Kyle Turley, In His Own Words: On country music, concussions and the future
The first thing Kyle Turley will tell you is that he’s much busier now than he was when he played in the NFL. Married for 10 years and the father to two small children, the 1998 first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints played for his first team for five seasons, and was traded to the St. Louis Rams before the 2003 season. He played for the Rams for one season before back injuries took him out of football for two full seasons. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in June of 2006 and played there for two years, retiring following the 2007 season.
Of course, Turley is known primarily for one on-field incident — when he pulled New York Jets safety Damien Robinson off of Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks while Robinson was pulling Brooks’ facemask as if he wanted to pop Brooks’ head clean off. Turley then threw Robinson’s helmet into the air and followed that up with an obscene gesture. His subsequent feuds with Rams head coach Mike Martz marked Turley as a man out of control.
As his football career was ending, Turley had other life paths in mind — he formed a country music band that currently plays over 100 shows per year, and he’s been heavily involved in the Gridiron Greats foundation, which endeavors to help former players with difficult medical conditions related to their on-field injuries.
In a recent interview with SI, Turley started off by talking about his music, and the crowd-funding he’s currently using through a company called Indiegogo to promote his current single. But it didn’t take long for the discussion to turn to what ex-NFL players are dealing with, and that’s when things got interesting.
“I was approached to do it,” Turley said of the crowd-funding initiative. “I had a couple of friends who had done it — [filmmaker] Sean Pamphilon for one, and a couple of friends in the surf industry. A friend brought it to my attention, and I saw it as a potential opportunity to continue to expand my reach into areas I hadn’t tapped into before.”
Of course, many will criticize Turley for the crowd-funding idea when he made so much money in the NFL. As you might expect, he’s got a ready answer for that.
“Most campaigns are to raise money for some person who doesn’t have it. Mine isn’t to raise money to sell my record, really — I’m using it as a tool to promote the new record release. It’s a tool for that, and to raise money for my charity work. I have a number of charities I work with, and I try to give to all of them. The more money I can raise, the better, obviously.”
As passionate as Turley is about his music, he’s got a real fire in his belly about the ways in which the NFL has treated the men he calls “my brothers” over time.
“The general public doesn’t understand the true reality of professional football. The average NFL career is three-and-a-half years, and you need four years to be a vested player, eligible to receive benefits. Even players who are supposed to receive those benefits are having a lot of trouble with the system, which was notoriously set up to deny claims. They’ve made great strides now in the last few years to try and right the wrongs they’ve admitted to, and they’ve resolved some of the issues that have been put in place. … But the majority of former players don’t receive benefits, and I don’t know a single person who walked away from professional football without vested status who didn’t have some sort of serious injury. Those injuries will bother them, and be a great hindrance to them and their families. We’re seeing the repercussions of that. Before, it was thought of as the joint issues, and arthritis, and all these other things. Now, we’re finding out more and more about concussions, and these are creating a myriad of different issues that are plaguing these guys down the road.
“We’re finding guys in really bad situations. There are players in dire need, and that doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor — it affects everybody. If you got all that money — whether you put it with Lehman Brothers, or you snorted it up your nose or spent it on hookers — so what? It is what it is. These are my brothers, and I intend to take care of them.”
Most of the players you talk to from previous eras will tell you that if the NFL had specific information about the long-term effects of concussions and hid it from players — the general contention of current lawsuits that involve more than 4,000 ex-players — they did a very good job. From players to coaches to trainers, concussions were not treated with any level of severity.
“I had escalating episodes of vertigo through my career that were pawned off as freak occurrences, every now and then. These were consistencies — they were happening every season, and I had no idea where they were coming from. They would put me in a dark room, and tell me to lay down, and they’d wake me up after practice. I couldn’t stand up, everything was spinning, and I was vomiting profusely. It got to the point late in my career where it was happening more often, and after my career was over, almost daily. It put me in the hospital, and I was eventually able to track down where this was all coming from — by getting to the right people, and with all the knowledge that’s starting to come out about concussions.”
Eventually, Turley had to deal with seizures, and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life.
“These episodes of vertigo I had stemmed from concussions. There’s no doubt about that, because there were these certain circumstances, and I had no idea where they came from. But looking back, I can trace those incidents to every football season — that’s when these things were occurring. It wasn’t during the offseason when these things were manifesting themselves to this degree until later in my career. By then, it was a consistent chain of events — in and out of season. Those episodes of vertigo, the bipolar disorder I developed over a period of time that just became an unbelievable thing for me to deal with — these were all elements that were combining into these episodes. Doctors I see now, specialists in the field, link it back to the many concussions I suffered.
“Now, I take medication. I don’t have the bipolar disorder, and I haven’t had the vertigo since I got on the medication three years ago. I still deal with depression and anxiety, but it’s not even close to where it was going before. Now, I at least know what’s going on, and I can deal with it a lot better. The medication keeps me from going over the edge, and helps me acknowledge what’s going on. Before, it was a speeding train, falling off the tracks.
“It was unbelievably scary for me and for my family.”
Some fans would prefer to believe that the concussion discussion is much ado about nothing — after all, they’ll say, these guys knew what they signed up for when they signed up for it. Turley faces an additional hurdle in that he’s perceived by some as a loose cannon whose opinions should not be taken seriously. Turley is all too aware of this, but at this point in his life, he doesn’t seem to care.
“I don’t know if there are any ‘misperceptions’ about me. Those who see me without knowing me? That is who I am. To know me is to understand that there is a completely different side to that person. My football mentality was what it was, because that’s where I felt I needed to be mentally to play the game. In situations like the helmet-throwing incident, or the issues with Mike Martz — those are two separate ones, but they’re relative in that they’re fight-or-flight situations. I’m being confronted by a bully, and I don’t work well with bullies.”
Part of what drove him back then, Turley says, was an awareness that when you stepped on the field, you had to operate with a certain frame of mind. When we spoke, I compared it to something Pete Townshend of The Who said about going on stage, and how he had to flip a switch and become a completely different person to do what was expected of him. Turley readily agreed.
“The NFL is the best of the best. If you play with questions or doubt in your mind, you’re going to get hurt, or you’re going to hurt somebody else. The nature of the game — you have to take it on, and become that other person. You step across the line, and you flip that switch. A lot of coaches say that you can’t flip that switch, you have to work hard at it, blah, blah, blah. That’s the biggest lie in the world. My on-field persona wasn’t going to spill over into my off-field persona, because God help the public — I would have been in prison multiple times, like some of these guys have been.”
The only thing that gets Turley really hot these days is the NFL’s response to the concussion issue. The league didn’t really change its stance on the subject until commissioner Roger Goodell was excoriated in a 2009 Congressional hearing in which he was evasive when answering questions about the link between head trauma and cognitive disorders. While the league has endeavored to at least look like it’s doing something to solve the problem, some team owners aren’t totally on board with the PR battle. Recently, Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown said that any link between football-related head trauma and cognitive issues later in life is “mere speculation.” As one might expect, Turley was ready to throw Brown’s figurative helmet into the air.
“I am part of the concussion lawsuit. Is Mike Brown a doctor? He must really know what he’s doing, with all those great teams Cincinnati’s had over the years. I sat next to the NFL’s doctor, Dr. Ira Casson, at a Congressional hearing in Detroit, and listened to this man say the exact same thing: That there is no link between … not only that, but that there cannot be a link between football and any of these things that we’re talking about. [Note: Dr. Casson resigned as co-chairman of the NFL's committee on mild traumatic brain injury in November 2009, and his opinions have been widely criticized by many other experts]. When you’ve got a nine-times rate [nine times more likely] of acquiring one of these horrific diseases than the general public has? I would dare say there’s a link to the sport of football. That’s just me, but I don’t need people to go off of just me. People just need to go off of the doctors who are researching this, and spearheading the stories. They are showing and proving that this happens.”