Thursday September 18th, 2014

BOISE, Idaho -- The Idaho sun’s blinding glare momentarily obscures the 300-pound defensive lineman as he slams into blocking sleds and earns roars of approval from coaches on Boise State's DeChevrieux practice field. It’s usually not hard to spot Broncos nose tackle Antoine Turner. The junior with short black hair, buggy eyes and arms as thick around as a lesser man’s head is massive, a full-grown man who has defied odds so long and bad those around him begin to wonder what they are made of themselves.

Turner does not easily volunteer what those odds entailed. A little coaxing, however, reveals what many in and around Boise already know: how when his mother died of cancer when he was four it felt like he lost everything; how, when Hurricane Katrina obliterated both his and his grandparents’ houses he really did physically lose everything; how he crashed on innumerable couches during his youth and ran drugs for gangs in the Upper Ninth Ward; how he decided to attend the first school that came up in a Google search of “junior college” because, he decided, it was a sign from God; how he packed all his possessions into a suitcase and asked his grandparents who never attended college for money so that he could leave New Orleans long behind; how he ended up splitting nights between his girlfriend’s car and the cement beneath a metal picnic table in an Anaheim park.

What Turner and his coaches would prefer to talk about is his progress overcoming obstacles on the field, and how, in a few short weeks of fall camp, Turner transformed from a player coaches joked they wanted to send back to junior college to earning playing time at an impactful FBS program.

So, if it was really that easy, if Turner has already cleared the first hurdle of the biggest opportunity of his life, then why does the man who witnessed and experienced such visceral death and destruction say this, perfecting his plays under the sharp Idaho sun, is the hardest thing he’s ever done?

Will Green/Sports Illustrated

The first time Turner heard about Boise State was the first time much of the world did, too: Jan. 1, 2007, when the Broncos took on Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

“I found out they were an underdog,” Turner said. “Everybody said, ‘Oklahoma is gonna beat their behind.’ Everybody’s always talking about the big person. I’m like, ‘Maybe this little person just might do it.’”

Boise State stunned the Sooners with a hook-and-lateral play to force overtime and a “Statue of Liberty” play to win the game. The dramatic upset hooked Turner to the blue and orange.

“My grandma always used to tell me when I was young that you speak things into existence, that if you have that faith in God, they’ll happen,” Turner said. “So I used to tell people, ‘I got a scholarship to Boise State.’ If they had asked me to show and prove it, I couldn’t have.”

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He told anyone who would listen, even the gang members in nearby Pontchartrain Park who had pressured a high school-aged Turner to run drugs for them. They’d load up his green backpack, instruct him where to deliver their packages and assure him they’d have his back. Turner wouldn't even look in his backpack most of the time to see what he was transporting. He didn't want to know. He kept his head down. “I didn’t want to get caught up in stuff like that," he said. "But if there’s somebody you know running streets telling you what to do that has pull in the ‘hood, you’re not going to tell them no.”

Turner realized the only way to divorce himself from the gangs -- as well as from his father with whom he grew increasingly estranged after his mother’s death -- was to pursue a college education, and his way to pursue a college education was through football.

During his senior year at New Orleans’ McDonogh 35 High School, Turner’s coaches told him junior college was the only level at which he could qualify academically to play football. So, one night in 2011 Turner sat at a computer and Googled the term “Junior College.” The first result that popped up was Fullerton (Calif.) College. Turner took this as a divine indication telling him to attend the school.

His grandfather withdrew $1,500 out of his 401K and gave it to Turner to pursue his education. His mom would have wanted it this way, Turner said, because she died of cancer before she could complete her degree at the University of New Orleans. 

Within six months at Fullerton, Turner lost his living arrangement at one of the team houses, a low GPA torpedoed what little merit-based financial aid he was receiving, and he was forced to redshirt for a year after an altercation at practice with then-Fullerton defensive line coach Greg Hoyd.

“In retrospect, I know what it was,” Hoyd said of the incident that landed Turner on the sidelines, preferring not to divulge specifics. “He was just basically homeless and not eating and just trying to survive.”

Unlike Division I football programs, most junior college programs do not provide players with free room and board. In February 2012, with his grandparents unable to send more money and Turner unable to afford a place to live, he took up residence in the passenger seat of his girlfriend R’Mya DeMarcco’s 2002 Kia Optima. He stored his belongings in DeMarcco’s mother's garage, used the team showers on campus and slept in the car. Turner’s weight plummeted over the next 12 months from 290 to 220 because he often didn’t have anything to eat.

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The National Alliance To End Homelessness estimates that in January 2013 more than 136,000 Californians were homeless. On New Year’s Day 2013, Turner was one of them. He felt bad continually sleeping in DeMarrco’s car. It made him feel dependent and effectively caused her to stay in the vehicle with him. “You don’t want your girl sleeping in a car,” he said.

Six years to the day after Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl win inspired him to play for the Broncos, Turner slept under a bench in Anaheim’s La Palma Park. Winter nights in California were cold and uncomfortable. On nights he needed to study, the commercial-grade floodlights adorning the park bench gazebo seemed to shut off. The nights he needed to sleep, they would maddeningly flicker on.

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At first, Tuner didn’t tell DeMarrco where he was staying. He didn’t tell anyone, in fact, because he was too proud. When DeMarrco finally found out, she solicited her aunts and uncles to take Turner in. A brigade of DeMarrco’s relatives working in multi-month shifts got Turner through the 2013 season. A new-look Turner started dominating games at Fullerton. On Oct. 19, 2013, he had three deflections, two sacks and the game-winning interception against Saddleback (Ca.) College. He led the team with six sacks and 13.5 tackles for losses for the year.

After the 2013 season ended, Hoyd called every Division I coach he knew to vouch for Turner. When Broncos defensive line coach Steve Caldwell arrived for an official home visit, Turner was busy working on coursework; Fullerton informed him he needed to complete nine classes during his final semester to be eligible to attend Boise State.

“You watch a lot of these kids on film, and then you go see them in person and you think, ‘I don’t know about this.’ He wasn’t like that. He was a full-grown man,” Caldwell said. Impressed with his size, as well as his support system of DeMarrco’s relatives that helped him finish his junior college coursework, the Broncos brought Turner to campus and offered him a scholarship.

“What I remember from his visit was that he was very appreciative, very thankful to be here,” Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin said.

On National Signing Day, Harsin sent a tweet welcoming Turner. “Antoine Turner pass rusher and run stopper specialist,” it read. “Welcome Home.”

Will Green/Sports Illustrated

The final words of Harsin’s tweet took on a both figurative and literal meaning, the latter of which he was unaware. Just as Turner didn’t tell immediately DeMarrco or his teammates he was sleeping under benches, he didn’t tell anyone at Boise State, either.

A May 11 profile of Turner by Boise television station KTVB prompted a deluge of offers to help Turner. On May 12, the morning after the story aired, Boise State compliance director John Cunningham sent a letter to KTVB, which the station broadcasted, asking the public to not assist Turner because direct aid to him could have constituted an NCAA violation that would have penalized Boise State. Cunningham wrote that the school was working on a potential solution to help. 

On the afternoon of May 13, Cunningham filed a urgent phone legislative relief waiver with the NCAA. The waiver is designed to assist schools when unforeseen extraordinary circumstances necessitate immediate action normally impermissible by NCAA rules. 

“My first thought was, ‘Who is helping him?’” Harsin said. “The second thought, when our compliance reached out and said we put something out there to the NCAA about trying to help this kid, was, ‘There’s no way in hell that’s going to work,’” Harsin said. Cunningham stood by his decision, remaining confident in the phone waiver process.

The NCAA contacted the school the following afternoon and said it would grant Boise State permission to give Turner immediate assistance at the discretion of the institution, according to Cunningham. Boise State worked with Fullerton to get Turner out of another stint in DeMarrco’s car and in to a southern California Marriott where his lodging and meals would be provided for until he arrived on Boise’s campus June 2.

Harsin was astonished when notified of the NCAA’s decision, noting it was unheard of for a school to be allowed to aid an incoming student-athlete currently in another city attending another institution. The speed of the process was also a surprise; fewer than 24 hours passed between the initial contact with the NCAA and the final resolution.

 “The NCAA gets criticized a lot for bureaucracy and the time that they take on certain things,” Cunningham said. “The NCAA did the right thing and they did it quickly.”

Cunningham’s colleagues also took notice of the decision. TCU compliance director Andrea Nordmann said she was absolutely shocked the resolution happened as quickly as it did and believes the decision could set a precedent for other schools facing similar situations in the future. UNLV compliance director Eric Tolliver said the ruling is reflective of the NCAA moving toward a more student-athlete-centered model of governance.

Turner, for his part, was extremely grateful.

“I just felt really loved,” Turner said of the outpouring of support from the KTVB story and the NCAA’s subsequent decision. “These people got me out here, gave me opportunity. I feel like if I’m not doing my best at all times, I’m kind of slapping them in their face.”

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Otto Kitsinger/AP

On Aug. 16 Turner moved for the first time into a residence of his own. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his teammate Rondell McNair and DeMarrco, who transferred from Cal State Fullerton to Boise State to be with Turner.

The night before the move, Turner was excited but nervous. He had just come from a team film session during which he noticed several of his own mistakes. When other players left to go out or to see friends, he spent the night replaying those mistake over and over in his head. In Turner’s eyes, any major on-field error could cost him his scholarship.

“I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to be homeless again. I don’t want to let someone down,” he said. “I think what makes me really scared, what makes me mad about the whole thing is that I didn’t wake up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I’m searching for stuff for myself to be proud of. Everybody else has parents. I don’t have anybody to go call on to look for somebody to be proud of me. And that angers me.”

Everywhere Turner goes he carries with him a list of ten goals, such as, “Keep God first at all times” and “Never lust over money.” Sometimes, when he’s discouraged or frightened, he reads the list to himself and thinks of how each of the goals feeds into his ultimate ambition: creating a program to get disadvantaged kids off the street and channeling their energies toward their own goals.

“I just want to inspire people,” Turner said. “That’s what my whole journey is. That’s why I get so mad when I’m not the best.”

The next challenge of Turner’s journey is to become the best defensive tackle at Boise State and to help anchor a defensive line that so far has held opponents to 1.6 yards per run, fifth best in the FBS. Turner has played in all three of the Broncos' games this season, making two tackles and breaking up two passes.

“I told him training camp would be harder than anything he’d ever done, not in terms of a life situation, but this next phase, the demands of graduating and all that,” Harsin said. “He’s got a good story up to this point. To come here and not do well academically, or to come here and not contribute on the field, that’s not going to happen.”

When he lines up at nose tackle, Turner’s usually outnumbered, taking on two offensive linemen at once. He sits in his gap, putting pressure on himself and on the opposing quarterback, fighting his instinct to go “freelance,” as Caldwell puts it, to go elsewhere on the field where he’s not supposed to be.

Turner usually ends up sprawled out on the turf, unglamorous, but still fighting even when he’s down.

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