Julian Turner remembers the sea of young faces, heads tilted back, eyes filled with wonder. On a field at Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children, the boys and girls looked up, some way up, at the 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker towering over them.
When Turner tossed out a football, awe gave way to ‘ah!’ A full-blown scrimmage commenced, replete with spins, jukes and trash-talking.
“Show me what ya got,” one fifth-grader barked at Turner and his fellow Trinity University teammates.
When a Sunshine player scored, Turner dropped to the ground and did The Worm, a dance move that elicited howls. Not to be outdone, a Sunshine student countered with the Nae-Nae.
“It was really cool,” Turner said of his visit last spring, “to see the children light up.”
That’s one portrait of Turner, the community volunteer, touching hearts, spreading joy. There are others, so many others. He has been nominated for the 2016 Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team.
A preseason All-American, Turner has raised money for the Special Olympics. He helped create a video for the “It’s On Us” campaign to stop sexual assault. He serves as the football representative on Trinity’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee and attended the NCAA convention.
In the summer of 2015, he was the only Trinity athlete to participate in the Finding Leaders Among Minorities Everywhere (FLAME) program in Colorado Springs, Col., a gathering sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee. During the week-long event, Turner and a cohort of athletes devised and presented a plan to increase minority participation in volleyball.
“Julian is passionate about helping people,” said Trinity coach Jerheme Urban. “He’s a motivated young man. He doesn’t take opportunities for granted.”
Football is the platform from which Turner’s volunteerism springs. But the platform nearly collapsed at Seven Lakes High in Katy. A promising running back, Turner anticipated a breakout senior year with multiple scholarship offers. The offers never came. Turner broke two bones in his left foot during a scrimmage and did not play a down as a senior.
“I was crushed,” he said.
Schools that had shown interest after his junior year – even those from Division III that could not offer athletic scholarships – disappeared. It appeared Turner would never play college ball. In late spring, though, just before he was to graduate, Turner received an unexpected call.
Steve Mohr, Trinity’s coach at the time, had been impressed with what he had seen of Turner on film as a junior. Jerheme Urban, then Mohr’s assistant, also considered Turner a prospect. The coaches knew Turner was a good student (3.7 GPA) who might qualify for an academic scholarship. Would Turner consider suiting up for Trinity – as a linebacker?
It took one year for Turner to adjust to a position he hadn’t played since his sophomore year of high school. And then he became a star. Turner was twice named the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He led Trinity in tackles last season and was named a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award, given to the nation’s top small-college defensive player.
As the tackles and awards piled up, Turner tried something new. He volunteered. At Seven Lakes High, Turner had poured himself into sports – football, wrestling and track – and academics with little thought of serving the community.
The opportunities at Trinity, though, seemed like fun. He tried one community outreach, then another, and soon he became Mr. Volunteer. At a basketball game, Turner climbed into the bleachers and passed a bucket to collect for the Special Olympics.
“It was awkward at first,” he said, “but it was for a good cause. I’d be willing to do it again.”
Turner is exceptional with math and numbers – what accounting major isn’t? – and managing his time. He balances football, a rigorous course load (3.35 GPA) and community service with just enough time to dream.
The NFL? Not many Division III players get to compete on Sunday afternoon. But Urban did for nine seasons, and he sees a lot of himself in Turner. Urban came to Trinity as a quarterback only to break his hand as a freshman. The fracture led to a position switch, and that’s how Urban (Class of 2003) became Trinity’s all-time leading receiver.
A scout from Seattle saw Urban as a senior, and, lo, Urban made the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent. “You’ve got to be a little lucky,” he said.
You’ve also got to produce. After nine seasons, ESPN wrote this about Urban: “This is an under-the-radar player who always seems to make coaches fall in love with him.”
Turner seems to have the same effect. He impressed enough in 2015 to a earn mini-summer workout with scouts from the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. “I’d love to continue playing football after Trinity,” he said.
Urban can see Turner playing on Sunday. “He definitely has the size and the ability,” Urban said. “But there are a lot of factors that go into it.”
Four years ago, Turner thought his football career might be over. Now here he is, a Good Works Team nominated linebacker drawing NFL interest. “It’s been an awesome experience at Trinity,” he said. “I never imagined I’d be where I am.”
Regardless of how his final college season unfolds, Turner is certain of one thing. Next spring, he will return to visit the hearing impaired. “The coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Turner said, “is that event at Sunshine Cottage.”
The memories remain fresh and vivid. The fist-bumps and high-fives. The Worm and the Nae-Nae. The touchdowns and trash-talking. And through all the running and jumping, there was light on every face, eyes sparkling, joy spreading from ear to ear.
Top image: Trinity linebacker Julian Turner has been nominated for the 2016 Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.