VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. — Dabo Swinney took his place on stage before a giant crucifix that saddest of Sundays. People smiled. To be gathered inside Hunter Hills Church of Christ in Prattville, Ala., on March 27 was to know Swinney as a humor-filled best friend all the way to the horrible end of former NFL fullback Kevin Turner’s six-year battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
“I was a walk-on football player at Alabama,” Swinney said in the eulogy, “and I was a walk-on coach at Clemson.”
It was Easter. Swinney and his wife Kathleen drove 300 miles from their Clemson home to Prattville that morning. A perfect day for a funeral, Swinney thought along the interstate.
The church was sprinkled with men who played football with Turner and Swinney at Alabama. Former running back Ricky Watters was among Turner’s NFL teammates who sat with longtime friends and family members.
All weeping eyes locked on Swinney as he read a final cell phone text exchange with his buddy. “K.T.” just before his death thanked Swinney for surprising his son Nolan Turner with a Clemson football scholarship when there were no other major college offers.
Swinney’s farewell text ended with a request.
“If you do 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,” Swinney said to giggling mourners. “You could have helped me with that onside kick (late in a loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game last January).”
Life moves on quicker than Deshaun Watson, the star quarterback Nolan Turner will have to defend against in Clemson practices. A tale of friendship, family and football beats on with the usual passion and risk magnified by deep loyalty and deeper brain science.
Swinney promises that his new freshman safety from Vestavia Hills High School outside Birmingham will get an opportunity to contribute, plus fatherly care.
In death, Kevin Turner remains part of a legal drive to make football safer by linking ALS to helmet-banging concussions via study of his 46-year-old brain.
It doesn’t scare Nolan Turner. It doesn’t conflict Swinney.
They can’t wait for preseason practice to start.
Clemson was scrambling for new defensive backs in January when T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse opted to join Mackensie Alexander and enter the NFL draft early. Swinney looked closely for the first time at video clips of a 6-2, 180-pound safety who wasn’t on the Tigers’ primary radar.
“Holy cow!” the head coach exclaimed to a graduate assistant on hand. “And on both sides of the ball.”
Swinney hurried down a hallway inside the Clemson football building and showed the tape to defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
“He’s as good as any high school safety I’ve seen this year,” Venables said.
Swinney was at Vestavia Hills High School the next day, along with Clemson assistant coach Marion Hobby. They met with Nolan Turner and Buddy Anderson, who has coached at Vestavia Hills for 38 years and is the winningest high school coach in Alabama history.
Turner’s best scholarship offer? Alabama-Birmingham. He planned to walk-on at Alabama, and knew Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban would be by the school the next day to firm up the invitation.
“Just a few weeks earlier, Coach Swinney called and told me, ‘We only have so many scholarships to give out, but we really want you to come here and walk on,’” Turner said.
So when Swinney offered Turner a full scholarship, it took a while to sink in.
“Dabo kept talking,” Anderson said. “About 30 seconds later Nolan said, ‘Can I commit right now?’ He was beaming ear to ear.”
He phoned his mom.
Joyce Turner was customizing a closet in someone’s Birmingham home as part of her Life Organized business started following a divorce from Kevin Turner.
She sat down and cried.
“We’d had such turmoil in our lives,” Joyce Turner said. “Even before Nolan’s dad was diagnosed with ALS, he struggled with lots of things after retiring from the NFL. Then we struggled in our marriage. Then a divorce and his dad’s diagnosis. Nolan’s world was just turned upside down at such a young age.
“I knew we were about to lose Nolan’s dad any day and who else would I want Nolan to be around on a daily basis than Dabo? I was beyond thankful.”
It was payback for more than 25 years of friendship, allowing Kevin Turner to put on an orange shirt and pose for pictures with his Clemson-bound son on National Signing Day.
Turner and Swinney played together at Alabama before the New England Patriots picked Turner in the third round of the 1992 NFL draft.
They worked together selling commercial real estate in Birmingham before Tommy Bowden hired Swinney as a Clemson wide receivers coach in 2003.
When Swinney became Clemson’s interim head coach in 2008, he immediately brought Turner to campus to serve as an emergency graduate assistant coach/shoulder to cry on. With Swinney in a frenzy those first few weeks, Turner was a soothing Southern voice, often politely breaking into conversations with a spit of tobacco juice and a deliberate, “Well, Dabo, let’s see …”
Every memory of Kevin Turner comes with joy, and at least a little concern. Turner after his diagnosis tried individually, legally and through the Kevin Turner Foundation to link ALS and the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) with concussions he suffered during an eight-year NFL career with the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
Turner was a lead plaintiff in a landmark concussion lawsuit brought by over 5,000 former players against the NFL that was approved in federal court in 2015. He was featured in a 2012 HBO documentary titled “American Man” that included the Turner-inspired song “Journey On” by country music star Ty Herndon.
Peter King of Monday Morning Quarterback wrote a 2013 story about Turner’s recollection of a 1997 Eagles game in which he asked a teammate in the first quarter if they were playing in Philadelphia or Green Bay. The teammate informed a doctor.
“The doctor said, “Remember these words,’ and I couldn’t,” Turner told King. “And he gave me the test three or four times, and finally I think it was the fourth time, I remembered the words and they let me back in the game. You can’t imagine the fit I would have thrown if they wouldn’t have let me back in the game.”
Nolan Turner, 18, knows all this.
And the gentle soul who has a ready smile for anyone he sees while picking through a large burrito at Leon’s Restaurant near his home is best known on the football field for old-school toughness. It’s a Turner thing.
“I remember Kevin came home from Nolan’s very first football practice,” Joyce Turner said. “Nolan was about 7. Kevin said, ‘You’re not going to like this, but he’s a natural – by far the best kid out there.’ I was like, ‘Oh, great.’ ”
Yes, of course. She is worried.
“But I want Nolan to do what he loves, and this is definitely in his blood,” Joyce Turner said. “I am extremely nervous about Nolan playing football, whether it is a practice or a game. However, because of what has happened to his dad, the game has become safer for Nolan.”
Swinney agrees that coaches are more cautious with head injuries and that Kevin Turner has had something to do with that.
Still, Joyce Turner knows college football is a big step up for a high school kid, that Nolan will want to prove he deserves that long-shot scholarship, “that he won’t want to let Coach Swinney down.” Or his father.
Nolan Turner spins all concussion talk positive.
“I definitely think all the concussions and head stuff had a link to his my dad’s ALS,” he said, “but I don’t see it as a reason not to play football, and he didn’t either. You just have to be careful. If you have a concussion you have to know it’s a serious thing, not something where you count to 10 and go back in. That’s one of the better things that have come out about concussions, protocols and that kind of stuff.”
The Kevin Turner Foundation has a double goal: Fight ALS and raise awareness for head trauma at all levels of all sports.
“We feel like we’ve made a difference in both,” said Craig Sanderson, a foundation leader and Birmingham mortgage executive who played football at Alabama with Turner and Swinney.
The foundation got boosts from concerts starring Herndon. Watters and former Alabama head coaches Gene Stallings and Ray Perkins are on the board. So is Swinney, who spoke at the first fundraiser held in Nashville six years ago.
“We have to live our lives not as reservoirs, but as rivers of success flowing through us,” Swinney said while encouraging attendees to fill out the pledge cards on their tables.
Swinney spent almost $6,000 bidding on auction items that night. When everyone left, it was up to Sanderson to help clean up and sort through the pledge cards. Near the bottom of a pile, he found one filled out by Dabo and Kathleen Swinney.
It was for $30,000.
Nolan Turner learned about ALS the hard way. He was hanging out with his dad, recently divorced. Younger siblings Natalie and Cole were busy elsewhere. He knew something was wrong; Kevin Turner had been dropping bowls of cereal.
“I just thought it was from his football injuries,” Nolan Turner said. “He had so many neck and back surgeries.”
Nolan was 12.
“I’ve been to a doctor,” Kevin Turner told the boy. “What I’ve got is ALS. That’s Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
Kevin Turner smiled, and continued.
“Now I don’t want you to go Googling it and seeing that it says I’m going to die in a year or two,” he said. “I’ll probably be around for a lot longer than you want me to be.”
The Turners would struggle through complications that ravaged a former athlete’s body with complications involving most body parts every day. Kevin Turner died six years later on March 24, as his oldest son was planning for prom and graduation.
Nolan will always cherish the 2015 football season, his senior year, and an October scene that touched everyone present. Vestavia Hills had just upset perennial Alabama power Hoover for the first time since 2009, sealing a 20-13 home victory when Turner knocked down a “Hail Mary” pass attempt.
Kevin Turner, who watched games in his wheelchair from a patio high above the stadium, rolled his way down to the field to celebrate.
He did wheelchair circles on the field, popped wheelies and, Nolan said, “just flew around.”
“It really uplifted my soul,” Anderson said. “It gave me a great feeling, just knowing Nolan’s dad was in the latter stages but that he was so happy for his son.”
Nolan Turner has been thinking about his first Clemson football practices in August since he committed on the spot in January.
“It’s crazy how I’m watching the national championship game and watching Deshaun Watson play — it’s amazing how good he is — and now all the sudden I’m going to be playing on the same team,” Turner said.
He is realistic about 2016.
“I expect to compete and try to earn a spot and do whatever I can do,” Turner said. “But, honestly, I have no idea what’s coming.”
Turner wants to coach and, as Swinney did, major in Business. Swinney notes that Turner is about the same size as his father was when he entered Alabama. Kevin Turner expanded into a 6-1, 231-pound fullback. Swinney doesn’t expect that from his incoming safety but forecasts overachievement mirroring a recent Clemson trend.
“Nolan has a chance to be a really good player,” Swinney said. “Sometimes guys come in like Adam Humphries or Tyler Grisham, or T.J. Green or Hunter Renfrow, and I can’t answer why people get overlooked.”
Turner has been on the Clemson practice field before, when he attended a summer camp as a high school sophomore. His father, though dug in against ALS, came along – to see his son play football and to enjoy one of his last extended visits with an old pal.
“Dabo understood ALS and the seriousness of it,” Nolan Turner said. “But my dad wasn’t a big complainer; he was always smiling. Watching my dad and Dabo ride around in a golf cart together was kind of funny. It was very hot that week. My dad was really sweating and Dabo would take a towel and wipe his face. It was cool to see how close they were and how they were such good friends. That’s what I’ll always remember.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff