The story that I’m about to tell you was never in the national headlines. Nor was it made into an inspirational movie, endlessly talked about by sports writers and newspapers, or considered by anybody to be an uplifting story that deserved attention from credible sources.
Back in 2002, Kenny Turner was only a sophomore at Olympia High in Florida, but he was already considered a football prodigy in the Orlando area. Turner’s coach at Olympia, Mike Cullison, once remarked, “He was unbelievable. He could have played at any school he wanted to because he could have played any position on the field. He’s just that good. He knows football.”
At a mere 16 years of age, Turner had an extremely bright future, along with his best friends on the team, fellow tailback Chris Johnson and wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker. But early in the morning on a humid night in July 2002, Turner’s plans were derailed.
Turner and several friends were at a Chevron gas station at about 3 AM in the early hours of July 27, when they got into an argument with several men in the parking lot. The dispute was momentarily settled, and Turner walked back to his car. One of the other men, 21-year-old Yvon Bernard, shot a pistol in the air to send a message to Turner and his friends.
Thinking the shots were aimed at him and his friends, Turner reacted with his gut, taking a handgun from underneath his driver’s seat and shooting both Bernard and 18-year-old Aruni Andre (Both were taken to the hospital and later released with non-fatal injuries). “I wasn’t thinking, I was just going,” Turner says. “No one was going to hurt me and my friends.”
Turner was arrested with two counts of attempted murder, although he pled self-defense and agreed to a lesser charge of battery with a deadly weapon. Less than two weeks before he turned 17, Turner was sentenced to five years in prison at the Dade Correctional Institute near Miami.
Turner was never a troublemaker before that night at the gas station in Orlando – in fact, he was quite the opposite. The son of a Pentecostal preacher dad and a day-care working mother, Turner had a good life and a supportive family – something that many convicted criminals can only dream of.
Turner’s time in prison was especially difficult as he saw Johnson and Sims-Walker become successful at the college and the NFL levels. As of right now, Johnson is an all-pro running back for the Tennessee Titans, while Sims-Walker plays wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Turner, meanwhile, is still waiting on his chance to be an NFL star.
However, Turner didn’t waste time feeling sorry for himself while he was behind bars. Sure, he’ll be the first to admit that he missed out on going to senior prom, graduating high school, and just being with his family. But Turner refused to give up on his goal of playing football. He trained hard and worked out relentlessly with the help and guidance of older inmates, some of whom had similar situations and backgrounds.
In June 2007, Kenny Turner became a free man. With several letters of recommendation as well as the good word of an old friend, Turner chose to enroll at Fullerton Junior College in California and play football for the Hornets. Because he hadn’t been on the gridiron in five years, Turner served on the scout team during his first year at Fullerton. But in September 2007, Turner tore his ACL in practice and was forced to rehab his knee for the next year of his life.
In the fall of 2008, a healthy Turner played his first game for Fullerton, but while returning a kickoff, he re-injured his knee, requiring a second surgery. Turner’s doctors believed that he could never play football again, but helped by his friends and family, Turner persevered and gave it one more try in 2009. He ended that season as a junior college All-American after rushing for 1,513 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Still, there were many more obstacles to overcome. Many college coaches were intrigued by Turner’s uncanny athletic ability, but they eventually stopped talking to him because of his knee injuries and his checkered past. One of the few head coaches that was genuinely interested was DeWayne Walker of the New Mexico State Aggies.
Walker decided to give Turner a shot, but he knew it would be difficult to sign an athlete, however talented, from such a turbulent background. Therefore, Walker and athletic director McKinley Boston formed a sub-committee of sorts to interview Turner when he visited the NMSU campus. In each interview, Turner spoke about his desire to learn from his mistakes and his appreciation for a chance to play for NMSU. Shortly thereafter, Turner was officially offered a football scholarship to play for the Aggies.
Walker was approached several times by the media about his recruiting of Turner, a convicted felon. But Walker refused to waiver, saying, “I’m going to treat him like every other player on the team….if anyone knows what the repercussions are going to be if he screws up, it’s Kenny Turner.”
Today, after two excellent seasons with the Aggies, Turner, now age 25, is preparing for the NFL draft. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see the speedy tailback eating up yardage for a professional team, and even if he isn’t drafted, there’s little doubt that Turner won’t give up. Today, Turner is a confident young man who is determined to reach his goals. As he puts it, “The NFL is my dream. My plan B is to execute plan A.”
Sounds like a winning attitude.