Shortly before his death in 2016, Kevin Turner sent a text message to his good friend and former Alabama teammate, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
Confined to a bed, Turner stared at his computer screen. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, had spread quickly throughout his body, deteriorating the armor that once carried him through eight bruising seasons in the NFL.
His eyes were still sharp, and they became his only way to communicate. He spelled each thought one letter at a time as he spotted them on the screen.
First letter. Blink. Next letter. Blink. Next letter. Blink.
It was a tedious way to text, but it was the only way to let Swinney know how important it was that the Clemson coach watch over his son Nolan Turner.
It’s been hard on him. The things that he’s dealt with since he was 12 years old when I told him I had ALS. He’s kinda quiet, not unlike me, so I worry about him. I know many kids have much more worse circumstances. I have my hand out for nothing. I can put him through school. However your friendship, and you telling me to give him your number, priceless. I hope he gets an opportunity to play for you.
He got that chance, but only after an improbable string of separate events that somehow intertwined and ultimately triggered one phone call that changed all of their lives.
Clemson hadn’t been recruiting Nolan. No Division I schools had offered him a scholarship. He was going to walk on at Alabama, where his father was a star and team captain in 1991. It was only a few weeks before signing day that Swinney, scrambling to fill unexpected holes in the secondary, decided Nolan Turner was the safety they needed. Nolan got the opportunity from Clemson — and it was the only one he needed to make an impact.
Ohio State was driving and in position to score a touchdown in last month’s College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, ready to end Clemson’s 28-game winning streak and advance to the national championship game.
Earlier in that fourth quarter, Turner fell for a run fake on fourth-and-2 that gave Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields just enough room to complete a touchdown pass and give the No. 2 Buckeyes a 23-21 lead.
“He was very disappointed in himself and felt like he let the team down,” Swinney said after the game. “Unfortunately, they were going to score. That’s one thing I told him: ‘You gotta keep your head up. You’re going to make a winning interception and just have to go to the next play.'”
That next play came with 43 seconds remaining. The No. 3 Tigers were clinging to a precarious 29-23 lead as the Buckeyes were in scoring position from the Tigers’ 23-yard line on second-and-7.
Joyce Turner, Nolan’s mother, turned away and prayed in the stands. His grandfather, Raymond, couldn’t watch, either.
Fields dropped back and fired a pass into the end zone.
“I had my head down before the last play, saying my prayers with my own self,” said Raymond, who was also in the stands at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. “About the time I looked up I said, ‘Oh my God, Nolan just intercepted it.'”
Nolan was in perfect position. Game over. One of the most memorable plays of 2019 was made by a backup with three career starts — just as Swinney predicted, even with Turner’s feet in a similar spot to his earlier mistake — and his mom missed it.
“My head was literally in my lap,” Joyce said, laughing. “Everyone’s like, ‘Well, what happened was, the receiver went the wrong way and Nolan was watching the quarterback’s eyes.’ I beg to differ. I think his dad had something to do with it.”
Kevin Turner, once an imposing NFL fullback who later suffered from severe CTE, had always been a driving force in his son’s life. Nolan truly believes he was there with him on the field, but he also believed in himself.
“I knew I could play,” Nolan said. “I just needed to find a way to show others that. I knew if I could get into Alabama or one of these schools, if I walked on, eventually I could make a name for myself doing that. I needed an in somewhere. That was my mentality, if I could just get in and play, I could prove that I could do it.”
The defensive back from Vestavia Hills High School in the Crimson Tide’s home state was the hidden gem Clemson needed to cement a spot in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship against LSU (8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App). Once again, his mother will be there, but they both like to say his dad has the best seat in the house.
“He went from being so sad, going through a hard time watching his dad suffer with this horrific disease, being overlooked by colleges to play football, to having this opportunity to play for Clemson on a scholarship,” Joyce Turner said. “I saw him smile again for the first time in a very long time. He didn’t have a lot to smile about. He might deny that, but as his mom, I saw how hard things were on him and how upset he was, what his dad was struggling with. For my children to watch that, it was horrific. It was a nightmare every day.
“And then he got this offer.”
Dabo Swinney still vividly remembers the scuffle at a 1991 scrimmage. He was a junior receiver at Alabama, a former walk-on who finally earned a scholarship, and Kevin Turner was a senior running back.
Swinney caught the ball and beat a safety to score a touchdown. Frustrated, one of the defensive backs tackled him in the end zone; Swinney was mad, too, so he threw the ball at the defender.
“Next thing I know he’s on top of me … and outta nowhere, all of a sudden, he just gets wiped out,” Swinney recalled. “[Kevin Turner] took him out, knocked him off of me. That guy, he just got up and went on about his business, because nobody was gonna mess with KT. That’s just how he was.”
Swinney described Turner as a “John Wayne, a bigger-than-life type of guy.” They were teammates for three seasons (1989-91), but when Kevin was drafted by the Patriots in the third round of the 1992 NFL draft, Swinney stayed behind at Alabama as a graduate assistant and assistant coach of the receivers and tight ends. When Swinney’s contract ended in the spring of 2001, he had a wife, two kids and no job. The same man who hired Swinney to work in real estate with a shopping center development company — Rich Wingo, a former strength coach at Alabama — then hired Turner, whose NFL career ended after five seasons with the Patriots and three with the Eagles.
Swinney and Turner were again teammates, this time in a metal cubicle in an industrial-type office. One of their projects was the Anderson Station shopping center in Anderson, South Carolina. They rented rooms at the La Quinta, where they stayed for about a week to work.
“He tried to tell me how good of a guitar player he was,” Swinney said. “I called bullcrap. He goes to a pawn shop, buys a guitar, comes back and we sat up one night and just sat there playing the guitar, and had some fun.”
Swinney had never been to Clemson before, so one day after work, they drove the 17 miles to campus. Dabo called his wife, Kathleen, sounding like a recruit himself.
“We rode over there one night, pulled around to [Howard’s] Rock and pulled over and looked at the paw,” Swinney said. “I called Kath, and I was like, ‘Man, guess where I’m at? I’m at Clemson!'”
In February 2003, almost one year after starting to work at that shopping center, Swinney was hired as an assistant coach at Clemson. In 2008, when Tommy Bowden was fired and Swinney was promoted to interim head coach, Turner joined his staff as a graduate assistant. They coached together against Nebraska in the 2009 Gator Bowl, and their families, including Nolan, came along, as well. Swinney tried to get Kevin to join his staff full-time when he was hired as head coach, but the timing wasn’t right for Turner and his family.
It was soon after when Turner first told Swinney he was “having some issues.”
“That was the first thing, he couldn’t play the guitar like he could,” Swinney said. “He didn’t know what was going on. He had no idea at that time what was going on.”
None of them did.
“It started in his hands,” Joyce said. “Within a year he could hardly drive. I guess we were naive. I was. I kept thinking we can live with this. He’s going to be OK. He’s so strong. He had the biggest legs. It’s not going to get into his legs. It’s probably just going to stay in his upper extremities. We can deal with that. We can live with that. Then it got into his legs and he couldn’t walk. It was hard. He declined from there.”
After a rocky journey that included a divorce in 2010, Kevin moved back in with his family after he was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. As the rest of his body failed him, Kevin began to rely on his eyes. He had a favorite leather couch in the living room where he would sit for hours and binge-watch Netflix shows with his kids.
Seeing how the game destroyed Kevin, Joyce feared for her son.
“I had it in my head he wouldn’t play,” she said. “I had myself convinced of that. It’s not that I didn’t believe in Nolan, I was [just] so scared. We lost his dad because of concussions.”
Nolan Turner grew up an Alabama fan and remembers going to games with Kevin since he was 5 years old. They used to drive the 45 minutes from Birmingham, Alabama, to Tuscaloosa to watch the Tide every Saturday. They had season tickets, and they also used to watch all of Kevin’s old games together on VCR tapes.
“He was a big, strong, dude, really talented,” Nolan said. “To have that all taken away from him, to see his body deteriorate over those years — it was really tough to see him like that.”
Kevin wasn’t helpless in his son’s recruiting process, though. He once drove from Birmingham to Clemson — with his knees — so Nolan could attend a camp.
“I was so mad at him,” Swinney said. “He wasn’t supposed to, did it anyway.”
When they got to the camp, Swinney would drive them around in a golf cart. He had to help wipe Kevin’s nose as it dripped.
During Nolan’s sophomore year in high school, Swinney offered him a walk-on spot, but Nolan already planned on doing the same at Alabama. There were no advantages during the recruiting process because his father had been a hard-nosed blocker for the Tide who could also catch passes out of the backfield. It didn’t matter that Kevin Turner and Swinney were teammates, close friends and even worked together. Nolan’s only scholarship offer was from UAB, despite going to camps and being on the right lists.
It wasn’t until after the 2015 season that Clemson found itself in a recruiting predicament.
Following the national championship game against Alabama, defensive backs T.J. Green, Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and Travis Blanks all told Swinney they weren’t coming back.
It was just weeks before signing day.
Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables scrambled. They got Trayvon Mullen, who’s now with the Raiders. They signed K’Von Wallace, whom Dabo had never heard of until a last-minute push to recruit him. They signed Isaiah Simmons, who they had never made one call to before they learned the others were leaving.
And then Swinney decided to go back, look at Turner’s film and show it to Venables without telling him who or what the connection was.
“Brent says, ‘I like him. Who’s this guy? Where’s he at?'” Swinney recalled. “I said, ‘That’s all I need to know.'”
Swinney then called Buddy Anderson, who has been coaching at Vestavia Hills so long, he remembers when Swinney was in high school. Anderson and his wife were driving to visit their daughter in Georgia and stopped at a McDonald’s when the phone rang.
“Coach, I just have to ask you one question,” Swinney said. “I just watched Nolan Turner’s highlights. What am I missing on him? How come he doesn’t have any offers?”
“I have no idea,” Anderson replied. “He’s as good a player as I’ve had in 50 years here being the head coach at Vestavia.”
Swinney asked Anderson about any potential “red flags.”
“Heavens, no,” Anderson said. “He’s a great kid, a great player. I think he’ll make somebody a real good strong safety or slot receiver. He can play.”
When Swinney called Nolan’s family, Kevin Turner was confined to his bed, breathing from a tube in his neck. His father, Raymond, put Swinney on speakerphone. The coach said he was going to drive to Nolan’s high school the next day to personally offer him a scholarship. Kevin and Joyce cried together on the couch.
Kevin was banging his legs on the footboard of the bed, “like he was trying to jump up and down,” Raymond said.
“He wouldn’t have wanted anything else,” Raymond said. “I don’t think he would’ve been as happy had he gone to Alabama, even though he would’ve liked that. He was so satisfied knowing it was Dabo. Dabo said, ‘I’ll be there for him. I’ll take care of him.'”
Using his eyes, Kevin Turner slowly typed a text message to Swinney:
Let me be realistic for a moment. Most likely, I won’t see Nolan graduate, and there’s nothing that you could have told me that would have made me happier than telling me that a man of your character and integrity was going to be there for my son after I’m gone. I’m not scared of dying, but not being there for my kids terrifies me.
The day after Swinney offered Nolan a scholarship — which he accepted on the spot — Alabama coach Nick Saban also made a 45-minute visit to Anderson’s office, reiterating his offer to Nolan to be a preferred walk-on and possibly earn a scholarship at some point.
“When Coach Saban left, I said, ‘Nolan, it looks like you’ve got some options,'” Anderson said. “He said, ‘Coach, I’m going to Clemson.'”
Kevin Turner was determined to go with Nolan on his only official visit — they braved a rare South Carolina blizzard to make it. Nolan and other Clemson recruits zipped down The Hill at Memorial Stadium on makeshift plastic sleds and orange saucers on the same famed slope the entire team runs down on Saturdays. Swinney also soared down, head-first, still flying high from his first national title game appearance. With his father, Raymond, by his side, Kevin Turner sat immobile in his wheelchair, barely able to hold his head up and unable to speak, yet elated by what he saw through a window at the other end of the field.
“His willingness to attack every day with a positive mindset even though it was killing him to not be able to do all of the things he used to do, to keep fighting, keep pushing, it was really inspiring to watch,” Nolan said.
Kevin would also be there for Nolan’s signing day in February, but he died on March 24, 2016, surrounded by his family. He was buried on Easter Sunday, and Swinney spoke at his funeral. The following month, Nolan left home for Clemson.
“He did a great job,” Nolan said of Swinney’s eulogy. “It was pretty special. He’s a man of faith. He had a great speech lined up. He talked about football and how your foundation can’t be football, and that one day, when the ball goes flat, you have to have God first.”
Before Kevin Turner became severely ill, he was driving with Raymond one day and asked his dad what he thought about legacies.
“What do you mean?” Raymond said.
“He said, ‘I’ve always thought about that, and I sure would like to leave a legacy before I’m gone,'” Raymond said. “He said, ‘I want to do something to make people remember me.’ That always kind of stuck in my mind that he said that, thinking now that he’s getting his wish. It’s quite incredible. Seeing it again in Nolan, that continues it.”
Raymond has joined Joyce to watch all of his grandson’s games, even if it’s sometimes a heart-wrenching reminder of his only child. He and his wife, Myra, park their RV at a campground in Pendleton, South Carolina, about three miles from the stadium and live there for about a month during the fall.
“Every time I go see him at practice, Dabo sees me, he’ll come over there and talk to me and say, ‘Look at ‘im, don’t he look like Kevin?” Raymond said. “It’s good to hear, but I get choked up talking about it, like now. You never stop thinking about your children. It was quite something to go through, but to go through this again, it brings back all the memories you ever had with Kevin. My wife and I are always comparing, Kevin used to do this, do that. Nolan does the same thing, the way he treats the kids, everything. He’s just a good guy.”
Swinney made sure the world knew who Nolan’s father was, too. When Swinney stood at a lectern in front of a cross draped with a white cloth and gave Kevin’s eulogy, he choked up as he promised to help Nolan fulfill his dream of playing and coaching.
“I love you, KT,” Swinney said. “You’re one of my heroes.”
Because of their relationship, that one phone call, Swinney is reminded of his friend every practice, every game. Including Monday night’s title game.
“You want to know what he looked like?” Swinney said of Kevin. “Look at Nolan, a spitting image. It’s like I’m back in 1989 every time I look at him.”