But he has a rare gift – the ability to use his demons as motivation, as fuel. This motivation helped drive him from an undersized kid born under the harshest of circumstances, to a successful career in the NFL, to a post-NFL life focused on paying it forward – providing a beacon of hope for people who have had a difficult start in their lives.
Turner’s gift and his message are extremely powerful because they are fueled by his demons, and he has more demons that most.
The NFL loves drama, and has a tendency to use words like “redemption” and “legacy” very loosely. Catching the game-winning touchdown after dropping a pass in the first quarter isn’t redemption, and winning a Super Bowl doesn’t create a legacy. Turner’s life offers a lesson in the real meaning of those words.
Turner was born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rough part of Brooklyn, and he and his brother lived with his grandmother, who raised him for the first six years of his life. His mother Jackie was a heavy drug user and a prostitute. The neighborhood was rough, but it was home to him. He talks about playing games in the street with other children, and of sneaking peeks out the window at gang fights in the streets, until his grandmother would pull the drapes and send him off to bed.
When Turner was about six, his mom got a chance to turn her life around when she met Sam, the man who would become Turner’s stepfather. Sam had met Jackie as a client – a john – but Sam saw more in her. Turner, his brother and mom left Brooklyn and moved in with Sam in Staten Island. This was a huge change and culture shock for six-year-old Vernon, moving from the predominantly African-American Bed-Stuy to the primarily white Staten Island.
In Staten Island, he suddenly had to deal with racism in a neighborhood where he and his brother were the only African-American children. Plus, he had to deal with conflict at home. Sam cared deeply about Jackie, but they would fight frequently as Sam struggled to get Jackie off of drugs. At the time, Vernon didn’t understand Sam’s motives. To a six-year-old, fighting is just fighting.
Plus, Sam was a strange creature to young Vernon. Sam was white, Italian-American, and 25 years older than Vernon’s mom. He was a large man, with a booming voice. The constant fighting made Vernon resent his stepfather, as he blindly sided with his mother, not understanding that Sam was struggling to do what was best for her.
“For all the sacrifices that my parents made, I resented my dad because he was white and back then in the 70s and early 80s, it was still tough,” Vernon says.
Sam and Jackie had three more children, and as the oldest, Vernon would frequently be left home to baby sit when Sam was at work, and Jackie would make one of her frequent trips back to Brooklyn to visit family… and to purchase drugs.
On top of dealing with all of the conflict and added responsibility at home, Vernon’s relationship with his mother had always been strained. “My mom would look at me sometimes with such cold eyes, like she would look through me, like she hated me,” Vernon said. “It was so cold that I would have to look away. That’s how bad it was.
“And I always wondered why.”
He finally found out one day at age eleven. He came home from school and walked into the bathroom and caught his mom shooting up. He confronted her, yelling, “Why do you keep doing that to yourself?” She told him to come in and sit down, and she shared a chilling story that would change him from that day forward.
Growing up, he had been told that his father was in prison, but now his mother told him the true story. When she was 18 and in high school, she was attacked and raped by three men. In that heinous act of violence, Vernon was conceived. The coldness that he saw in her eyes sometimes was the result of looking at her young son and being reminded of the worst day of her life.
But that is a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of an 11-year-old boy, and an unfair burden. “I felt guilty,” Vernon recalls. “I’ll never forgive myself for that.” The knowledge of the horrible trauma his mother went through to have him made him feel like he was “a tragic mistake.”
“I was a very quiet, very low self-esteem, very reserved kid, because he felt like trash,” Vernon said. This was a huge blow for him to take, at such a young age.
In addition, the knowledge of what his mother went through changed their relationship. “I was very protective of her,” he said. “I always sided with my mother because I had resentment towards my stepdad.”
Even though he grew more protective of his mother, they were still at odds. He had been forced to carry the knowledge of his mother’s trauma and had a huge level of responsibility watching over his siblings when she would go to Brooklyn or use drugs. There was a great burden on Vernon to help at home, at a time where he just wanted to go out and play with other kids like any 11-year old.
An Early Lesson
It was around this time that Vernon discovered football, thanks to his stepfather Sam. “He was a die-hard Jets fan,” Vernon remembers. “He had season tickets, the whole nine. He was the one that introduced me to the game of football.”
Turner was fast and a good natural athlete, but he was a small kid. Football may not have been the most logical choice, but the physicality of the game was perfectly suited to his psyche, and allowed him an outlet for everything he was working through.
“I realized, through the game of football, that I had a lot of aggression, I had a lot of resentment, I had a lot of anger,” Vernon said. “The game of football let me unleash that in a physical way.”
“Even for my size, people were amazed at how physical I was, but what people didn’t realize was that I was playing with anger. I was playing with resentment. I had to unleash it.”
He started playing Pop Warner football on a team where a friend of his played. He was committed to the game, but he missed a lot of practices due to his responsibilities at home. He was frequently late to practice, causing other players on the team to resent him, but nobody knew what he was dealing with at home.
“I didn’t tell my coach any of this. He didn’t know what was going on. All they knew was that I was coming late to practice. The problem is that I was the best player they had, so they would play me anyway.”
Finally, trying to make time for football on top of all of his responsibilities at home got to be too much for him. “I went to practice one day and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I handed them my equipment and I said, ‘Coach, I’ve got too much going on.’ “
It was heartbreaking for Vernon to quit the sport he had grown to love, but he felt like he had to put his responsibilities at home first. But his coach wouldn’t let the matter drop that easily, and taught him one of the lessons he has carried with him throughout his life.
“My coach tracked me down and sat me down and said the one thing you aren’t going to do is quit. He said, ‘I know things are hard at home, I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, Vernon, but you’re never going to quit. If I have to move practice time later, I’ll do that. If I have to come pick you up for practice, I’ll do that. But you will not quit.’ ”
“‘If you start quitting now, you’re going to start quitting in work, you’re going to start quitting your family, you’re just going to be a quitter all your life. And you’re not going to do that.’”
The message struck home with Vernon, and helped to create the core of determination that would drive him throughout his life. “From that point on, I didn’t quit. It didn’t matter what it was, I didn’t quit.”
Determination and persistence are critical to success, especially when you have an uphill battle ahead of you, and Vernon’s battles were just beginning.
The Most Difficult Day of His Life
When he was a freshman in high school, he went to try out for the football team even though he was only 5-foot-6 and weighed a mere 98 pounds. He was worried that they wouldn’t let him play if he was under 100 pounds, so when he went for a weigh in, he wore sweat pants with 10 pounds of weight strapped around his waist. He would not be deterred.
He did make the team as a freshman, but the more he tried to play football and do the normal things a high school student would do, the more he butted heads with his mother. “By my freshman year, I was obsessed with the game of football, and my mom knew that. So she would use that against me to make sure that I did my chores, to make sure that I did everything I was supposed to do around the house.”
“I started arguing with my mother more. I started wishing her dead. I just lost it. Every time she should ground me for going to practice or going to games, I would wish her dead.”
Still in his freshman year in high school, his world changed when that wish made in anger came true. Jackie contracted pneumonia in January of his freshman year in high school and she never recovered. The last words exchanged between Vernon and Jackie were in anger, another fight over whether he could participate in off season football workouts or not. She had grounded him, and he had once again wished her dead, words that he would never be able to take back to her face.
He never had a chance to reconcile with her, and that’s something that has stayed with him throughout his life. Even now, thirty years later, his voice cracks when he talks about it and you can hear the still raw pain in his voice. “That’s why I’m haunted until the day that I die, because I really meant it at that time,” Vernon says of his wishing for his mother’s death. “I really wanted her to go. And then when she got sick that one day, and she never came back from that hospital.”
After the funeral, he “just stayed at the grave and talked to her for an hour.” He was forced to seek his reconciliation and to share his true love for her by talking to the frozen ground in which she was buried. Only after losing her did he realize how important she was to him. “I loved my mother, I loved her for everything she did – all the sacrifices. She could have had an abortion, and no one would have faulted her.”
Turner continued to focus on playing football, while making time to care for his siblings as his dad continued to work long hours to provide for the family. After the funeral, when he saw the tears in his dad’s eyes, he realized how much Sam had loved Jackie and how much the conflict at home was driven by Sam’s desire to save her. The one small positive that came from the loss of his mom was that Vernon learned to appreciate what his stepfather did and what kind of a man he was. He realized years later how hard it was for Sam, who was nearly disowned by his family for bringing Jackie and her kids into his house. After the funeral, for the first time in their relationship, Vernon started to call Sam “Dad.”
By the start of Vernon’s senior year, he had added 70 pounds and grew 2 inches, and at 5-foot-8, 168 pounds, he was able turn enough heads with his play at quarterback to get a college scholarship. Vernon went off Carson-Newman College in Tennessee as a running back, and continued to perform and excel on the football field. But life wasn’t finished putting hurdles in front of him.
In his freshman year in college, while he was 12 hours from home getting ready for the season, he learned that his dad had passed away. He now had four younger brothers and sisters at home who suddenly had no parent at all. He rushed home and talked with his relatives, trying to figure out what to do. Some family members wanted to split the younger siblings up, but Vernon wouldn’t let that happen. He had made a promise to his mom and even though she had passed away four years earlier, he was fully committed to keeping it.
“I don’t know why, but a year and a half prior to her death, she would always tell me, ‘If anything happens to me, you keep the family together. If anything happens to your father, you keep the family together. It’s your job to keep the family together.’”
Vernon took this promise seriously, and committed himself to do whatever it took to keep his siblings together as a family. He considered dropping out of college to go home and take care of his family, but he knew that staying in school gave him the best chance to care for them long term. His aunt, who had one child of her own, agreed to move in with the four kids in Staten Island so that the family could stay together.
But money was tight. Turner sold most of his worldly possessions and sent the money home. He started cutting hair on the side and sending that money home as well. He wanted to continue playing football, but he used all of his spare time to do whatever he had to in order to bring in enough money to keep the family together.
By his senior year in college, his aunt was struggling and told him that she couldn’t continue much longer. He knew he needed more money to support his family, so he made a decision. He called his high school football coach and told him that he was going to try out for the National Football League.
Turner had excelled in college, but he was still a small college prospect and undersized, at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds. He talked with his coaches and they helped him find an agent. “They were brutally honest with me,” Turner remembers. “I had a decent college career. I didn’t have a great college career, but I had a steady, productive college career for where I went, where I came from, what kind of ball player I was, the size and the stature.”
“No one ever thought, in a million years, that I would ever go at the highest level. Not even get a tryout.”
But he was committed. His agent told him he’d have to go through “brutal hell” to even get a chance to play in the National Football League. But with everything he’d been through already in his life, Vernon never backed off from a challenge.
“They said, ‘This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to have to work out 40-50 times for several different teams. You’re not going to get invited to the combine. You’re not going to get invited to All Star games. You’re not going to be asked to go get worked out. None of that is going to happen. But you’re going to have an opportunity, because you are going to crash the party.’”
When scouts came to look at other players on his team, he would ask them for the opportunity to work out. And he committed to work harder than anyone else to make sure he would succeed. “I would get up at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, and I would do a workout. I would do a workout in the middle of classes and then I would do another workout at the end of classes.”
He also started using an unorthodox workout routine that he learned from his football idol growing up – Walter Payton. “I would go in the woods and run full speed in the woods, to try to elude the trees.”
Turner had written a letter to Payton through his fan club, telling him of his story and his intent to make it in the NFL. Payton told him that to work on his elusiveness, he should run through the woods as fast as he could go. “I would go into the cafeteria with knots on my head and scrapes all over my legs and they wondered, ‘Who’s beating up VT?’ But I’d never tell them what I was doing.”
It took time, endless hard work and a lot of rejections, but Turner did ultimately sign with the Buffalo Bills. He then played for the Rams, Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, primarily as a punt returner and kick returner, where the elusiveness he perfected dodging trees came to good use. When he signed his first contract with the Bills, he was able to pay off his family’s house and ensure that his siblings were taken care of.
“The first three years of my career, I was still eating like I was in college. Everything went to my family, everything went to my home. I just kept enough to pay my rent, but everything else went back home to my family for the first three years, and I was able to pay off the house, rebuild it, make sure my family was financially taken care of.”
For Turner, signing an NFL contract was about giving him the ability to honor the promise he had made to his mom, and the commitment he felt for both of his parents who he had lost years earlier.
On Field Glory
Turner’s career did not produce Hall of Fame numbers, but it did include one moment of on-field glory that only a Hollywood script writer would have conceived of. After a year in Buffalo and two seasons with the Rams, Turner was bouncing around from team to team. He was signed twice and cut twice by the Lions in his fourth year, a frustrating experience for a young man just trying to provide for his family. He felt betrayed by the Lions and took it very personally.
After being cut for the second time by the Lions, Turner signed with Tampa Bay. “The Buccaneers knew what they were getting. They knew they were getting a pretty decent athlete. But not only that, they knew they were getting a guy that had a chip on his shoulder for a particular team.”
As the Buccaneers prepared to play the Lions that year, all the anger and frustration poured into Turner’s preparation that week. He was always a player who was fueled by emotion, and for this game, he had more than ever to tap into.
“I was a very hostile athlete that week,” Turner recalls. “You can ask Hardy Nickerson, the linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who had a 6 inch, 50 pound advantage over Turner). I got into a fight with him during that week of practice. I was intense.”
Anyone who remembers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will remember that the team struggled for much of their early history. The franchise lost their first 26 games in a row, and even as late as 1994 when Turner joined the team, there was one thing that the Bucs had never done in their nearly 20 year history. No Buccaneers player had ever returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. That changed when Turner returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown against the Lions, the team that had cut him twice that season.
“I was in another world,” Vernon says of the return. “People said I was showboating, that I was high stepping when I caught that punt. I wasn’t high stepping, I was setting up my blocks. Even to this day, I remember that play.”
“When they finally make a movie about my life, they’re going to end it on that play.”
Despite the Hollywood moment of his epic punt return, when asked about his favorite memory, Turner returns to what really drove him to succeed.
“The most gratifying moment of my career was when I signed my first NFL contract with the Buffalo Bills,” Turner says. “I was able to pay my family’s house off, and I was able to provide for my family and I was able to keep all my brothers and sisters together.”
Signing an NFL contract is always a significant moment. For some players, it is an opportunity for greatness, the fulfillment of years of hard work perfecting their craft. All of those things were true for Turner as well, but it was more than that. “Everything was about my parents. Everything was about my family. That’s the only reason why I made it to the highest level.”
For Turner, the NFL gave him an opportunity to make good on a promise that he’d made to his mother, and on a commitment he’d made to her as a 14-year old boy talking to the frozen ground where his mother was buried.
“That was the moment. That was when I felt like I did it, I made it. I was officially providing for my family. I kept them together. I kept my promise that I made my mom that they would never be split apart.”
Paying It Forward
After six years in the NFL, Turner retired. He works as a manager for an oil company now, but spends a lot of his time focused on paying it forward. He works with kids, coaching and mentoring kids who have had a rough start in their life, and he does inspirational speaking. He feels that the legacy of what he learned from his parents is to pass those lessons forward to the next generation. “I just want people in similar circumstances to make the right choices.”
And the most important thing he tries to teach the kids he works with is about character. “When I do my coaching, I don’t teach X’s and O’s right out of the gate. I teach my young men and women how to be young men and women, how to carry themselves out in public, how to represent themselves as human beings, as young men and women.”
It’s a lesson that not everyone learns early in life, and people who don’t respect themselves or the game of football are frustrating to Turner. “It upsets me when I see these guys today that disrespect the game, they don’t treat it right. They don’t carry themselves in the right way.
“I have to pay it forward, not only for my mom, not only for the people who have helped me, but for the game of football. It saved my life. It truly did, it saved my family. I’ve got to pay it forward.
Through the tough lessons he has learned in his life, he has some key messages that he tries to pass down to the kids that he works with – lessons about love, respect, perseverance and character.
“First thing – love and respect your parents. Tell them you love them, out of the blue. Tell them you love them, because they could be gone in the blink of an eye.”
“Take advantage of every opportunity that’s given to you. Success is not going to be handed to you, but opportunities will. Take advantage and give it your all, everything you have.”
“Be an ambassador. People are watching you, you don’t have to be in sports – people are watching you. Kids are watching you, young people. Kids are impressionable.”
“Don’t be a victim. It’s ok to be human, and to get all your thoughts and feelings out, but don’t you ever be a victim. You flip the switch.”
“Take the naysayers and the people who say you can’t do something, use that for fuel. You take that and you harness that and use everything you can to achieve your goals.”
And finally, perhaps his most important lesson – “Pay this thing forward. There’s going to be many people in your life that’s going to be in your corner, that’s going to guide you and try to be there for you. Have the sense to listen and look at the bigger picture. Don’t look at the now, look forward.”
Few people had as rough a start and as many obstacles put in front of them as Vernon Turner has had. While he is still tortured by some of the things he has gone through in his life, he has ultimately succeeded through dedication, hard work and perseverance. He overcame tremendous odds just to make it to college, and then to make it to the NFL. He used his athletic gifts and his commitment to honor a promise to care for his family, and he has used his experiences as a springboard to help to change the lives of kids that he works with.
“According to my life, I had every reason to pack it in. I had every reason to go the other direction, to be a drug addict, to steal, be a rapist. I had every reason, because of my background, but I didn’t choose that. I chose to take this life, this gift that my mother gave me, and I’m leaving a legacy.
“She’s looking down and she’s going to give me a wink and say, ‘You did it, kid.’”
To learn more about Vernon Turner’s story, you can purchase his book at www.vernonturner.com.