There were times last season when Eric Turner's considerable patience wore thin. The Cleveland Brown fans—not to mention his own coaches—were wondering if the second-year safety, as good as he was, was worth his four-year, $6 million contract. Nobody questioned his heart, his brains or his talent, but Turner kept hearing that he wasn't making the big play.
"He wasn't finishing the play," says one Brown coach. "Against San Diego he misses the ball by two inches, and [Anthony] Miller catches a touchdown pass to win the game. Eric made a tremendous break to the ball, but...."
If you're a safety, the word but reverberates like an old Righteous Brothers record. Turner, the second pick of the entire 1991 NFL draft, came to the Browns advertised as a Terminator-type player, and the hits he dished out in his injury-shortened rookie season were worthy of a Schwarzenegger. Turner's first pro tackle bent the face mask of Cincinnati Bengal running back James Brooks. He ran back his first pro interception for a touchdown. In a game with the Houston Oilers that first season, Turner twice separated a pass receiver from the football with violent tackles.
Last year was different. The ball too often brushed Turner's fingertips and found a receiver. The hard hits came a millisecond late. Ohio's steel-gray skies seemed to have dulled the shiny skills of the All-America from UCLA. "The Cleveland winter did get to me a little," Turner says. "Snowing, no sun, no leaves on the trees." He laughs. "It was just dark."
Turner makes this comment while snacking on Buffalo wings at a sidewalk restaurant in Marina Del Rey, Calif., a few miles from the Brentwood apartment he keeps for the off-season. Any brooding over '92 is clearly behind Turner. "Everybody gets beat," he says. "Week in and week out you're playing guys who can beat you just like that"—he snaps his fingers—"whereas in college there might be one player on a team who could beat you. You just have to bear down."
But surely his "can't miss" billing adds to the pressure. Turner shakes his head. "I don't let other people's expectations bother me, because they can't exceed my own. Part of being a professional is wanting to play a perfect game and knowing that you never will." He adds, in case there's any doubt: "One thing I don't lack is confidence."
Across town, UCLA assistant coach A.J. Christoff nods when Turner's remark about confidence is repeated to him later that afternoon. "Eric is one of the few players I've coached who was able to perform at a high level while unable to practice due to injury," says Christoff. "He could watch plays in practice, understand them and go out on Saturday and execute." Christoff remembers the time that Arizona came at Turner with a tackle and fullback in tandem on a three-back load option. "Eric had the alley," he says. "They went for his legs, so he jumped straight up, cleared both blockers, landed on his feet and made the tackle. I've never seen another player do that."
During his freshman year Turner also contributed to another player's highlights film when he intercepted a pass by USC quarterback Rodney Peete at the goal line. Racing for the far end zone, Turner forgot a lesson his high school track coaches had taught him: He looked back for pursuers. "I counted it on tape afterward, and I looked back four times," he says. "And every time I looked, Rodney had gained on me. He finally caught me around the nine-yard line." Turner laughs. "If Troy Aikman or somebody like that had caught me, I'd have been afraid to come out of the locker room for the second half. But Rodney Peete is such an athlete, it was O.K."
The middle of three brothers from what he calls a "righteous, God-fearing family," Turner was all-state and All-America at Ventura (Calif.) High. His half brother, Art Malone Jr., the son of former NFL running back Art Malone, played in the WLAF. But upon arriving at UCLA, Turner defied the jock image by majoring in history (he got his B.A. in March 1992) and seeking out nonathletes for friends. "He says football is for a season of his life," says his mother, Joan Bailey, a retired accounting clerk. "His degree is for a lifetime."
So the 24-year-old Turner ponders going to law school or starting a business when his playing days are over. While quick to disclaim any serious intellectual bent ("I was a big-time crammer in college," he says), he is not above spicing his conversation with lines like: "They say those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Do you believe that?"
This benign side of Turner is only sustainable when he keeps his arms and chest covered. He bench-pressed 406 pounds in college, and combine scouts, misled by a report that Turner ran only a 4.68-second 40 in college, shook their watches in '91 when he ran a 4.48 for them—despite stumbling at the start. And after noting his fierce demeanor in drills, the scouts advised their pro clients to shake open their checkbooks. The Browns did, awarding Turner a $3.15 million signing bonus.
"The one word I would use to describe Eric is intense," says his friend and college dorm mate, Roman Phifer, now a linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams. "It's almost like a mean streak comes over him when he competes."
That mean streak is what the Browns want to nurture in Turner; but they don't want him to forget the name of his position, either—safety. "He can be a dominant, fierce tackier," says defensive coordinator Nick Saban, "but he needs to learn when to take those shots and when not to take a chance."
Turner knows what the Browns want, and he is determined to give it to them. Last year he picked the brain of former Brown cornerback Frank Minnifield, who would analyze receivers' tendencies with a laptop computer. Says Turner, "If I see something in somebody's game that I like, I want to incorporate that in my game so I can take it to another level."
Runners and receivers who have already been leveled by Turner can only shudder at the thought. If the Browns' Terminator continues to improve, the ranks of those who don't remember the past could increase dramatically.