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Kevin Turner’s “American Man”: Concussions, ALS, and fandom

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I recently attended a fundraising event for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). This event was sponsored by the Kevin Turner Foundation. Turner, a former Philadelphia Eagle, has ALS, and through his foundation he supports research about the disease. The Foundation also seeks to raise awareness about how brain trauma is related to contact sports.

ALS is a deadly disease that involves the progressive loss of muscle function. Turner was a fullback for the Patriots and Eagles in the 1990s. He was a big hitter, a guy who would grind out extra yards. He’s the type of player football fans, especially Eagles fans, love.

The event, which I attended with a close friend whose brother died of ALS, was powerful and emotional. The evening included a screening of the documentary American Man, which Turner made with HBO Sports Correspondent Jon Frankel. The film provides a smart, subtle study of the life of a one-time football star now battling ALS.

There’s Turner on screen, Alabama college superstar. As a member of the Crimson Tide, he plows through opposing defenses while announcers’ excited voices narrate. Huge crowds awash in red cheer. There he is as a Patriot and Eagle, Kevin Turner, the banger, fighting for extra yards. Announcers admire his toughness. The crowds rumble. Then there’s Turner the man, the dad. He’s losing control of his hands.

And there was Kevin Turner speaking to us after the film. He was witty, humble as he stood before us, thanking everyone, including several former Eagles teammates. The disease has progressed. He can still speak well, but he’s changed even from his film self. (I could be wrong, and the team was on the road that weekend in Washington, but I don’t know that anyone from the Philadelphia Eagles organization was there. In the game that weekend, a star, LeSean McCoy, suffered a bad concussion.)

The film ultimately asks if the repetitive, high-collision impacts of football contribute to ALS? Is there a link between multiple concussions – as Turner says, they were always euphemistically called “bell ringers” – and this disease? And everyone who knows Turner grapples with this: Is it worth it?

In American Man, the crowd, and, of course, the money, frame the games. Turner has had other challenges. After making what he estimates to be $8 million in the NFL, a series of bad financial decisions left him bankrupt.

That’s a lot of money, $8 million. But what do we, the crowd, get – deserve – for that money? The film pushes us to ask how far our own personal enjoyment allows us to encourage others to take big health risks (ALS, right now, is a lethal disease).

Turner opens American Man coaching his sons in football. It’s part of his life. But toward the film’s end, his boys don’t play any longer. He just can’t let them do it.

It was tough to watch Turner’s former teammates, to think about how they saw Turner in the documentary and then in front of them, joking but showing increasing signs of physical deterioration. Many wept.

One who was hit the hardest was Ricky Watters, the great 49ers, Eagles, and Seahawks running back. After the screening and Turner’s brief words, we filed out into a large room where there was a silent auction to raise money for ALS research. Looking at sports legend-signed items for sale, I found myself next to Watters, who still looks in peak shape. We talked about the film and then got into our own kids. He said his boys don’t play football.

Mine don’t either, I said, even though before I had kids, I always thought any boys I had would play. We talked about that common ground, despite the vast difference between us in our experiences with football. Then we talked about how tough it must be to see his former teammate and friend ailing.

Watters shook his head. Given the context, it was risky, but I remembered an odd intersection between myself and Watters, and I decided to share it with him. “I’m going to tell you something that I hope cheers you up a little,” I said. “I have been in a fantasy football league for 17 years with friends, and you know who my first pick was back in like 1995?: Ricky Watters of the San Francisco 49ers.”

He chuckled and said, “That does make me feel better.”

It was a good moment. I always wonder how these players feel about the oddity of fantasy football, but it must be cool to hear that people think you’re a first-rounder, one of best.

Fantasy football has no doubt helped propel the NFL’s popularity. Fans love their teams, and now thousands of people tune in just to see how a given player is doing stats-wise. Fandom.

I thought of those crowds cheering for Turner. It made me wonder what he, and his teammates, all gladiators, warriors – Watter’s book, after all, is titled For Who For What: A Warrior’s Journey — think about the fans’ zealotry and how it drives them to give, and take, the big hit.

Sure, being famous — what could be better? And a tiny few of them do make a lot of money. But, increasingly, we’re finding they get their brains shelled. We urge them on, our teams, our players: Fight for that extra yard. Get back in the game. Fandom. We have turned athletes into myths, icons, statistics machines. I enjoyed that moment with Watters, but later, thinking of Turner’s disease, I wondered about my harmless fantasy picks and what role they might play in it all.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the writing center. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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2 Responses to “Kevin Turner’s “American Man”: Concussions, ALS, and fandom”

  1. Thanks for bringing awareness to both Kevin Turner and the role that head injury may play in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS. Well written and well received!

  2. I was a big boxing fan as a kid and as I was reading your article, I immediately thought of heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry, who wore diapers and was unable to dress or feed himself before he died. Some guys like Chuck Wepner, who received many beatings in the ring during those heavyweight glory days, are perfectly fine today. As a sports fan, I’m glad brain injuries are finally getting the attention they deserve.

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