Kevin Turner played eight brutal seasons in the NFL. As a fullback in the ‘90s for the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, he delivered countless punishing hits on defenders and absorbed thousands of bone-rattling collisions. For his work, Turner suffered multiple concussions, significant nerve damage and a neck injury that ultimately ended his career. In the years following his retirement, Kevin found himself battling depression, headaches and unexplained memory lapses. Doctors eventually linked his condition to the repeated brain trauma he had been exposed to playing football. Four years later, in May 2010, 41-year-old Kevin Turner was diagnosed with ALS.
Raised in Prattville, Alabama, Turner grew up with football in his blood. A star fullback at the University of Alabama from 1987-1991, he was drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots in 1992. There, he performed the mostly thankless job of taking on 300-pound defensive linemen or bulldozing through linebackers as the lead blocker for his fellow running backs. After three seasons, he went to the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent, where he remembers sustaining hits so devastating that he actually blacked out during games.
“There were at least two times in my NFL career when I was literally knocked out,” says Turner. “But for the most part, there’s really no way of knowing how much damage you’re doing when there aren’t any noticeable symptoms of a concussion.”
By 1999, his body had suffered enough abuse. A critical neck injury that left him with a damaged spinal column pushed the eight-year veteran into early retirement. Kevin was only 30 years old at the time.
Life after football wasn’t easy for Turner. The Birmingham native underwent numerous surgeries and struggled with severe depression, addiction to pain medication and memory loss. He would often forget what he was saying in the middle of a sentence, or the reason he had gone into one of the rooms of his house. In 2006, doctors attributed his behavior to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease of the brain. CTE is typically found in individuals with repeated head trauma and is not uncommon among NFL players. But Kevin’s condition continued to worsen, and before long he noticed the muscles in his hands were becoming stiff and unresponsive. It would take several more years for doctors to finally diagnose him with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“When I was playing in the NFL, I would have never imagined a day where I couldn’t button my own shirt or zip up my pants,” Turner says, still with a hint of disbelief in his voice. “But at the time, you just can’t imagine that your body would ever let that happen to you.”
Recent scientific studies, such as the one completed by researchers at Boston University in 2007, have suggested a direct correlation between ALS and repetitive brain injury. The study points to an abnormally high rate of ALS among athletes relative to the rest of the population. Some estimates put it at 5 to 25 times higher. Although to date the test sample has been limited, a number of current and former NFL players, including Turner, have agreed to donate their brain and spinal column to be examined after they die.
“I think one of the most important things right now is to let the players of all ages and abilities know about the severity of the risks involved with concussions and head injuries,” says Turner.
That effort to educate others was one of the main motivations behind the creation of the Kevin Turner Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to fund research for ALS and its connection to brain injury. Established in 2010, the foundation aims to raise money and awareness in pursuit of its ultimate goal – finding a cure and preventing it in athletes if we can, Turner says.
The foundation forged a powerful partnership when Turner met Country star Ty Herndon at an ALS benefit in Birmingham, Alabama. Turner heard the Grammy-nominated singer’s inspirational song, “Journey On,” and immediately recognized the universal message and meaning in its lyrics. Herndon agreed to let the foundation use “Journey On” as its signature song, and in October 2010, a music video for the project was filmed in Nashville. Starring both Kevin and Ty, the video includes a personal message from Turner and poignant footage from his days in the NFL. Country music channels like CMT and GAC began airing the video immediately.
“They did a spectacular job with that video,” Kevin says proudly. “‘Journey On’ is a great calling card, so to speak, for anybody dealing with really hard times. You know, everybody goes through tough times in their lives, it’s just a matter of how you deal with it.”
These days, Turner spends much of his time working with his foundation and speaking at events around the country to help raise awareness about the effects of repetitive brain trauma and to share his story and faith. He also works closely with the Sports Legacy Institute, a team of medical researchers that has partnered with Boston University to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. In October of 2011, Kevin was presented with the Sports Legacy Impact Award, for his tireless efforts in the face of a fatal, debilitating disease.
The future for Kevin is uncertain, at best. The passion and drive that made him a success on the football field has never been in doubt, however, and it is that same passion that keeps him motivated in the fight of his life. His faith and his family, he says, get him through the bad times.
“Three kids is all the drive I need,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s my duty to be here as long as I can so that they don’t have to be without. I want to do everything I can to be here to help them and watch them grow up. If along the way, I can help people learn about ALS, or about preventing concussions and brain trauma, or about living a life of faith, well then that’s icing on the cake.”
“I see this disease as an opportunity, and The Kevin Turner Foundation is an opportunity,” Turner continues. “You know everybody eventually has to die. I am just blessed to be reminded of it each day so I can make every moment count.”
- December 2011
For more information about the Kevin Turner Foundation, visit www.KevinTurnerFoundation.org.