ALS or victim of violent sport?
"It’s no cup of tea."
Those are the words of former University of Alabama, New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner, describing his current health at age 42.
Turner was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, before his 41st birthday.
It had all started a year earlier.
"I was playing a guitar," he says from his Birmingham, Ala., home. "And with my left hand — which I make chords and everything with on the guitar — my fingers would not go where they normally go. I’m thinking, ‘I’m getting worse instead of getting better.’ "
A friend of Turner’s also noticed the former fullback’s left shoulder looked smaller than the right one. So Turner went to the doctor.
Turner had a cervical procedure his doctor said should make him feel better. But Turner didn’t get any better. Over the next year, he noticed weakness in his left arm, and then his right.
"Writing was becoming more difficult," Turner says.
After a barrage of tests over a one-year period, the awful diagnosis came: ALS.
Turner says the cruelest part of his disease is that he can see the progression of his body’s deterioration. He has lost his pincer grasp — the ability to grasp things with thumb and forefinger. Buttons and zippers are now obstacles.
"I have to talk a little slower," Turner notes, but says unless people had known him before his diagnosis, they probably wouldn’t notice. His speech is clear, hearty and full of that Alabama drawl.
He sounds perfectly healthy. But he’s not.
"I can’t put my pants on," Turner says. "My legs are still good … it hasn’t reached my legs yet. I probably have 15 percent of full use in my left hand and 25 percent of my right hand."
One of his biggest frustrations is the slow pace he is now burdened with.
"Everything takes me about four times the length it used to," Turner said.
But Turner is still grateful.
"My progression has been subtle," he says.
Turner has agreed to have his brain donated to science so doctors can examine and learn from it.
While Turner has an official diagnosis of ALS, he believes he may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that is caused by repeated trauma to the brain over a period of time. According to a New York Times article, 12 former NFL players’ autopsies revealed CTE, but two of them had been originally diagnosed with ALS while they were alive.
Former USC and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Eric Scoggins was diagnosed with ALS, but when doctors did a post-mortem exam, they discovered high levels of two proteins that cause motor-neuron degeneration and are associated with CTE.
"CTE is caused by repetitive hits to the head which releases a tau protein that begins to slowly kill off brain cells. In people who were diagnosed with ALS, when you look at their brains, you don’t see this tau protein," Turner says. "With people like Eric Scoggins — who had ALS and also played football — their brains and spinal cords had tau proteins."
Turner suffered many blows to the head during his football career. "I’ve been knocked out twice," he says.
How many times had he suffered from blurred vision, seen spots or heard ringing in his head?
"I couldn’t put a number on that," he admits. "You kept on playing. I think if I had known (about the damage repetitive head blows can do), I would have done some things a little differently. At the time, as soon as you knew your name and where you were, you’re ready to go back in and play."
Turner recalls one hit that knocked him senseless.
"One of the biggest concussions I think I had was one where I was on the kickoff return team, setting up the wedge (block) back there for the return on the opening kickoff," Turner recalls.
"I go out there to block, and the next thing I remember, it’s almost the end of the first quarter or maybe even the second quarter. I’m asking another player, ‘Where are we? In Philly or Green Bay?’ And I had been out there playing the whole time."
That wedge block is now forbidden in NCAA football, and Turner thinks that’s a good thing. He also says "moving the kickoff to the 35-yard-line will save so many people misery." But the most important rule change, he says, is limiting practices in full pads.
"There’s no way to go through practice and halfway do it playing fullback when you’re blocking at full speed," Turner sayd.
Turner realizes a lot of football fans aren’t happy with some rules designed to safeguard the players.
"It’s nothing like flag football," Turner said. "They don’t get it. I would think they would want to watch their favorite players or teams for years to come. You can hit someone who isn’t looking and practically decapitate them. It’s entertainment to them.
"There are big-time collisions. Let’s not take a step back to the Roman era where we’re putting football players up there with gladiators. It’s a game. It’s entertainment. It’s a dream of theirs, like it was of mine, but it’s not worth their living that last 20 years of their lives with dementia, Alzheimer’s or ALS."
Turner says he never thought the staffs of the teams he played for had overlooked head injuries. Others disagree. A lawsuit recently filed against the NFL by both current and former players accuses the league of ignoring signs of brain trauma and not doing enough to prevent head injuries.
"If I felt a little woozy or got a little blurry-eyed sometimes, I really wouldn’t say anything about it," Turner said. "That’s the way I was. If I wasn’t knocked out, I probably didn’t say anything. The competitor in me wanted to go back out there. They wanted me out there."
Still, there are some things Turner thinks needs to be reworked — like medical insurance and procedures for players with disabilities.
According to Turner, the NFL provided medical insurance for him for five years after he retired from football — after that, he had to find his own.
"I applied for the 88 Plan. It was started for people (who needed benefits) with dementia, Alzheimer’s — for people who needed care in the home and outside the home," Turner said.
"It would pay up to $88,000 a year for this care. In October of 2010, (the NFL) added ALS to that list. I applied for that, but also applied for disability. I couldn’t get the 88 Plan plus disability. What was the sense of putting ALS on the 88 Plan? For people with ALS, sooner or later, they all will be on disability. Whatever you receive on your 88 Plan, you get deducted from your disability. What’s the point?"
Still, Turner does see some improvement in something he deeply cares about: Brain injury awareness.
"I think they are trying to do the right thing now from here on out with the players they have right now, but they would probably rather see the guys from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s just kind of go away," Turner says.
"With rule changes and CBA … they’re making some headway. They’re at least aware of the problems, especially head trauma. It was just three or four years ago that they were still denying the fact that concussions had anything to do whatsoever with long-term effects on a player."
Turner is not waiting for anyone to tell him about the possible effects from brain trauma. But he’s conflicted when it comes to his children. Turner has two boys, age 14 and 8, and an 11-year-old daughter. His biggest fear is for his kids, so much so that he decided to take his boys out of football for a year.
"My boys love playing football. I certainly don’t think that everybody who plays football who has concussions will get ALS or that sort of thing," Turner says. "I hate to take them out of something they love to do. I just wanted (them) to take a break, and that was a hard thing to do — holding them out — because football is king here."
"Here" is Alabama, the state which has produced three consecutive BCS national champions. Turner, a Prattville, Ala., native and current Birmingham resident, started 41 consecutive games under Crimson Tide coaches Bill Curry and Gene Stallings.
He was selected in the third round of the 1992 NFL draft and has played for some great coaches, including Ray Rhodes, Jon Gruden and Bill Parcells.
"(I’m) grateful for the Alabama fans that have supported me throughout this ordeal — they’ve just been incredible to me," Turner says. "I feel blessed. I’m able to walk, talk and breathe."
"Eating is a huge pain in the butt. At restaurants, I’ve asked waiters to cut my steak. I can’t do it. I can stick the fork in it and turn my wrist and lean down over (my plate)."
Turner admits it looks like he has "very poor manners," but is quick to point out that "it’s not from bad parenting." Southern pride is alive and well in Turner’s slowly deteriorating body. So is his spirit, competitiveness and charm.
"I can still drive," Turner says. "Shopping malls aren’t my specialty, you know, pulling in and out of parking spaces, but once I get on the highway or interstate, I’m fine."
"Some doctors say I have 10 to 12 years, some say two or three. Heck, we’re coming up on two years since my diagnosis in May 2010. About 5 percent live beyond 20 years (after diagnosis), and I’m hoping to for 30 or more years.
"I am very optimistic."
To learn more about how you can support ALS and CTE research and awareness, please visit Kevin Turner’s foundation at http://kevinturnerfoundation.org/news/
Follow Kevin Turner on twitter at: @KevinTurner_NFL