Former Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner was the epitome of winning football games in the trenches.
Turner had earned a reputation as a versatile all-purpose back during his eight-year pro football career from 1992 to 1999.
Turner’s sure hands made him a reliable option in short-yardage pass and running plays in crucial third-down situations.
However, Turner was also a bruising fullback who could block with the best of them. With Turner as Ricky Watters’s lead blocker in the 1995 NFL season, the latter shredded defenses for a league-leading 1,855 rushing yards that year.
Not only was Kevin Turner a great football player, but he was also a great human being. Many of his former teammates and coaches can attest to that.
This is Kevin Turner’s inspiring and remarkable football story.
Paul Kevin Turner was born to parents Raymond and Myra in Prattville, AL on June 12, 1969. He was their only child.
Kevin Turner had been fascinated with football from an early age. According to ESPN’s Tim Graham, his dad coached him from when he turned five years old until his junior high school days in Alabama.
The elder Turner noticed his son already had the heart and guts to play football even as a child. From the time Kevin first wore pads and cleats as a preschooler, he did not take a play off.
“Never once in my lifetime did I have to tell him to hustle,” Raymond Turner told Graham in the spring of 2011. “It was there. It was built in. He knew what he wanted to do.”
Kevin Turner attended Prattville High School in Prattville, AL. He played fullback for the Prattville Lions.
Turner got the attention of college football scouts in his sophomore season with the Lions in 1984. One of his suitors was Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles.
Bowden even visited Turner and his family in Alabama. However, Kevin eventually decided to remain in-state and committed to Bill Curry’s Alabama Crimson Tide.
Kevin Turner took his game to the next level and eventually became one of the greatest fullbacks in Alabama football program history.
College Days with the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin Turner attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, AL from 1988 to 1991. Turner, a finance major, suited up for Alabama Crimson Tide head football coaches Bill Curry and Gene Stallings.
College football is like religion in the state of Alabama. Turner was now part of that proud tradition in his home state.
When Kevin took the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium wearing Alabama’s colors for the first time as a true freshman in the fall of 1988, his father Raymond’s eyes welled up.
One of Kevin’s college teammates was walk-on wide receiver Dabo Swinney, who eventually became the head football coach of the Clemson Tigers more than two decades later.
Kevin made a profound first impression on Swinney in one of their scrimmage games in 1987.
Raymond Turner told the Montgomery Advertiser‘s Paul Payne in 2016 a Crimson Tide linebacker was about to lay Swinney out in practice one day.
Fortunately for Dabo, Kevin annihilated the linebacker before he could lay a hand on the former. Kevin promptly told the linebacker to pick on somebody his own size the next time around.
According to The New York Times Billy Witz, Turner and Swinney grew closer as the years went by. They rode together in Kevin’s parents’ vehicle, ate barbecue, and drank beer after their Saturday afternoon football games in Alabama.
Little did both men know at the time Swinney would play a pivotal role in Kevin Turner’s son’s life in early 2016.
An Exceptional Blocker
Kevin Turner’s most renowned asset on the gridiron was his exceptional blocking ability. With his exploits at fullback, he helped Crimson Tide running backs Bobby Humphrey and Siran Stacy rack up yardage on the ground.
Turner was also a reliable two-way fullback who helped Alabama in critical short-yardage situations. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry during his four-year stint with the Crimson Tide.
Turner could also catch the football whenever the situation called for it. His 48 receptions as a sophomore in 1989 represented almost half his career total of 95 in the college football ranks.
Alabama averaged nine wins per season during Turner’s four-year tenure from 1988 to 1991. The Crimson Tide won the 1988 Sun Bowl and the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl during that four-year time frame.
Kevin Turner cemented his legacy as one of the best fullbacks in Alabama football program history. He would eventually put his exceptional blocking abilities to good use in the National Football League from 1992 to 1999.
Pro Football Career
The New England Patriots made Kevin Turner the 71st overall selection in the 1992 NFL Draft.
Turner sat on pins and needles as NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced each pick. Just as Tagliabue called out his name, Turner’s dad Raymond burst through their backyard door and told his son the “Boston Patriots” just took his name off the draft board.
An amused Kevin corrected Raymond and told him it was the New England Patriots who drafted him.
Several days later, Kevin packed his bags, loaded them into his maroon 1991 Ford Branco, and drove northeast to Massachusetts with Guns N’ Roses playing loudly in the background.
When Turner reported for his first training camp in the summer of 1992, he was awestruck when he saw Patriots stars Andre Tippett and Irving Fryar for the first time.
Turner could not believe they were his teammates. He had officially arrived!
Unfortunately, Kevin’s rookie season with the Patriots in 1992 was a tumultuous one, to say the least.
New England had an atrocious 2-14 win-loss record in Kevin’s first pro football season. Since joining the National Football League in 1970, the Patriots had missed the postseason eighteen times in twenty-three years.
The Patriots hired former New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells to right the ship prior to the 1993 NFL season. Parcells took over the reins from the embattled Dick MacPherson.
Thriving Under Parcells
Parcells loved Kevin Turner’s old-school style of playing the fullback position. The former considered him an all-purpose back because his great hands made him reliable in crucial third-down situations.
Not only that, but Turner also had the other intangibles Parcells admired.
“There’s nobody out there who wouldn’t like (Turner) as a person, player, practice habits, versatility,” Parcells told ESPN. “This kid had everything. He was a special kid.”
— Adam Nappa (@xnappax) March 24, 2016
Before long, Kevin Turner was thriving in Parcells’s system. He had a career-best 582 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in the 1994 NFL season.
Despite Turner’s breakout campaign, he sustained the first of two career concussions that year.
Turner turned awkwardly while attempting to haul in a pass close to the goal line in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. As Turner caught the ball, he slammed his head hard into the turf at Riverfront Stadium.
Nevertheless, Parcells turned the Patriots’ fortunes around. After winning just five games in his first year, he led New England to a 10-6 win-loss record in 1994. It was the Patriots’ best showing since they last made the postseason in 1986.
Regrettably, Parcells and Co. lost to Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns in the 1994 AFC Wild Card Game, 20-13.
Turner, a restricted free agent, signed a three-year, $4.125 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the 1995 NFL campaign. The deal included a $1.5 million signing bonus, per Graham.
With that, Turner became the second-highest-paid fullback in the NFL behind the Dallas Cowboys’ Daryl “Moose” Johnston.
The Washington Redskins also had Turner on their radar during the 1995 offseason. However, the Eagles eventually outbid them for his services.
As for the Patriots, they received a 1995 third-round draft pick from the Eagles after they failed to match Philadelphia’s offer.
It was a massive stroke of luck for New England. That third-round selection turned out to be future Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin.
Kevin Turner’s first year in the City of Brotherly Love got off to a rocky start. He missed nearly the entire 1995 NFL season with a knee injury.
With Turner out of commission, the Eagles went 10-6 and reached the 1995 NFC Divisional Round against Troy Aikman’s Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately, Dallas prevailed in lopsided fashion, 30-11.
Turner returned with a vengeance and became Eagles running back Ricky Watters’s lead blocker. Turner’s blocking prowess helped Watters rack up a league-leading 1,855 rushing yards in 1996.
Kevin Turner’s Eagles teammates also voted him as the recipient of the 1996 Ed Block Courage Award for bouncing back nicely from his injury-riddled 1995 NFL season.
Somebody had requested the late #kevinturner. And I am here to give you his first TD as an @Eagles, The Kevin Turner Foundstion fights against ALS #aatbirds #eagles #FlyEaglesFly #philly #nfl #turner @nolanturner02 pic.twitter.com/o8LHO6x2DT
— All About The Birds (@AATBirds) July 15, 2020
Turner sustained his second career concussion during the 1997 NFL season—his third in Eagles green and white.
Kevin hit his head during a kickoff return play against the Green Bay Packers at Veterans Stadium that year.
After the hard hit, a glassy-eyed Turner asked Eagles backup quarterback Bobby Hoying if they were playing in Philadelphia or Green Bay.
Unfortunately, it was just a small part of the bigger long-term picture for Kevin Turner. He banged his head in just about every lead-blocking play during his eight-year pro football career.
“I never thought about my head, the way I was abusing my head, the pounding my head was taking and the long-term consequences,” Turner told Graham in 2011. “Playing the position I did, I leveled my head every time I was on a lead block.”
Turner managed to suit up in 48 consecutive games for the Eagles from 1996 to 1998. Kevin’s consecutive games streak coincided with Philadelphia’s fall from grace in the NFL ranks.
The Eagles struggled during the latter years of the Ray Rhodes era. They averaged just six wins per season from 1996 to 1998.
Turner and the Eagles welcomed their new head coach, Andy Reid, prior to the 1999 NFL season. Kevin was ready to start the new regime on a clean slate until he sustained two career-ending neck injuries that year.
Philadelphia won just five games in 1999 and missed the postseason for the fifth time in seven years.
As for Kevin Turner, he retired following the 1999 NFL campaign. He had 635 rushing yards, 2,015 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns in his eight-year NFL career.
Turner earned $8 million during his eight-year pro football career from 1992 to 1999, per ESPN.
Post-Football Life and Death
Kevin Turner crossed paths with his former college teammate Dabo Swinney two years after he retired from the NFL.
Turner and Swinney were co-workers at a Birmingham, AL real estate firm in 2001. Swinney had previously served as the Alabama Crimson Tide’s tight ends and wide receivers coach from 1996 to 2000. It was the beginning of his two-year sabbatical from the football coaching ranks.
Turner came to Swinney’s rescue seven years later when Dabo became the Clemson Tigers’ interim head football coach during the 2008 NCAA season.
Swinney reached out to Turner and asked him if he could work as an emergency graduate assistant for the upcoming 2008 Gator Bowl against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, per the Montgomery Advertiser.
Alas, the Tigers lost to the Cornhuskers, 26-21. Nevertheless, Swinney had his interim tag removed prior to the 2009 NCAA campaign. He eventually led the Tigers to an upset of Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2016 College Football Championship.
Turner’s elder son Nolan visited one of Swinney’s football camps at the end of his high school sophomore season in 2014.
Swinney saw a lot of Kevin’s upside in Nolan at that time. Dabo was so impressed that he told the younger Turner he wanted him to play for the Clemson Tigers one day.
Nolan Turner had wanted to play for his father’s Alabama Crimson Tide when he reached the college football ranks. However, he never realized a stroke of good fortune would make him play for his dad’s former college teammate.
Son Nolan Gets Recruited by Clemson
When the Tigers’ depth chart at safety took a hit after several of Swinney’s players entered the transfer portal, he remembered Nolan and wanted to offer him a football scholarship.
Swinney ran the idea by former Crimson Tide wide receiver and Kevin’s closest friend Craig Sanderson. The latter was all for it.
Swinney then called Kevin at his Birmingham, AL home and informed him he was going to give Nolan a football scholarship at Clemson. Both Kevin and his dad Raymond were in tears, per Payne.
Nolan quickly followed suit after Swinney went to his school and offered him the scholarship the following day. Before Dabo even finished his statement, Nolan asked him if he could commit to Clemson on the spot. Swinney replied in the affirmative.
Several days after Swinney visited Nolan at his high school, Crimson Tide head football coach Nick Saban also paid him a visit. However, Nolan respectfully told Saban he’d already given his word to Swinney.
Kevin Turner knew his son was in good hands with Dabo Swinney. Alas, Kevin passed away just over a year after Nolan committed to the Tigers football program.
When Nolan eventually reported for his first training camp at Clemson, Swinney thought he was seeing Kevin’s doppelganger on the football field.
“Every time I look at Nolan, I feel like I’m in 1989 all over again, because they’re spitting images of each other,” Swinney told The New York Times in January 2020.
Kevin Turner went through some turbulent times after he retired from the National Football League.
According to Graham, Turner divorced his first wife Joyce in 2009 (he eventually married his second wife Allison in the spring of 2015), went bankrupt after several failed real estate investments, and became dependent on painkillers during his retirement years.
Unfortunately for Turner, the worst was yet to come.
Kevin’s physicians diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in the summer of 2010.
The disease took its toll on Turner’s mobility, particularly his arm and hand movement. He had a pinch strength of just one pound—a strength level equal to a baby’s.
Kevin also had difficulty buttoning his shirts and squeezing his toothpaste tube. He told ESPN in the spring of 2011 it could take him up to 30 minutes to put his jeans on without any assistance. Wearing socks was an even bigger challenge for him.
Turner had an innovative way of pulling down his zipper whenever he needed to relieve himself.
“I got what I call zipper-getters,” Turner told Graham in 2011. “It’s a little hook with some fishing wire that goes around the zipper of my pants so you can go to the bathroom.”
Turner had no family history of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He told ESPN football could have been one of the root causes.
Coincidentally, Kevin knew other linebackers, fullbacks, and strong safeties—football players who frequently had their bells rung—who also had ALS.
Legendary Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Parcells, Turner’s coach with the New England Patriots, conceded football is a violent sport that can take its toll on players’ long-term health.
Playing fullback, the position Turner played for eight seasons at football’s highest level, increased that possibility significantly.
“Fullback is a very high-collision position,” Parcells told ESPN. “It’s not like playing wide receiver or corner. He’s either running the ball and getting tackled, catching the ball and getting tackled, or blocking somebody.”
Foundation and Lawsuit
Turner launched his Kevin Turner Foundation in 2010. According to the foundation’s official website, learning about the link between ALS and CTE inspired Turner and his team to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease.
HBO Sports featured Turner in its 2012 documentary, American Man.
Turner was a plaintiff in a lawsuit former NFL players filed against the league in 2013. The group claimed the league did not inform them about the long-term repercussions of football on their cognitive health and mental well-being when they retired.
Unfortunately, the NFL paid the settlement money to the plaintiffs roughly a year after Kevin Turner passed away in the spring of 2016, per The New York Times‘s Juliet Macur.
Turner had been telling his fellow parents that football was a safe sport in the past. However, he ate his words after his health declined several years after he hung up his cleats following the 1999 NFL season.
“Turned out I was wrong,” Turner told CNN affiliate WGCL in a 2013 interview. “I was just so dead wrong about the hits to the head thing. I feel ignorant now.”
The years leading up to Kevin Turner’s death in 2016 were tough for his parents, Raymond and Myra. They saw first-hand how he lost 135 pounds as his health deteriorated during his retirement years.
Gone Too Soon
Kevin gradually lost strength in his hands and arms until he could not eat, drink, or talk anymore. He hung on for dear life through his breathing and feeding tubes.
“It’s all been really hard,” Myra Turner told The New York Times in 2017. “It’s worse than you can imagine, having to be a nurse to your son and then losing your only son.”
Sadly, Kevin Turner passed away on March 24, 2016. He was 46 years old.
Dabo Swinney, the Clemson Tigers head football coach who had been Turner’s friend since their college days at the University of Alabama, delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
Several months after he died, researchers at Boston University discovered that Turner had Stage IV chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a neurodegenerative disorder many former football players struggle with during their retirement years.
“The severity of Mr. Turner’s CTE was extraordinary and unprecedented for an athlete who died in his 40s,” lead researcher Ann McKee said. “It also appears that CTE decimated the motor cortex of his brain at a young age likely leading to his ALS symptoms.”
Concussion Legacy Foundation medical director and neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu also told Boston University’s Medical Campus’s official website that Turner’s twenty-five years of playing tackle football since he was five years old contributed greatly to his Stage IV CTE.
Kevin Turner left behind his wife Allison, his two sons Nolan and Cole, and a daughter, Natalie.
In the summer of 2016, Turner’s high school football team, the Prattville Lions, renamed its football field “Kevin Turner Field” in his honor.
Kevin Turner is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.