Daryl Turner: Too Young, Too Fast
September 7, 2011
By Scott M. Johnson
When Ronny Turner finally gave up on trying to save his younger brother’s life, he walked out of the unkempt house in one of the seedier neighborhoods that Flint, Mich., had to offer. Feeling relieved that Ronny was gone, Daryl Turner turned to his roommate and uttered the phrase that had come to define what was left of his life.
“Let’s go get high,” Daryl Turner said.
Less than an hour later, Turner – or D.T., as he was often called – was in a familiar position, hovering over a pipe filled with crack cocaine. He had all but forgotten the confrontation with his older brother. D.T. hated to be lectured, and he wasn’t going to let anyone get between himself and another opportunity to get high. The chance to play college football hadn’t stopped him, nor had a short career with the Seattle Seahawks. Nothing was going to keep Daryl Turner from his first love.
Getting high was all he really wanted.
But something strange happened on that late spring afternoon in 2003. As Daryl Turner and his roommate went through the familiar routine of smoking crack, the expected euphoria never came. The 40-year-old NFL washout smoked and snorted and tried everything, but the drugs weren’t taking effect.
For once in his life, D.T. found it impossible to get high.
And that’s when he knew.
On the football field, there was only one way for Daryl Turner to achieve the ultimate high. A way to get that feeling of invincibility, to chase away that depression and self-doubt that had plagued him for much of his life. A way to float above it all.
Scoring a touchdown could do that for Turner. The end zone was his refuge, and it was a place he visited often.
“That was the high life,” Turner once said. “That was the moment – the moment. … It was the ultimate to score six. That was the goal, to get in the end zone.”
That part of the football field was where, as Turner liked to say, he was really popping.
“People know who you are when you get in the end zone,” he said. “People don’t have a clue as to who you are when you don’t get into the end zone.”
During a shortened NFL career that spanned 59 games over four professional seasons, Turner spent a lot of time in opposing end zones. His 36 career touchdowns ranked second in franchise history and stayed among the Seahawks’ top five for 10 years beyond the last game in which he played.
But his promising career came to a sudden end in 1987, thanks to Turner’s other method of getting high. Drugs and alcohol took away Turner’s football career – and with it his dignity and passion to live. It was an unremarkable finish for an athlete who had “can’t miss” written all over him.
Turner had so much raw talent while at Flint’s Southwestern High School that the University of Pittsburgh chose heralded young quarterback Dan Marino to host him on a college visit. While Marino would go on to become one of the finest quarterbacks in football history, the former Miami Dolphins star couldn’t deliver Turner to the Pitt football program.
It was Marino who hosted Turner on his college visit to the University of Pittsburgh. Marino was just a freshman at the time, and his most natural recruiting ploy was the obvious chance for Turner to spend three years catching passes from one of the country’s best quarterbacks. It was enough for Turner to initially sign Pitt’s letter-of-intent. But thanks to an all-out – and at times questionable – recruiting effort from a school in Turner’s home state, Pittsburgh lost out on the speedster because the letter never got mailed.
After returning to Flint and receiving a visit from Michigan State’s coaching staff, Turner started to waver. He held the signed letter to Pittsburgh and wondered what to do. Only when the Southwestern High principal — a proud Michigan State alumnus — made a secret offer did Turner burn the Pittsburgh letter and sign on with MSU.
“He told me, ‘Well, if you go to Michigan State, you won’t have to come to school anymore because you’re already carrying a 2.7 grade-point average,'” Turner recalled of his high school principal, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons. “He said, ‘I’ll make sure everything else goes the way you want it to go.'”
And that’s how the fleet-footed Turner, a free-spirited partier who hadn’t even started playing football until his junior year of high school, ended up at Michigan State instead of playing with Marino at Pitt.
As was the case for Turner at every level of his playing career, he made an immediate impact with the Spartans. Turner’s passion for spending Friday nights drinking beers didn’t prevent him from being an exciting receiver who made big plays nearly every Saturday. He caught 31 passes for 653 yards as a sophomore, and ended up averaging 20.2 yards per reception for his career – good for second in school history, behind a receiver named Kirk Gibson (21.0) who went on to have a pretty decent career in another sport.
But the most life-changing thing that happened to Turner during his MSU days may have come during a Friday night of partying in his senior year in 1983. Turner and some football teammates were experimenting with different drugs – he had tried marijuana and pills while in high school – when he stumbled on to something that caused him to take notice.
After Turner and his teammates crushed up some speed pills and snorted them, one of the football players pulled out a white powder that Turner had heard about but never tried. The cocaine was passed around, and Turner took his turn.
“I snorted it,” Turner recalled in 2007, “and it was like: OK, this is something we’re going to put in the back of your brain. You may not like it now, but you’re going to remember it. That’s what it does to some people.”
Turner continued to party but stuck mostly to alcohol and softer drugs. Even on the day of the 1984 NFL draft, he was indulging without any concern about the consequences. Years later, Turner would recall a draft party he was hosting at his parents’ Flint home while they were out for the day. Turner said scouts from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys were among the attendees
“There were these strange, white men in my house,” he recalled in 2007. “It was the first time other than (former MSU coach) Muddy Waters and (then-University of Michigan coach) Bo Schembechler that I’d ever seen a white man in my house.”
And yet the scouts’ presence didn’t stop Turner from having a good time.
“I guess I was doing a little too much drinking for them to draft me,” he recalled. “I don’t know what it was.”
A projected first-round pick, the 6-foot-3 receiver with the blazing speed dropped to Round 2. Forty-nine players were selected before him, including six wide receivers. The Steelers passed on Turner with the 23rd overall pick, opting instead to take Southern Mississippi receiver Louis Lipps, while the hometown Detroit Lions picked little-known Northern Arizona wideout Pete Mandley at No. 47. That pick, which the Lions later justified by saying that Turner skipped a scheduled pre-draft workout with the team, stuck with the Flint native for his entire NFL career, fueling an intense desire for revenge against the Lions.
Turner had to wait so long to be drafted, in fact, that he eventually passed out. He was awoken by a telephone call from Michigan State football coach George Perles, who rang to deliver the big news: the Seattle Seahawks were about to select Turner.
He turned on the television, tuned in to ESPN, and the phone rang again. It was Seahawks coach Chuck Knox, who confirmed that the Seahawks had drafted him.
“I didn’t have a clue as to where Seattle was,” Turner recalled. “I thought it was a part of Washington, D.C. My sister had to show me on a map where it is.”
Once again, Turner made an immediate impact. In his second preseason game, fueled by the motivation of a perceived draft-day snub, Turner caught a touchdown pass in a game against the Lions. He scored two more touchdowns in a Dec. 2, 1984, win over Detroit. The following day, a story came out that quoted Detroit coach Monte Clark as saying that the Lions passed on Turner because of the skipped pre-draft workout. Turner’s explanation was that he had told the Lions that he had requested to be picked up because of a snowstorm. In any event, the wide receiver from Flint became even more dedicated to scoring touchdowns on the Lions whenever they were on the Seahawks’ schedule.
“Reggie McKenzie, who played offensive line for Seattle, he would ask me: ‘How many are you going to get today?'” Turner said of the six times he faced Detroit as a pro, including the preseason. “I would say: ‘Two. That’s all I want, two. Because two will remind them that they had a second-round pick that got away. Just give me two.’ And sure enough, they did.”
The playmaking continued after the Seahawks’ 1984 regular season began. Ten of his 35 receptions during Turner’s rookie year went for touchdowns, setting a record for Seattle rookies. He averaged 20.6 yards per catch, almost two yards higher than Steve Largent’s franchise rookie mark of 18.7.
Through it all, Turner continued to party. Drugs and alcohol were becoming staples of his life, but not until after that 1984 season did he discover the drug — crack cocaine — that would become his eventual downfall. Turner was back home in Flint, partying with an acquaintance who pulled out a white substance and inquired as to whether Turner had ever tried it. When Turner told him that, sure, he’d snorted that stuff before, the acquaintance scoffed.
Recalled Turner: “He said, ‘You don’t snort this, you smoke it.’ He put some dope in the pipe and lit it, gave it to me, and once again it was nothing.
“Then he did it again. And there was something that Daryl Turner — D.T. — actually loved. I fell in love with it.”
Crack cocaine, which is concentrated, freebased and much cheaper form of cocaine, wrapped its arms around the 23-year-old and wouldn’t let go. Turner, who signed a four-year, $1.5 million contract with the Seahawks as a rookie, estimated that eventually spent “$300,000 to $400,000” of his paychecks on crack cocaine. But that number grew much higher when he added in the potential earnings.
“I believe I lost $60 million because of the money I could have had, from endorsements to just my basic contracts,” he lamented in 2007.
Turner’s life, both personal and professional, was about to begin a downward spiral. But when the 1985 NFL season began, he was still on top of the world, getting high on touchdowns and end-zone celebrations.
In what would become the greatest game of his shortened NFL career, Turner had plenty of each. On that September afternoon in 1985, Turner was really popping.
Seahawks at San Diego Chargers
Sept. 15, 1985
As told by Daryl Turner
In those days, when you played San Diego, you knew you’d have to be at your best. Even my rookie year, it was the same deal. If you couldn’t outscore them, you might as well go home. And I’m not talking about 10-7, either. You knew coming in, they were going to throw the ball and score. Air Coryell, which was the nickname for Chargers coach Don Coryell’s offense, was in full gear. We knew what we had to do, and that was get the ball downfield and get it into the end zone. And the quicker we could do it, the better.
Going through the whole week of practice, I just had a good feeling toward having a great day. Our offensive coordinator at the time, Steve Moore, came to me on Saturday between our team meeting and position meetings, and said: ‘You should have an awesome day tomorrow.’ And I told him: ‘I feel great.’ It’s one of the best feelings I’ve had at any time in the NFL. Even better than getting drafted. Hell, I was asleep on my couch waiting to get drafted in the second round; so that wasn’t a big thrill.
It was really exciting. I was so hyped, like: Ooh, let the game start. At 1:15, it was all popping.
I caught a pass on a crossing route for my first reception. It wasn’t a touchdown, but it was one of the first times I caught a pass doing a shallow route over the middle. I picked up 11 or 12 yards, and that just really set the tone for me. It was like: Boo-yah, Daryl Turner going across the middle? Catching the ball like that? That was Steve Largent’s territory, over the middle. My job was usually to make sure he had the safety zone in the middle on those short, intermediate routes. I would go deep and clear out everybody for him underneath.
Anyway, that set the tone right there. After that, I told quarterback Dave Krieg: ‘OK, here we go. They’ve got a young guy covering me.’ It was a guy named Wayne Davis, who was a rookie that year. I knew I could run any pattern against that guy. Wherever he went, that’s where we threw the ball. I caught seven passes, but Steve Largent had six catches for 99 yards and a touchdown of his own. With Steve, it really didn’t too much matter who was checking him. He was just like that.
I told Dave Krieg: ‘That guy cannot touch me. I’ve got him all day. He cannot check me.’ Those were my words over and over again: on the sideline, in the huddle. Even when coach Chuck Knox sent in running plays, I’d tell Dave: ‘Hey, audible. If you see the guy on me, audible.’
We had a good running game at the time. Curt Warner had just come back from his knee injury in 1984, and he was back in his prime. So we could run the ball. But it was just one of those days where Dave hit me in stride every time. Every time he threw me the ball that day, it was catchable. And I caught it.
I caught a 34-yard touchdown in the first quarter, then added three more in the second half. We came out of halftime and scored on five consecutive possessions: a pass to Steve, a 15-yard pass to me, a 30-yard pass to me, a Curt Warner run, and then a 7-yard pass to me on the opening drive of the fourth quarter.
That one made the score 49-29, and we ended up beating them pretty good. I was never one to brag about what I did. I was just out there playing, doing my job. After I was told that I had four touchdowns, and seven catches for 121 yards, I was just like, ‘OK.’ I knew I was going to have a good game. I knew that kind of day was going to happen sooner or later.
And as a matter of fact, I ended up leading the NFL with a franchise-record 13 touchdown receptions that year. But after the game, all I remember was how ready I was to get back on the plane and get home.
That’s because waiting back home in Seattle was Turner’s other favorite way of getting high. While he never did drugs before a game, he had gotten into the habit of celebrating every victory, and burying every defeat, with drugs and alcohol.
“It got to the point where, wherever we were playing, I couldn’t wait to get home to my townhouse so I could cook it up and freebase it,” he said. “I learned how to do all that. I used my own baking soda, my own water, and I heated it up with Bacardi 151 rum to burn the bowl and everything.”
Turner found a way to balance the partying and the football, at least for those first two seasons. He said it was easy to come out clean in drug tests because players all knew when they would be conducted. As long as he stayed clean in the weeks leading up to training camp, he knew he had a better chance to pass the urine tests.
On the field, Turner had another solid season in 1985. More than one-third of his 34 receptions resulted in touchdowns, and his two-year total of 23 TDs was the second-highest in NFL history. He averaged 28.5 yards on his touchdown receptions, including six that went for 40 yards or longer.
Turner was being mentioned among the top young receivers in the league, along with up-and-comers like Jerry Rice, Art Monk and Andre Reed. His career appeared to be on the fast track to success. But things were actually beginning to spiral out of control. He spent the offseason between 1985 and 1986 doing more partying than training, and it started to affect Turner’s athleticism.
“I would get up, go drink, do whatever bad drugs there was to do, run a couple miles, then do the same thing all over again,” he recalled. “And I thought I was staying in shape.
“It really showed in ’86. I got to (training) camp, and I wasn’t running as fast, I wasn’t getting off the line of scrimmage like I was supposed to. I had picked up weight. I tried to stop drinking and doing cocaine, but it just didn’t work.”
Football had always come easy to Turner, and now he was finally confronted with something that required work. Giving up the party lifestyle was more difficult than he would have ever expected.
“After it came so easy for me my first couple of years, my body eventually said: ‘OK, one of these things you’ve got to quit,'” he said in 2007. “And it wasn’t the cocaine or the drinking.”
And so it was the training that eventually got whittled out, and Turner’s numbers dramatically declined on the field. While he still scored at a remarkable rate, he saw fewer opportunities to catch the ball. He had 18 receptions in 1986 and just 14 the following year. But among those 32 catches, 13 went for touchdowns.
After the disappointing 1987 season, Coach Knox told Turner that the Seahawks would use a high draft pick on a wide receiver. Turner, whose crack and cocaine use had picked up as he fought through a long bout with depression, could see the writing on the wall. When Seattle used its second-round pick in the 1988 draft — the Seahawks did not have a first-round pick that year because they chose Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth in the 1987 supplemental draft — on Miami receiver Brian Blades, Turner was all but finished in Seattle. He went on a five-day bender, missing most of a Seahawks minicamp. When Turner finally showed up, he concocted a story about being unhappy about his contract.
Turner eventually went to training camp with the team but lasted only two weeks before the Seahawks attempted to trade him to the Cleveland Browns. That trade was voided when the results of Turner’s preseason drug test came up positive. (The public explanation was that Turner had a congenital back problem, which didn’t really exist.)
“That was it,” Turner recalled. “That was basically it.”
Depressed and confused, Turner went to New York City to live with two former college teammates, Carl Banks and Mark Ingram of the New York Giants. Turner spent about two weeks listening to their lectures about getting sober when he finally threw his arms up and checked into rehab.
He stayed in the facility for a month, and said he was clean for two more months upon his release from rehab in the summer of 1988. The San Francisco 49ers offered him a tryout, so the clean-and-sober Turner flew back to the West Coast to try to get his NFL career back on track.
“I’d picked up a little bit of weight,” recalled Turner, whose natural playing weight had been 200 pounds. “While I was in (rehab), I was working out with the weights, but my diet wasn’t right. Everything was hamburgers and steak, food designed to put more weight on you.
“I got (to San Francisco) at 250 pounds, and I still ran a 4.5 40-yard dash.”
Still, Turner said that 49ers coach George Seifert wanted him to lose more than 20 pounds by the time training camp opened a week later. Turner didn’t think it was possible, but he gave it a shot. He got down to 237.
“But they wouldn’t let it happen,” he said. “So that was that.”
Once again, Turner was out of the league.
“Done deal,” he recalled. “Stick a fork in him. He’s done. I could’ve done more, but the depression set in again, so I was like: I’m going to go do some more drugs.”
From there, Turner’s addiction spiraled even further in the wrong direction. He worked several odd jobs to help finance his drug use, spent some time in Georgia, and eventually headed back north to his hometown of Flint.
“I went to visit my mama: ‘I miss my mama,'” he recalled. “But it was just an excuse to go use a different drug. That’s basically what it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but basically, that’s what it was.”
He stopped enjoying the drugs and just started craving them. By the early 1990s, D.T. couldn’t live without them. He spent 10 years, between 1991 and 2000, bouncing around between jobs and living situations. There were times when he lived in his car. He slept on park benches. Even the three children he fathered — a daughter back in Seattle and two kids in Michigan — weren’t enough to make Turner clean his life up. He was, in his own mind, a helpless cause.
After finally finding some stability by moving into a house with an acquaintance, Turner continued to spend most of his free time doing drugs. The NFL days seemed so far in the past, and the 40-year-old Turner had completely fallen out of contact with the Seahawks.
In the end, Turner’s moment of clarity came on a typical afternoon in which he was doing drugs. His older brother, Ronny, had stopped by the day before a family reunion, and Daryl grew tired of his constant pestering about drug use.
“He got to telling me: ‘What are you going to do with your life? Everybody knows you’re getting high,'” Daryl Turner recalled in 2007. “It was nothing I was trying to hide. I was never that kind of guy.”
Turner was losing his patience with Ronny.
“I’m about to get high here,” he told his brother. “Why don’t you just leave? You’ve been talking to me for two hours.”
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Ronny said. “We’re going to talk about this.”
But talking to Daryl Turner could be like banging one’s head against a wall. And so Ronny eventually gave up, leaving Daryl to his own devices. With $150 in his pocket, he turned to his roommate and said: “Well, let’s go get high. I’ve really got to get high now.”
Turner and his roommate bought some crack and an 8-ball of cocaine. They smoked. They snorted. They repeated the cycle again. And again.
“But I couldn’t get high,” Turner recalled. “So I said: ‘This is it for me, man. I can’t even get high anymore.'”
On Aug. 2, 2003, Turner called his sister and told her to come pick him up. He carried only a garbage bag of clothes, leaving all of his furniture and electronics behind because he didn’t want any reminders of the past. The next day, he checked in to the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in Flint, Mich. He would stay there for two full years. When he was contacted for this story in September 2007, Turner said he had been sober for more than four years.
“I don’t think some people should really consider themselves alcoholics or drug addicts once you turn your life over to God,” said Turner, who married his wife, Diane, on Sept. 2, 2006, and lives in Birmingham, Mich. “If he’s forgiven me for what I’ve done, then I don’t understand why you can’t. Don’t get mad if I go through an AA meeting and I don’t say, ‘Hi, I’m Daryl Turner, and I’m an alcoholic.’
“A lot of people think that I am still in denial because I don’t say that I’m an alcoholic or addict. I tell them I’m a reborn Christian. And in my eyes, the Bible that I read, God says: ‘I forgive you, so you’re going to start new as a new person.'”
Turner takes pride in telling his story to teenagers, believing that he might be able to steer them from a life of drug or alcohol abuse. He spends some of his free time between public speaking and hanging out with the daughter and son who live in Michigan. Because he has been through so much ecstasy and agony, Turner has quite a tale to tell.
“The lesson is that you pay attention to the other mind,” he said. “That other mind is God. There’s always another voice that’s telling you, ‘You shouldn’t do it.’ And that’s God; I believe that. It was God, and I heard it several times over.
“When I tell this story, that’s the first thing I tell them on the moral: ‘Listen to that other voice. The voice is telling you what’s right.'”
It took more than 20 years from that first time he tried cocaine, but eventually, Daryl Turner was listening to that other voice. And finally, l, life had become something D.T. had learned to like.