Quiet, funny, self-motivated, a gentle giant. Those were some of the words people who knew him used to describe T.J. Turner, the Hillsboro High School graduate and former NFL player who died Monday at the age of 35.
“I feel fortunate I got to coach a kid of that caliber at one time in my career,” Turner’s high school coach, Jim Horne, said Tuesday. “He was just special. He wasn’t a rah, rah player. He elevated everyone’s else’s play through the electricity of his play. It is just sad that someone’s life gets taken at the age of 35.”
Few details were available about what exactly happened to Turner. But Todd Blankenship, who coached Turner, helped him through the recruiting process, stayed in touch with him over the years, and visited him recently, said he died at Hospice in Dayton after originally getting pancreatic cancer three to four years ago.
“I think it’s obvious we all know he was a God-given talent, but he really worked hard in the weight room and running,” Blankenship said while fielding calls from Alabama coach Lou Saban and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who both coached Turner in college and were calling to check on him. “He had a goal to play college football. Coach Horne always preached weightlifting and running and T.J. really bought into that.”
Blankenship said Turner also worked hard in the classroom and was close to a 3.0 grade point average student.
“When he was at Hillsboro he was just better than anybody else, so it was hard to see him grow as a player, but you could see him grow in the classroom and in the things he needed to do to achieve his goals,” Blakenship said.
Turner was arguably the best athlete Hillsboro High School ever produced, and maybe even all of Highland County.
Listed at 6-3 and 255 pounds when he entered the NFL, he lettered four years in college football at Michigan State. He was an All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention selection his junior year, but was limited by his injuries to just four games his senior year. His most notable play probably came late in his junior season in 1999 when he stopped No. 1-ranked Ohio State’s Michael Wiley for a three-yard loss on fourth-and-one, possibly costing the Buckeyes a national championship.
Turner was drafted by the New England Patriots in the seventh round of the 2001 NFL draft, the 239th pick overall. His NFL stats play he only played two games for the Patriots, recording three tackles, before injuries and legal troubles ended his career.
But the talent was always obvious.
A 1997 gradate of HHS, Turner led Hillsboro to a 37-3 regular season record during his four years as a football starter and in basketball helped the Indians to a regional championship game his senior year.
“I thought he was the best athlete I have seen in our school,” said Dave Hilliard, an assistant coach on that regional championship team who still teaches at the school and serves as assistant athletic director. “I played with Jonny (Cole), and I didn’t see some of the old-timers, but in basketball he could play any position. He could have been the point guard – he could have been anything he wanted to be.”
Blankenship said that when former Ohio University basketball coach Bob Hunter saw Turner play during high school on OU’s court, he offered Turner a scholarship on the spot. But football was Turner’s first love.
He had offers to play college football from every corner of the country, but Blankenship said Turner’s final decision came down to Notre Dame, West Virginia and Michigan State, the latter of which Blankenship said was the perfect fit.
“No disrespect to players of any other era, but I’d have to say T.J. would be right there at the top,” Blankenship said. “I know Dante (Jackson at McClain) did his thing, and other people will tell you about people from their era, but as far as what I’ve seen, he was the best player from any school around here.”
Horne said that in 30 years as a high school coach at Hillsboro, Wilmington and Fayetteville, Turner was by far the best player he ever coached.
“His closing speed at linebacker was just unreal,” Horne said. “And his athleticism. When we played him at tight end, we could just throw the ball up and he’d go get it.
“He was quiet and reserved, and sometimes you’d think he wasn’t paying attention because he never asked questions, but that was because he was listening and taking everything in. He absorbed stuff. He didn’t ask questions because he knew what he was doing.”
But there was more to Turner than just being a great athlete.
“He had a great sense of humor, which people probably wouldn’t know about him,” Hilliard said. “And it would always come out of the blue and surprise you.”
Hilliard told a story about one time when Hillsboro basketball coach J.R. Moberly was asking all the players for their phone numbers. He said the kids were all giving their numbers, but when it came Turner’s turn he gave the number of one of the other player’s girlfriend.
Lori Tuttle had just started working as sports editor at The Times-Gazette when she was asked to cover Turner’s first NFL game, which just happened to be played at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
“Most people, including myself, would call T.J. a gentle giant,” Tuttle said Tuesday. “He was a man of few words and when he did speak, he was very soft spoken. He made up for his quietness with his huge smile or sheepish grin. Covering him as a Patriot in the season opener at Cincinnati is one of my favorite memories. After the embarrassment of walking through the locker room, he surprised me with a great interview. I knew he was excited to be where he was.”
Horne said some of his favorite memories from 30 years of coaching are of the years Turner played for him. He said Turner was one of four freshmen he ever started. He said that by the fourth game of his freshman year, Turner was playing like a seasoned veteran.
“It was just amazing how quickly he transformed from a freshman to a complete player,” Horne said. “I just remember him as a self-motivator. He worked harder than anybody.
“He was a quiet kid, and hard to get to know. But he wasn’t disrespectful. He always did what he was supposed to do and did it right.”
Blankenship said it tells what kind of person Turner was with people like Saban, Dantonio and current New York Giants linebacker coach Dan Pees, Turner’s linebackers coach at MSU, calling to ask about him.
“Give his mom and dad credit for raising someone who set goals,” Blankenship said. “I will remember his big old smile and watching him stop Ohio State on fourth-and-one. I’m going to miss him.”
Jeff Gilliland may be reached at 937-393-3456 ext. 209 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.