Chip off old block: Nolan Turner follows in dad's footsteps
NEW ORLEANS, LA – The resemblance is remarkable, even for father and son.
The thick, wavy hair. That firm jawline. The chiseled chin. Those dark, piercing eyes.
Sitting among his Clemson teammates during media day for the national championship game, Nolan Turner appears to have been lifted straight from the pages of a nearly three-decade-old Alabama football media guide, the one that featured a snapshot of his dad Kevin.
With one big difference.
“He put on a lot of weight in college,” Nolan Turner said Saturday, chuckling a bit. “He was like 250 pounds."
Nolan is generously listed at 195, so it would've been a huge mismatch to go against his father.
"I'm glad I'm not playing against him," Nolan said, the pride oozing from his voice. “He used to kill people back there.”
It's an interesting choice of words, since football is the game that essentially killed Kevin Turner.
Yet, it's also the game that provided him with so much joy.
Ditto for his son.
It's part of their DNA. A big part.
“Football is just a special game,” Nolan Turner said. “It takes everybody on the team doing their job and that type of cohesion to make everything work. It teaches you a lot about life off the field, which you wouldn't even know. Just the discipline, and the camaraderie, I love all of it.”
Kevin Turner was a tough, bruising fullback who played for Alabama in the late 1980s and early '90s. He went on to a long career in the NFL, where a battering-ram style left him with numerous concussions and would ultimately cost him his life.
Before he died in 2016 from ALS, Turner's old college teammate, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, gave Nolan a scholarship.
It was the only offer he got from a big-time school.
To most, it seemed nothing more than a heartfelt gesture between friends, Swinney's way of vowing to watch over Nolan after Kevin was gone.
Swinney never saw it that way.
“It wasn't some charity thing,” the coach said. “If I didn't have a spot, he wouldn't have gotten a scholarship.”
Swinney's confidence in the player no one else wanted proved prophetic. In the Fiesta Bowl semifinal game, with Clemson's two-year-long winning streak in peril, it was Turner who swallowed up an interception in the closing seconds to seal a 29-23 victory over Ohio State.
“The right place at the right time,” Turner said. “A really cool moment.”
Through all the tears, all the helplessness, all the grief, Nolan has carved out quite a name for himself while following in his father's footsteps.
He has already been part of two national championship teams (thought he didn't play during the 2016 season, sitting out as a redshirt). He'll get a chance for a third title Monday night, when Clemson faces top-ranked LSU and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow.
Like his father, Nolan is a stellar athlete. He played receiver and defensive back at Vestavia Hills High School, where longtime coach Buddy Anderson described him as one of the best players ever to come through the storied program.
Asked what traits he shares with his father, Nolan points to their good hands.
Oh, and one other thing.
“I definitely got some of his toughness as well," Nolan said.
But Nolan was undersized and not quite as fast as other top prospects. He grew up cheering for Alabama, of course, but walking on was the only conduit to playing for the Crimson Tide. Every other big-time school took the same view.
Except Clemson, that is.
Hours after the Tigers lost to Alabama in the 2016 national championship game, Swinney learned that four of his top defensive backs were leaving school early to enter the NFL draft. With signing day fast approaching, he had to scramble to restock his secondary.
Swinney took another look at Kevin's son.
“I'm trying not to be biased,” the coach said. “I'm watching this kid and he's dominating."
He showed the tape to Brent Venables, his defensive coordinator.
“What you think of this kid?” Swinney asked.
“I love this guy," Venables replied. "Where is he?”
Swinney quickly arranged a visit to Vestavia Hills. No one was more surprised than Nolan when the coach offered him a full ride to play for the Tigers.
“I didn't see that coming,” Turner said, breaking into a big smile. “I didn't really have a whole lot of options.”
Kevin Turner lived long enough to see his son sign with the Tigers before succumbing to the disease. Testing on his brain confirmed what was long suspected: he was suffering from a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the dreaded condition known as CTE. It is caused by repeated blows to the head and likely triggered his ALS.
For Nolan, it was heartbreaking to watch his father wither away.
“From a big, strong dude to watching this disease just kind of tear him apart," he said, his voice trailing off.
But it also a teachable moment.
“To see his outlook on life through it all was special," Nolan said. “That's something I'll take with me: being grateful for what he did have and not what he didn't have anymore.”
Before he died, Kevin Turner fretted about his son playing football, but he never tried to steer him away. It probably would have been futile to even try. Nolan had no intention of quitting, even as he watched the toll that football took on his dad.
“We had that conversation," Nolan said. "He was going to support me in whatever I decided to do. I told him I was going to keep playing football and he was cool with that."
Turner is set to graduate in August with a finance degree, but he'll return for his final year of eligibility with the Tigers. He talks hopefully of continuing his career in the NFL, of beating the odds one more time. If that doesn't work out, he's not really sure what he'll do.
For now, it's hard to see a life without the gridiron.
Like father, like son.
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