Former NFL fullback Kevin Turner is one of the most prominent — and most visibly afflicted — plaintiffs in the concussion-related class-action lawsuit against the NFL. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable neuromuscular disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and believes it was brought on by the trauma his brain endured playing football. He's said he expects the disease could rob him of the experience of seeing his children grow up. One of those experiences: watching his oldest son Nolan play high-level Alabama high school football.
Nolan Turner, a 16-year-old sophomore, is a defensive back for Vestavia Hills High School in suburban Birmingham. He's already become a contributor for the perennially playoff-contending Rebels, who are 5-1 and ranked among the best teams in the football-crazed state.
"When I saw him go into the game on the very first drive, my head and heart started going 100 miles an hour. I couldn't believe how nervous I was," the elder Turner told BuzzFeed. "I've never been that nervous playing the game. Most of it was hoping he does well. That's just instinct. Then there's that 10% in back of my mind: Am I doing the wrong thing?"
Because of the extent of his medical problems — and his willingness to speak about his issues in public — Turner became one of the faces of the lawsuit filed by thousands of former players against the league. Several weeks ago these plaintiffs and the NFL reportedly settled for $765 million, which will include compensation for victims, payment for medical exams, and funding for research into concussion-related brain injuries.
The suit might be over, but Turner plans to continue publicly pushing the NFL to make the game safer — a commitment he's made in no small part because of his son.
"It's caused a lot of soul-searching; I didn't come to that decision lightly," Turner said of letting Nolan play. "There's so many things as parents that we have to make decisions on. We still can't keep our children from living their lives."
In fact, Kevin Turner is one of several concussion-lawsuit plaintiffs whose sons are wearing helmets and shoulder pads this fall. Former NFL defensive back Al Harris' son is a senior standout in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and plans to attend the University of South Carolina. Rockwall, Texas, running back Chris Warren III plays the same position as his father Chris Warren did in the NFL for 11 seasons. Former Bills star Don Beebe is actually the head coach of a high school in Illinois.
For Turner, there is no conflict between his legal claims — that football contributed to his brain injuries and life-threatening disease — and his decision to let his oldest son participate in the same dangerous game.
"When I first learned of all this stuff about concussions, it was right at the start of [Nolan's] seventh-grade season. I didn't take him out immediately," Turner said. "But I did make him take the next year off until I understood all of this stuff a lot more. I still love the game. Always have, always will. My main focus now is to get everyone to enjoy the game but just know all the risks and know how to take care of themselves."
To that end, Turner will not permit his youngest son — 10-year-old Cole — to play football until at least the eighth grade: "I don't think he's physically ready to even though he's very athletic. From the ages of 6 to 14, your brain and your body are going through so many changes as it is without subjecting them to all of these hits to the head. What I've learned from people who are a lot smarter than me is that [the hits] all add up. And at that age, their head is much bigger than and heavier than their bodies, proportionally. I don't think that the people who came up with football intended for 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds to be out there butting heads with each other."
Turner's disease has already robbed him of a great deal of muscle movement and motor function, and his ability to speak is declining. One of the bright spots in recent months has been watching Nolan play.
"He actually did very well," Turner said. "There was one play, maybe second and goal from the 5- or 6-yard line, and I saw him line up and go head-to-head with one of the other team's best receivers. They threw (the receiver) a fade to the corner of the end zone and Nolan was there to break up the pass. I'm telling you, it hit me as though I was out there."