January 11, 2020
Billy Witz-The New York Times
As the Ohio State Buckeyes moved into striking range of a touchdown that could have sent them to the national championship game, Raymond Turner could not bear to watch.
His grandson, Nolan Turner, a junior safety for Clemson, would end up as the last line of defense against the Buckeyes — an opportunity as alarming as it was thrilling. Nolan had been beaten early in the fourth quarter for a touchdown pass that gave Ohio State the lead, which Clemson reclaimed with less than two minutes to go.
Now, in the final seconds of the game, Raymond sat in the stands with his eyes closed, bowed his head and had a conversation with his late son, Kevin, who was Nolan’s father.
“I was talking to my son in heaven,” Raymond Turner said. “I said, ‘Kevin, we need some help here — anything.’”
Raymond did not raise his head or open his eyes until he felt the roar of the crowd. When he looked up, Nolan was holding the ball in the end zone — cradling an interception that sealed the win and advanced Clemson, the reigning national champion, to the title game against Louisiana State on Monday night.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, Nolan intercepted the ball,’” Raymond said. “I know people don’t like to hear that kind of talk. But I had chills running down my spine.”
In recent years, an increasing awareness of brain injuries connected to playing football has led to a reckoning about America’s most popular sport, forcing fans to reconsider their devotion to the game as a wave of former players developed dementia or died by the time they reached middle age.
It is hard to imagine a family with more to reconcile than the Turners.
Kevin, a bruising fullback who played eight seasons in the N.F.L., died at age 46 in 2016, six years after he began receiving treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a rare, incurable degenerative disease that is better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or A.L.S.
Research suggests that athletes in the N.F.L. are almost four times more likely than the general population to die of A.L.S. or Alzheimer’s disease. In the final years of his life, Kevin was a lead plaintiff in a concussion-related lawsuit against the league, and he pushed for former players to approve a settlement that could give them much-needed financial help. After his death, Kevin was found to have severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. — a deterioration of the brain that is associated with repeated blows to the head and has increasingly been tied to A.L.S. symptoms.
So when Kevin’s parents, Raymond and Myra, and his ex-wife, Joyce, watch Nolan run around on a football field in front of adoring fans — wearing a No. 24 jersey, just as his father did in college — front and center are reminders of what football has given and taken away.
“There’s mixed emotions,” Raymond said. “Nolan’s doing really well, but it worries me sometimes after what happened to my son. It’s kind of a God’s will thing — whatever happens is supposed to happen.”
Said Joyce Turner: “Absolutely, it is very bittersweet. The past few weeks, obviously we’re ecstatic for Nolan that he had such a wonderful game, and so happy for him and so thankful there were no injuries, but there’s always that fear — namely concussions.”
It is not just the uniform number that Nolan Turner shares with his father. He has a full head of thick brown hair like his father’s at the same age, the same deep-set brown eyes, the slightly hawkish nose, plus the sure hands, work ethic and bonhomie that make him a respected teammate.
“When he’s on the field, I can tell it’s Nolan without even looking at his number,” Myra said. “He walks like Kevin, he runs like Kevin. …” She stopped and began to cry.
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney understands. “Every time I look at Nolan,” he said, “I feel like I’m in 1989 all over again, because they’re spitting images of each another.”
Swinney and Kevin Turner were teammates and close friends at the University of Alabama, often arriving together at Raymond and Myra’s recreational vehicle after games to eat grilled meat and drink beer. As Clemson’s interim head coach in 2008, Swinney lured Kevin into briefly being an “emergency grad assistant” for a bowl game.
After Nolan’s senior season in high school in Vestavia Hills, Ala., he had opportunities to walk on at Alabama and Clemson, but had only one scholarship offer as signing day approached — from Alabama-Birmingham.
Clemson, though, ended up scrambling to fill positions when four defensive backs decided to leave early for the N.F.L. Swinney quickly landed three new defensive backs before he looked at a videotape of Turner. He then called Turner’s high school coach, who assured Swinney that Nolan could keep up at Clemson. Next Swinney showed the video to defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who said: “I like this guy. Where is he?”
Swinney flew the next day to meet with Turner and offer a scholarship.
“I told Nolan, here’s what’s going to happen,” Swinney said. “We’re going to offer you a scholarship and everybody’s going to say it’s a pity party, it’s only because of your dad, blah, blah, blah. Now, it is because of his dad, in that I had a relationship. But he got a scholarship because he’s good.”
Two months later, Kevin Turner died. Swinney delivered a eulogy at the funeral.
When Kevin was told in 2010 that he had A.L.S., Nolan stopped playing football for his middle school team. As to why, it depends on whom you ask.
According to Raymond, Kevin asked Nolan to do so. “He said: ‘Won’t you sit out a year and see if this is what you want to do?’” Raymond said. “‘You’ve got to really love football to know if this is the beating you want to take and you go through the age where the bones need to grow and you put on weight.’”
Joyce, who had three children with Kevin before they divorced, said: “At the time, his dad and I thought: Well, maybe he’s not playing because of what his dad is going through. But now, if you ask Nolan, it was ‘Our team was absolutely terrible. I wanted to focus on basketball.’ I was so excited. I thought it was because of the dangers of football.”
Nolan laughed when his mom’s recollection was recounted for him.
“Whatever she said you take it with a grain of salt because it’s usually never true,” he said, all but rolling his eyes. “She has her own stories. I thought I was going to be a basketball star in eighth grade so I was not going to play football.”
He returned to football a year later because he missed it.
Nolan, who used to watch his father’s old videotapes in a V.C.R. — “I’m glad I’m not playing against him; he used to kill people back there,” he said — discussed the dangers of the sport with his father, but said his father never tried to dissuade him from playing. The discipline, camaraderie and life lessons that he took from football were hard to replicate in other sports, Nolan said.
If others in the family were anxious when Nolan suffered a concussion during his senior year in high school, Nolan was not. He termed it “a slight concussion” even though specialists say there is no such thing.
“I didn’t really give it all that much thought,” Nolan said.
Walking away from football is not easy for a family like the Turners. Raymond played in high school and then coached Kevin for almost a decade, beginning at age 5. Kevin then coached his two boys. Nolan began to play tackle football when he was 8. “It’s hard to get out of your blood,” Joyce said.
What gives everyone in the family a degree of comfort is changes to the sport that have been made around the margins. Some teams now have less contact in practice; Kevin was certain that practice collisions were primarily responsible for his depression and A.L.S. There is greater vigilance about concussions; rules have been changed in an attempt to make the game safer; and the Turners place great trust in Swinney to care for Nolan.
Joyce said she is at peace.
“I really am,” she said. “It goes back to everything happens for a reason. It’s tragic what we went through with Kevin, but I feel like he played a big part in making the game safer. When he played in the N.F.L., I’m just a wife and mom sitting in the stands watching the team doctor on the sidelines doing the follow-my-finger test after Kevin had a horrific hit. I knew that couldn’t be right.”
She continued: “I hated the game when he first got diagnosed. I hated everything about it. Once I started seeing the changes in the helmets, the trainers out there, taking players off the field and taking it serious, and what they go through when they feel like you might have gotten a concussion, the extensive tests. It’s made me feel so much better. I wanted to love the game. I love the game again.”
Still, players are bigger than ever, seasons are longer than ever, and many changes are so new that there is little data on whether the game has become safer, a point she acknowledged.
“There’s no guarantee,” Joyce said. “If you’re not playing with a concussion, I’m assuming they’re going to be O.K. down the road to avoid A.L.S., C.T.E., dementia — all that stuff is caused by playing with a concussion.”
A year from now, Nolan will consider his career path. He is on track to graduate in August with a degree in finance, and he could follow in the steps of Myra, who worked as a financial services manager. Coaching is another possibility. But with another year of development, Swinney believes Nolan has a chance to play in the N.F.L. After all, as a freshman, Nolan did something that plenty of N.F.L. players struggle with — he tackled quarterback Lamar Jackson, then of Louisville, in the open field.
“As a competitor, you’re always looking for the next step so it’s definitely something I would pursue — trying to play in the league,” Nolan said.
Raymond said he would support his grandson if he pursued a career in the N.F.L., and if not, “that would suit me fine.”
“I told him,” Raymond said, “you don’t have to be the best athlete in the world to be back there, but it wouldn’t hurt to be the smartest. If you know the game, it makes up for a lot of deficits. He knows the game.”
Once Monday’s championship game is over, Raymond anticipates that he and Myra will eagerly shift attention to their youngest grandson, Cole. He is a sophomore in high school and a talented athlete. Best of all: He plays only basketball.