“When it’s all over, you’re all on your own … Now my friends are dying, all I feel is pain. Sitting here broken, never dreamed it this way … I climbed up the mountain, watched it all slip away, down to the valley of fortune and pain.”
— From the song “Fortune &Pain,” Kyle Turley Band.
The email caught him off guard recently. It was from an elderly wife of a former NFL player thanking him for all the hard work he has done in continuing to fight for the cause, for being outspoken and passionate, for being committed to the journey, for believing in what is right and just, for protecting those no one else would off the field as he once did quarterbacks on it.
It gave Kyle Turley the answers he had been seeking.
“It made me realize that I can’t stop, that I have to dig deep and continue being a voice and taking advantage of the platform I have so that we can win these battles,” Turley said. “I could care less about making friends. I believe the guys know that what I’m doing comes from my heart. Nothing is fake here. I’m not trying to capitalize on anything or keep my name in the papers.
“These are real issues with real consequences. People are hurting; people are dying. I’m a born protector. That’s just me, man.”
He played 109 career games in 10 years for the Saints, Rams and Chiefs from 1998 to 2007 with the sort of nasty edge that allows offensive linemen to succeed at one of the toughest positions in one of the world’s most violent games.
But if his NFL task was to defend those throwing the ball, Turley has expanded such a role in his post-football life, standing behind those who came before and raising awareness about matters the league might otherwise prefer remain buried deep within a deafening silence.
I covered Turley when he was an All-American at San Diego State.
He has never been quiet about that which he believes in most.
He helped headline a Hall of Fame dinner Friday night at the Silverton for the Gridiron Greats, which provides assistance to retired NFL players in dire need, which helps the game’s pioneers and their families deal with hardships after football, with disabilities and inadequate pensions, with things like food and housing and medical bills.
With finding some dignity in life.
Turley donated his final NFL game check to the fund and has since continued to be one of the most vocal critics of the league’s approach to head injuries. He most recently spoke on a lawsuit brought against the league by former players, accusing the NFL of encouraging a culture in which team physicians and trainers regularly supplied drugs to help speed up a return to the field from injuries, stating players were fed an abundance of painkillers without proper prescriptions or warnings about long-term side effects.
“When he believes in something, Kyle is a never-say-die kind of guy,” said former NFL lineman Ed White, who was Turley’s position coach in college. “He will be the first to tell you he is the byproduct of all this, that he has had some traumatic brain injury. He’s very passionate. He has always led by example.”
Turley has done so through words and music, his country-rock band offering songs about physical pain and how living the good life led to his broken body, songs whose proceeds help support the Gridiron Greats.
The music video for “Fortune &Pain” begins with a message about the song being dedicated to those who paid the ultimate price to play the game they loved. Throughout it, names of former players who took their own lives, whose suicides medical experts have linked to the types of brain injuries suffered while playing football, intertwine with lyrics about money and glory and digging one’s grave.
O.J. Murdock (February 1987-July 2002) … Junior Seau (January 1969-May 2012) … Ray Easterling (September 1949-April 2012) … Kenny McKinley (January 1987-September 2010) … Dave Duerson (November 1960-February 2011) …
The final player listed is Austin Trenum … 17 years old.
“I have tried to never forget where I came from, how blessed my life has been, and I don’t know why the same things don’t matter to everyone,” said Turley, 38. “I don’t know why so many (current) players don’t seem to care. I just couldn’t stand around and watch these things happen to retired players and not do something. I couldn’t stand watching them be cast aside and dropped like a bad habit as soon as they were no longer useful to the NFL.
“I will always remember the first day I walked into an NFL locker room. Jerry Fontenot was our center with the Saints and he said to me, ‘You just made more money by signing your name to a contract (as a first-round draft pick) than I have in 10 years in this league. Don’t ever forget that.’ That always stuck with me.
“I made millions of dollars playing a kid’s game, a game I love. And I need to honor those who paved the way and made that possible for me and so many others. I want to help make the game safer and better for my son and other sons who want to play it. Hopefully, I never lose that feeling. I can’t imagine how hard it was being in the era of football many of these guys played in. They need us now more than ever. They need a voice.”
“Put you on shoulders, walk you to fame … You’ll get all the money, drive their fancy cars, all the people love you, you’re going far … I remember like yesterday and then it’s gone away … Down to the valley of fortune and pain.”
The first text came in and Turley didn’t answer it. Then the second and third and fourth and fifth. Still, he never answered. He wondered recently if it was all worth it, if he should begin championing another cause for fellow retired players, this one dealing with the lawsuit on painkillers, if things really could change for the better, if so many wrongs could be righted.
He wondered if he had any more left to give.
Then the email arrived from an elderly wife of a former NFL player.
He answered it.
“I can’t give up,” Turley said. “Too many people are still hurting.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.