Save for his square-toed black hightops, Jim Turner never looked
much like a kicker. At 6'2", 205 pounds, he filled his uniform
with the broad shoulders and bulk more suited to a running back.
His nickname was Tank, and early in his career with the New York
Jets he took turns in practice at quarterback, fullback,
halfback, tight end and wide receiver. Jets coach Weeb Ewbank,
however, saw in Turner the potential to be a placekicker and soon
turned him into one.
Turner went on to play for 16 seasons, seven with New York, then
nine with the Denver Broncos, and score 1,439 points, a total
that ranks 10th on the alltime list. "I didn't belong in pro
football," says Turner, 60, who was drafted in 1963 as a
quarterback, the position he had played at Utah State. "I had no
moves. I just ran people over. Everything I accomplished was
because of Weeb. I had attempted only two field goals in high
school and three in college, but he let me try. He taught me."
Now Turner wants to return Ewbank's favor by helping others
fulfill their potential and find success. Since the fall of 2000
he has been working at Jefferson Senior High in the Denver suburb
of Edgewater as an academic coach in the National Football
Foundation's (NFF) Play It Smart program, which provides
educational counseling and mentoring to football players in
at-risk high schools. At Jefferson, where many students come from
low-income families, Turner spends an hour each day in study hall
with about 30 football players. He's officially responsible for
monitoring their academic performance but often winds up advising
his charges, most of whom are Hispanic, on everything from
girlfriends to job applications. Turner has taken to the work
with a missionary's zeal, using an approach as straight ahead as
his kicking style. "It's only me and the boys," he says. "It's
not a United Way commercial. I'm there every day. They're good
kids, but a lot of them have no shot. I'm going to make sure they
get their shot."
In the Jefferson players, Turner has found willing subjects.
Midway through last year he discovered that some of the boys were
coasting through school, taking an unhealthy dose of less
demanding courses, including auto shop, ceramics and
weightlifting. "I got mad," he says. "If the students aren't
satisfying their core requirements, they're not going to get out
of here. I started checking everyone's classes then, and a bunch
of the kids came to me and said, 'We want to go to college. Can
you help us?'"
February 11, 2002
"That story almost made me cry," says Alex Kroll, 64, a 1961
All-America center and linebacker for Rutgers as well as the
former president and CEO of advertising giant Young & Rubicam,
who founded Play It Smart back in 1998. "Those kids did want to
take algebra and physics. It's not like Jim's just talking about
it. He's an evangelist for the program."
Turner feels he was born to the job because he knows where the
players are coming from. His father, Bayard, who had only a
fourth-grade education, worked for C&H Sugar on a loading dock in
Crockett, Calif., near Oakland, and Jim grew up poor. "My dad
lifted hundred-pound sugar sacks for 32 years before he got laid
off," he says. "I was born on the county. I've been there. My
boys know that if they try to bull---- me, it ain't going to
In only 18 months Turner and his players have achieved some fine
results. Fourteen of the boys made the honor roll last semester.
In Turner's first year 10 of his 11 seniors graduated, and eight
are in college. "I was real excited to hear about Jim's
involvement," says Archie Manning, former star quarterback at Ole
Miss and for the New Orleans Saints, who helps administer the
program as a board member of the NFF, which runs Play It Smart in
44 schools across the country. "Football is part of the whole
high school experience. Not all these boys are going to play in
college, but they need our support."
Turner's work was interrupted last summer after he suffered a
heart attack--a particularly frightening event given that both of
his older brothers had died of such attacks before age 30. As
part of his recovery, which includes a three-mile walk on a
treadmill and 12 pills each day, Turner has had to temporarily
give up riding his bicycle, his greatest passion since he retired
in 1979. "Normally I ride about 3,000 miles a year," he says. "My
cardiologist told me that in June, if I followed his program, I'd
be able to go over Vail Pass, which is at about 10,000 feet. It's
a bitch, but it's a fun ride."
Jim and his wife of 36 years, Mary Kay, live in the foothills of
the Rockies, in the house they built in Arvada, Colo., after Jim
was traded to Denver in 1971. They have three daughters, all of
whom are grown and live in the area. For now Jim contents himself
with shepherding his flock at Jefferson. "I've told my boys,
'Just trust me, and I will lead you,'" he says. "I love these
kids. I'm their counselor. I'm their surrogate father. I'm their
"They're good kids, but a lot of them have no shot," says Turner.
"I'm going to make sure they get their shot."