NEW ORLEANS — The Fiesta Bowl was secured on Dec. 28 when Clemson defensive back Nolan Turner came down in the end zone with an interception of Ohio State’s Justin Fields with 37 seconds left in the game. Turner caught the ball on the “S” in “Ohio State” that was painted in the end zone, the very same spot where he had been beaten for a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter.
It was a redemptive moment for Turner, who received just one scholarship offer from a major program, but there was so much more to it than that. It was the redshirt junior’s biggest play in football, a sport with which he and his family have a complicated, painful and tragic relationship.
Football likely played a key part in killing Nolan’s father, Kevin Turner, a former star fullback at Alabama and veteran of eight seasons in the NFL. He died four years ago at age 46, his body ravaged by ALS and his mind by CTE. Autopsy findings left doctors with little doubt that Kevin’s battering-ram playing style contributed directly to his demise.
“It was tough to watch him go through that,” Nolan said Saturday, where he and his Clemson teammates will play LSU for the national championship. “A big, strong dude, to watch this disease just tear him apart was hard. … But to see his outlook on life was special. That’s something I’ll take with me, being grateful for what he did have, not what he didn’t have.”
Among the things Nolan Turner is grateful for: football. Despite what it did to his dad, he plays on. He knows the risks of football as well as anyone could, but he has no interest in giving up the sport.
“Football is just a special game,” Nolan said. “It’s the only game where it takes everybody on the team doing their job to make everything work. It teaches you a lot about life off the field that you wouldn’t even know. The discipline and the camaraderie, I love all the team aspects of the game.”
Before Kevin’s death, as his body withered to less than half his NFL playing weight of 250 pounds, he talked to his oldest child about the risks and rewards of football.
Then he left the decision about playing in Nolan’s hands.
“We had that conversation,” Nolan said. “He was cool with me playing and he was going to support me in whatever I did. I told him I was going to keep playing football.”
Not only was he going to keep playing, he was going to keep playing in his dad’s jersey number, 24. But he was going to try to play a slightly different way. There would be collisions—it’s impossible to play safety without them—but not the heedless, helmet-first smash-ups that marked Kevin Turner’s career as a punishing blocker, runner and special-teams mauler.
Nolan had watched some of the old VCR tapes of his dad, both at Alabama and in the NFL. The way he played looks scary by today’s standards, but back then it was simply the best way to stay employed in a sport that valued physical violence.
“I’m glad I’m not playing against him,” Nolan said. “He killed people back then headhunting.”
Nolan Turner would not be wearing a Clemson uniform if it weren’t for his father’s relationship with Dabo Swinney. They were teammates and friends at Alabama—Turner a more celebrated player than Swinney, a walk-on wide receiver. After football, they worked together for a time selling real estate, desks side-by-side in the same office.
Swinney eventually went into coaching while Turner stayed in business, and both of them coached their kids growing up. As Kevin Turner’s debilitating illness progressed and became a widely known story—he was the lead plaintiff in a concussion-related lawsuit against the NFL—his son Nolan became a pretty fair football player at Vestavia Hills High School in suburban Birmingham.
But with fairly modest measurables when it came to speed, there were no Power 5 scholarships forthcoming. Nolan was a two-star recruit according to rivals.com, and the best any major schools were willing to do for him was preferred walk-on status.
That changed when Clemson had four defensive backs enter the NFL draft after the 2015 season, when the Tigers were national runners-up to Alabama. Unprepared to lose that many members of his secondary, Swinney had to take a harder look at his recruiting options.
He dug into the scouting tape on Turner and liked what he saw. Then he ran the tape past defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who also liked what he saw. Then he called Vestavia Hills coach Buddy Anderson, who has been the coach there since 1978.
When Anderson offered his ardent endorsement of Turner, Swinney knew what he wanted to do.
He was scheduled to fly to Birmingham for a school visit with Nolan Turner, one that the entire family expected to yield a preferred walk-on offer. But Swinney had other ideas, and he called Kevin Turner to let him in on the surprise the night before.
Swinney showed up, dropped the scholarship offer and watched Nolan’s eyes light up.
“I was really surprised,” Turner said. “I didn’t see that coming. So after that I was going to Clemson. … I didn’t have any other options.”
For a program like Clemson to offer a scholarship to a two-star guy lacking other options was to invite scrutiny. The speculation: Swinney was just doing a favor for an old teammate stricken with a deadly disease.
“Not a lot of people wanted him to be here at first,” said classmate and starting safety Tanner Muse. “To see him grow and start to flourish has been really special.”
After redshirting his freshman year, Turner’s playing time and role have increased in each additional season. Last year, he recorded an interception against Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinals. This year, as Clemson’s “12th man” on defense, he is second on the team in passes broken up (seven), eighth in total tackles (38) and has picks in the Tigers’ last two games.
The latter pick, of course, is a key reason why Clemson is here and working on a repeat national title. The fact that it came after looking like he might be the fall guy for a loss made it all the better.
Venables blamed himself for the defensive call that put Turner in man-to-man coverage with standout Ohio State receiver Chris Olave. When Olave ran a post route on fourth-and-two and Fields found him, Turner was the beaten man on the play.
“On the biggest stage, he could have gone in the tank,” Venables said.
Turner didn’t go in the tank. When Ohio State ran the post to Olave again—this time into a different coverage—Turner had leverage to the inside that likely would have prevented him from being beaten again. As it turned out it didn’t matter, since Olave broke the route to the outside, slipped and fell, while Fields threw the ball to the middle where only Turner could catch it.
“The cool thing is I told him right before, ‘Hey, you’re going to have the game-winning interception, get your dadgum head up,’“ Swinney recalled. “It was crazy how it all worked out. He didn’t play very well, he had missed a couple plays, and so to see him come back and make that play at the end, really, literally his feet were in the exact same spot of his failure. … It’s just amazing. Amazing how it worked out.”
The Turners’ relationship with football remains a complex one, fraught with conflicting emotions. But on Dec. 28 in the desert, Nolan Turner and his family could love the game for what it provided as opposed to hating it for what it has taken away.