In his battle with ALS, Turner relies on his football toughness

Kevin Turner was an Eagles fullback until his illness forced him to retire in 1999. He is donating his brain for study after his death.
Kevin Turner was an Eagles fullback until his illness forced him to retire in 1999. He is donating his brain for study after his death.
Posted: September 16, 2010

In all his years playing football, at the University of Alabama and then for almost a decade in the NFL with the New England Patriots and Eagles, Kevin Turner prided himself on being hard-nosed.

"I never wanted to miss a snap," said the former fullback, who retired in 1999 after five seasons in Philadelphia. "I didn't want to miss anything in practice. It's one of the things that made me the player I was. I was dependable."

Turner says that with some regret.

This summer, the 41-year-old was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.

"Here recently, my hands just don't work," Turner said in a telephone interview as he was driving home from his job as a medical sales representative. "I can still grab a steering wheel. But at a restaurant or something, I take a drink of iced tea, I need two hands to grab my cup, kind of like a 2-year-old with a sippy cup. My kids thought I was joking around. It's hard to tell them I can't hold it with one hand."

Several years ago, before his diagnosis, Turner had contacted researchers at Boston University studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's possible that, instead of ALS, Turner has this disease, which mirrors ALS.

It's also quite possible that his former profession caused his present condition.

For the study, Turner agreed to donate his brain and spinal column to be examined after his death. It's the same group that determined that former Penn linebacker Owen Thomas had early stages of CTE when he committed suicide in April.

Turner's agreement is "very important," said Robert Stern, codirector of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine.

"By being able to study someone like Kevin throughout his life, to get information from things like brain scans, cognitive assessments, from spinal fluid, and then study their brain after they pass away is really critical," Stern said.

Turner didn't see Sunday's Eagles game. He had gotten a text message, however, from a friend with a link to an article about the concussions suffered by Kevin Kolb and Stewart Bradley. It brought back memories.

Turner's first thought: "That's got to be tough on coaches. It's tough on players. You feel like you're fine. At least I did most of the time. You go through a period, and, after a couple of days, I would always feel fine, even after the worst of what I consider head injuries."

That reminded Turner of a story that once may have sounded funny.

"A '97 game against Green Bay, I had a huge collision with a guy, on the wedge, on the kickoff," Turner said. "I always heard the saying, 'knocked out on his feet.' I guess that was what it was. I couldn't recall being out there. I ran my plays, did everything - just what I was supposed to do. But I finally came over and asked [Eagles teammate] Bobby Hoying, 'Are we in Green Bay or are we in Philly?' I could tell you what I was supposed to do, but I couldn't tell you where we were. Later that week, I felt fine."

Turner experienced some serious injuries in his career. He had back surgery and nerve damage in his spine. He suffered several concussions. The end came after a series of "stingers," or injuries to the nerve supply. He already had become concerned about his neck. Late in his career, he was told by one doctor that everyone has a certain amount of area in the spinal column so that the spinal cord will not be severed if a person suffers a broken neck. Turner was told he had less than half what was considered the normal area.

"I didn't know why - whether it was hereditary or from inflammation," Turner said. "That's kind of why I retired. It got so every time I hit somebody and my neck bent one way or the other, I'd have pain like you wouldn't believe shooting down my arm - like somebody putting a blowtorch to your arm, from your neck to your fingers. . . . It started to get more severe and going farther down my arm. It used to be primarily my left side. In '99, for the first time in my career, it went down my right side. That's really the play, when I had both arms sitting there limp and burning. That was my last play."

Turner thought he was prepared more than most players for life after football. He had a college degree, "plenty of money" and a planned career, "a beautiful wife and a couple of beautiful kids."

Instead, Turner said, he suffered "bouts of depression." He became addicted to painkillers. It was probably six years before a doctor told him how head trauma can change behavior and bring on depression.

"I had a time enjoying the things I used to enjoy on a regular basis," Turner said. "It's hard to say what caused what. Maybe it was just getting out of football, something I'd done all my life. . . . Some guys deal with it a lot better than others. I was one of those guys who had gotten my degree from Alabama. I wasn't a hell-raiser or anything like that. I had a good family."

Something was just missing.

"My wife would just say, 'You're not the same person,' " Turner said. "I was never really mean-spirited to her or my kids. I have a great relationship with all of them. I felt like I was never content, never really happy with what I was doing. When I heard about that [Boston University] study, I wondered if it had some merit to it."

Turner doesn't want the researchers to tell him about life spans. He hasn't gotten a good answer to that yet.

"I want their successors to be the ones who look at my brain," he said. "I don't want them to get too eager."

Turner has three children now: one son in seventh grade and another in first grade, and a daughter in fourth grade. Both boys are playing football.

"I worry about them. All this kind of hit me right in July," Turner said, referring to the ALS diagnosis. "They're already tuned up on playing football. It worries me all the time. My oldest is playing junior-high ball. My youngest, he's playing [youth] league. It's full contact."

If his children continue to play, it won't be at his old position.

"Fullback and linebacker, you're usually a good 5 yards away," Turner said. "You get up a pretty good head of steam. It makes for a different type of collision."

These are hard issues, Turner said.

"These are kids who love athletics, not just football," Turner said. "My daughter is involved in gymnastics. I've seen more injuries in gymnastics than I have in football with my two boys."

Turner talked for almost an hour and fumbled for an answer only once, when asked whether he would do it all again.

"That's such a tough, tough question," he said. "Knowing what I know now, gosh, it's very hard to answer. I guess if somebody would have told me, 'Hey, if you play professional football for a certain amount of time and get a hit to the head, and it raises your chances of dying at an early age - like being in your 40s when you're 20-something - it's hard to tell anybody that."

Turner still is working, selling medical devices. He had spent Monday in Dalton, Ga., and had a 21/2-hour drive home to Birmingham, Ala.

"I can drive, no problem," Turner said as he drove. "But certain things I just can't do. Sometimes it's very hard to turn the ignition in my truck. I need two hands. My hands just don't have any strength."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or

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