corners where ALS hides like scurrying cockroaches. He is featured in adocumentary “American Man” on HBO’s Real Sports, and the singer Ty Herndon dedicated his album Journey On to KT, whose kids—Nolan, Cole and Natalie--are featured in the video…and while watching it if you find a lump rising in your throat, well, you’re not alone.
It’s taken a while to rally the troops and increase public awareness of head trauma. Progress comes in fitful steps, and the league has had to be nudged along by a class action suit on behalf of 4,000 former players and their wives accusing the league of covering up life altering brain injuries. The league started 88 Plan in 06, which automatically qualifies former pros with head trauma, with payments.
“A little late to the party,” Kevin suggests, “but at least we’re making up some ground.”
And First Man In is at the forefront.
In March of 2013, the NFL and GE Co. pledged $60 million to speed up research into brain injuries and develop new technologies to help protect the brain.
Good. But not good enough. Not good enough to satisfy First Man In. Not good enough because that vile coward is still out there doing its awful work and time is short, and just about the bravest man you’ve ever met dreams his dream and in it he is the first to survive, first to bring ALS to its knees.
First Man In.
So you swallow hard and whisper to yourself: Don’t bet against him.