(EDITOR’S NOTE: To access the Keena Turner interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 58: 49er Vice President Keena Turner Joins The Show | Spreaker)
Former San Francisco linebacker Keena Turner knows all about perseverance. Against all odds, he played through the first of his four Super Bowl victories with the chicken pox.
“It was about as uncomfortable as it gets,” he said on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast.
Yet as difficult as that was, he raised the bar on achievements 41 years later – appropriately, at a football stadium. But it wasn’t Candlestick Park. That was razed in 2015. It wasn’t Levi’s Stadium, either, home of today’s 49ers.
It was Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium, where Turner once spent Saturdays as a two-time All-Big Ten choice and where last month he joined his daughter, Ella, class of 2021, for graduation. Except this was no ordinary ceremony because there was an unexpected participant.
Keena Turner, come on down.
Four decades after leaving the West Lafayette, Ind., campus, the 62-year-old Turner returned to fulfill a promise he made his mother to complete his degree there. And so, on May 15, he walked side-by-side into Ross-Ade Stadium with his daughter and accepted a diploma that eluded him since 1980 when he left Purdue for the NFL.
“Surreal moments,” said Turner, now a vice president and senior advisor to 49ers’ GM John Lynch. “I never really thought of how long it had been. Once I saw the number 40 years, I said, ‘Wow, it’s been a long time.’ “
A second-round draft pick in 1980, Turner joined the NFL before completing his degree in organizational leadership. But with the assistance of Dr. Harry Edwards, the civil-rights activist who was a consultant with the 49ers, he gained a diploma at the University of San Francisco and continued to play … and later work … with the 49ers.
Nevertheless, he had unfinished business at Purdue he always wished he completed. Thanks to wife Linda ... and perfect timing ... he was able to give it a try.
“My wife, who was a Notre Dame grad, was the force behind it all,” said Turner. “She pushed and pulled us up this mountain the last 12 years. Way back, she said, ‘You spent all this time at Purdue. That’s important.’
“Unbeknownst to me, she went back and contacted Purdue and was trying to orchestrate this around my 50th birthday. It just didn’t happen. It didn’t come together. The kids were growing up.
“(But) once Ella decided to go to Purdue, which was a surprise, my wife kinda breathed life back into it all, and a discussion started. Once the opportunity was on the table that if I finished and completed this, I’d have this opportunity to walk with Ella then I was in. I was chasing it full speed at that point.”
Turner needed two classes to complete his collegiate resume. When he discovered he could take them virtually he jumped at the opportunity – gaining credits in science (physical geography) and upper management supply (supply chain management) to gain a diploma from the Purdue Polytechnic Institute.
It wasn’t easy. He had to attend to his duties with the 49ers while completing studies. Plus, the collegiate experience had changed so much in the four decades since he was on campus that Dad was cast in an unfamiliar role.
His daughter had to help him with assignments.
“Just on some of the technology side of it,” he said, laughing. “Everything is done with clicks and movements. I needed help navigating through the on-line process. I mean, uploading my homework and getting myself set up for proctored quizzes was all an exercise for me that was pretty new.”
In the end, it all worked out. Keena Turner walked away from Purdue with a diploma he left behind decades ago. But this was about more, much more, than the completion of a long and eventful journey and framed document on the wall. It was about a life lesson that Turner said he will cherish forever.
“I’ve learned as I’ve gotten a little older,” he said, “what enjoying the moment can mean. It’s really being present and taking in the surroundings and just seeing it all.
"We had the opportunity to be in Ross-Ade the day before the graduation to really just look around, sit in the stands and think about thoughts and moments of games being there. I was first, and foremost, so happy for my daughter and her accomplishments, her achievement and how special it was for me ... and realizing how special it was for me that she decided to go there four years ago, which brought me back on campus more over the last few years. Just really, really emotional and special.
“Someone asked me before Graduation Day what was my best memory moment of West Lafayette, Indiana, and Purdue, and I said, ‘Well, I think it’s going to happen on Saturday. I think it will be Saturday.’ And now, looking back, it definitely was.”