I was very sad this week to read about Kevin Turner. He was a star fullback for the Eagles in the late 1990s and one of my favorite players. Unfortunately, life has been brutally hard for him since leaving the NFL.
Most significantly, Turner was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) about 10 months ago. ALS is a neuromuscular disease that has no cure and is fatal. It gets progressively worse over the course of a couple of years. Turner is already feeling the effects. He can't button a shirt or squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube. Sadly, it is only going to get worse.
Turner is convinced that playing football had a part in him getting ALS. There is no scientific proof, but you can understand where Turner is coming from if you know his background.
Ray Rhodes was hired to be coach of the Eagles in 1995. He brought Jon Gruden in to run the offense. Gruden has always believed in the I-formation and pounding the ball on the ground. Charlie Garner was in place, but the Eagles moved quickly to sign free agents Ricky Watters and Turner. Watters was going to be the workhorse runner. Turner was going to be the lead blocker who cleared the way for him, over and over.
The key play in the running game was an inside run called "Iso Bob". Iso means isolation and Bob means back on backer, as in fullback on linebacker. Turner ran into linebackers at full speed 15-20 times a game in his Eagles career. Turner wasn't just a blocker. He was a very good blocker. He sold out to make sure that he opened good holes for Watters and Garner. That pounding took a toll on him and Turner was forced to retire due to neck injuries after the 1999 season.
Turner was a gifted runner and receiver, as well as being a strong blocker. He played on special teams. He was one of the best fullbacks in the league and a player that I loved to watch every Sunday. ALS aside, his post-football body is in less than stellar shape because of the punishing way he played. Turner was the kind of tough, rugged guy we all glamorize.
I can't help but feel a little guilty as I think about his situation. We don't know for sure that the ALS is related to football, but the mere fact that Turner believes it bothers me. He played football as a kid and then in high school, college, and the NFL. Instead of looking back at a lifetime of great memories and experiences, he regrets playing football. In Kevin's mind, football is going to cost him his life.
We know that the effects of football played a significant part in Andre Waters suicide. We are learning that the game we all love so much takes an unbelievable toll on the players we cheer for. It is hard enough to read about a guy like Jim Otto and his knee injuries, but finding out players in their forties are dealing with serious brain injuries and other issues is very disconcerting.
The flip side of this is that not everyone has the same situation. Troy Aikman took as much of a pounding as any quarterback in the last 20 years. He was forced to retire due to concussions and other injuries. Aikman has said that he doesn't feel any long term issues from his injuries. Fullback Darryl Johnston was the best lead blocker of the 1990s. He took an unbelievable pounding as he paved the way for Emmitt Smith to gain thousands of yards. Johnston doesn't have any long term problems despite the pounding he took.
I'm not going to quit watching football. I love the game too much. I do think we need to sometimes just sit back and appreciate what these guys go through. They do get paid a lot of money, but that doesn't diminish the risks they take with their bodies.
I've picked on Jerome McDougle plenty of times over the years for not being a good NFL player. I do have ultimate respect for what a tough guy he is. Let's look at his injury history:
2003 - Suffered knee, ankle, and hip injuries in preseason and missed 8 games.
2004 - Missed time with knee sprain.
2005 - Shot in attempted robbery. Complications following surgery caused him to miss the season.
2006 - Broke a pair of ribs in the preseason and missed some time.
2007 - Missed the entire season after tearing his tricep in the preseason.
McDougle would always come back from his injuries in great shape. This wasn't a guy who was just sitting on the couch and eating chocolate pudding (that would be me). He worked hard. There would be no quitting. He was dealt blow after blow, but never gave up. McDougle was desperate to carve out an NFL career for himself.
He was a disastrous draft pick for the Eagles, but let's not ignore his toughness and tenacity. Some younger fans may not remember the name Bernard Williams. He was the Eagles first round pick in 1994. He was a tall, athletic left tackle. He had a very good rookie year and gave all Eagles fans hope that he could solve the offensive line woes. He was suspended in the summer of 1995 for failing a drug test and then was suspended for the season for failing another test. Williams didn't like football as much as he did getting high with his friends and playing pick-up basketball. That's a guy I can't respect. He turned his back on the Eagles and football. McDougle did everything in his power to make it in the league. The injuries robbed him of his burst and made him a pedestrian player. He will always be the punch line to draft jokes and that’s okay, but do appreciate the effort he put forth in trying to make it. You can’t question McDougle’s desire or his toughness.
Football is a great game. It is also physically demanding and players who stay in the game long enough will pay a price. A lot of us have resisted some of the NFL's moves to take some of the violence out of the game. After all, these are football players and they are supposed to be tough enough to give and take hits. Things change when you stop and alter your thinking a bit. These aren't just players. They are people. They are people with families and futures. The violent hits may entertain us and be a part of the DNA of the game of football, but are they worth it when you consider the long term effects on our Sunday heroes. That's something we have to think about.