- Vernon Turner said he had "no business" making it in the NFL, but it was a quest at which he couldn't afford to fail
- Turner broke an infamous franchise drought with his punt return for a touchdown against Detroit in 1994
- That the big play came against the Lions was particularly gratifying for Turner
When they make the movie of Vernon Turner's life – and Turner is convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that will happen – the triumphant final scene will see him crossing the goal line at Tampa Stadium.
If that sounds like the clichéd climax of an "inspirational sports movie," don't worry, the rest of the script is far from typical. And besides, it just happened to be a 10-hour marathon viewing session of such movies that finally gave Turner the courage to tell his story.
For fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who know nothing of Vernon's history, the story peaks on October 2, 1994. And that is in fact where Turner would set the climactic scene. On that afternoon, in a game against the Detroit Lions, our protagonist took a punt 80 yards from the Buccaneers' 20 to the opposing end zone, and in the process made history. After 18 seasons of franchise-wide frustration, after 1,320 opponent punts and 704 scoreless Buccaneer punt returns, after 1,788 combined punt and kickoff runbacks, this one changed the narrative. When Turner crossed the goal line with no Lions in sight, he had ended an infamous drought by recording the first punt or kickoff return for a touchdown in franchise history.
Last Thursday was the 20th anniversary of that memorable event. To celebrate it, we decided to track down Vernon Turner and ask him to share his memories of that historic return. As it turns out, there was more to that play than an 80-yard sprint and a mob in the end zone. A lot more. Enough, it turns out, to fill an autobiography and, if Turner succeeds in his quest, inspire a movie that will in turn inspire others in desperate situations. Here's what Turner told us about that day, and all the days that led up to it.
An artistic filmmaker might begin on the same day the movie ends, with the ball hanging in the air and Turner waiting underneath it deep in Buccaneer territory. But even in the smaller sense, ignoring how Turner got to be standing on an NFL field that day, that would be missing a good part of the story.
You see, Turner had a sense for days that something special was going to happen that weekend. At the time, he was less than a year into being a Buccaneer, having been released by the Lions in late December of 1993. Four teams put in a claim, but he was awarded to Tampa Bay. His departure from Motown wasn't a happy one.
Vernon Turner knew the Bucs had a chance to set up a big return against Lions punter Greg Montgomery, who often out-kicked his coverage
"I took it personally as far as the Detroit Lions went," said Turner. "I felt that I was treated unfairly, and they cut me unfairly, so I took it personally. I'm my own worst critic. If a guy beats me, I'll go to him and shake his hand and say, 'You are the better man.' But when it doesn't sit right with me … I thought the Detroit Lions were really messing with my career and me supporting my family, because that's all that was on my mind. I thought they did me wrong."
And now the Lions were coming to town. Turner went to Buccaneers Head Coach Sam Wyche and asked to be the scout-team running back that week, which meant emulating the great Barry Sanders as best he could. Turner felt he could do a good impression, and Wyche agreed. It's possible that Turner got a little bit too much into his role, however. Like many NFL players, he had a "switch" that turned on when game day arrived to ramp up his competitiveness; on this particular week, he says, that switch turned on Wednesday.
According to Turner, he was making Buccaneer defenders miss at a pretty good rate during the Wednesday practice, and that led to Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson grabbing him and tossing him to the ground at the end of one play. Turner, a former high school quarterback, jumped up and fired the football at Nickerson's head, catching him square. Though he felt bad about it soon after, his ego wouldn't let him apologize until Friday.
"Hardy got a hold of me and he threw me to the ground," said Turner. "Anyone that knows me, I'm like a little James Cagney. On the football field, I take zero crap from nobody. I don't care who you are."
Off the field, Turner was preparing just as diligently for his shot at the Lions, and he had a soul mate in Special Teams Coach George Stewart. Turner describes Stewart as a vastly underrated special teams maven who spent countless hours on the smallest details. The two of them watched film on Lions punter Greg Montgomery for hours, and both became convinced that there was going to be an opportunity on Sunday. Montgomery had a good leg but a very low fair-catch rate, indicating that instead of high, hanging punts he was often out-kicking his coverage. Turner believed he would have a shot to field a Montgomery punt with a good amount of space to move before the coverage team arrived.
"We watched where he was going to put that ball, and we knew that he out-kicked his coverage almost every time," said Turner. "In my mind, I already had it all set – there was no way I was going to fair catch that ball in that game. No way."
On Sunday, it didn't take long for the fateful moment to arrive. The Bucs got the ball first and drove down to the Lions' four before settling for a Michael Husted field goal. The Lions' first possession was a three-and-out; Turner vividly remembers that the third-down play was a failed screen attempt to Sanders. He knew what was coming, and he was working himself into a frenzy.
"Prior to that kick, I was pacing back and forth, thinking about all the things I went through, and then I stared at [Lions Head Coach] Wayne Fontes for a good 10 seconds," said Turner. "That's when I really got pissed. Now I'm taunting the punter. I'm saying, 'I know you're not going to punt me that ball. You'd better punt it over to Wayne. Do not punt it to me.' I'm sitting here talking to myself."
Meanwhile, the Bucs' partially-unhinged special teams ace of the day, Curtis Buckley, was yelling at Turner. All week, Buckley had suggested that Turner was going to break the drought, and he said he and the rest of the team would meet Turner in the end zone. That was the message he was repeating as Montgomery got ready to kick.
The Lions punter blasted his kick straight down the middle of the field and the Bucs' return team set up a play to the right sideline. For that reason, Turner didn't actually think this particular play would be the record-breaker. He fielded the ball to the right of midfield and figured he was going to run out of room before going out of bounds. That doesn't mean he was going to pass on the opportunity, however. In fact, Turner focused on Montgomery's punt like he never had before.
"Usually a punt returner has a routine," said Turner. "He finds the flight of the ball, he glides up underneath it, he checks down to see who's coming down at him, to see if he has enough room to make the catch, and then he looks back up and realigns himself with the ball. I didn't do anything of that – my eyes hit that ball and never left it. Never left it because I never had any intention of doing anything with that ball but running with it."
Turner caught the ball somewhere around the Bucs' 20-yard line – the official play-by-play says the 20; he vividly remembers it a little differently. "I caught it on the 19, but when I saw that they listed it as an 80-yard return, I said, 'I'm not going to moan about that,'" says Turner with a laugh.
Turner cut immediately to his right after catching the punt, barely evading the first Detroit tackler on the scene. He took a couple steps that looked like they were inspired by Deion Sanders, but to this day he swears he wasn't taunting the opposition. Rather, he explains that he was slowing his pace to set up the blocks in front of him.
It worked. Three Lions coverage men got past the Bucs' blockers but then had to turn to their left as Turner headed to the sideline. Their three Buc counterparts were suddenly in perfect position to wall them off so that Turner could hit the corner. It all worked as planned, but it still came as a surprise to Turner that it turned into such a big play.
"It wasn't me that put me in the end zone, it was my teammates," he said. "If you rewind that tape and look at the blocks that were made, it was fabulous. The only thing that amazed me was that when I turned that corner near the sideline I stayed inbounds, because I hit it so hard. When I shifted gears and I made that turn, I hit it so hard I don't know how I stayed inbounds. I had no clue."
Turner did take two steps very close to the sideline between the 33 and 37. He righted himself and passed two Buc blockers who were then facing in the opposite direction, ready to pick off Turner's pursuers. Turner didn't see them. He raised his left hand and pointed, signaling to the one Buccaneer teammate who was in his field of vision.
"Once I hit that corner the only people I saw were [Buccaneers RB] Mazio Royster and Greg Montgomery," said Turner. "I dipped in to help Mazio get the block and I went around him, and that was all she wrote. As soon as I passed Mazio on that block, I knew I was in the end zone."
Two Lions remained in pursuit, but neither got close before Turner crossed the goal line into Buccaneer immortality. In fact, the first person to hit him was Stewart, that meticulous coach who had helped him make history. As Buckley had predicted, many Buccaneer teammates followed and Turner found himself at the bottom of the pile. He feared his ribs would break.
When the scrum cleared and he was able to get to his feet, Turner spun towards the end zone seats and gave a salute.
"When I got up, the first thing I wanted to do was thank the fans, because I knew that they were waiting for something like that," he said. "I was saying, 'Thank you,' for letting me be a part of history.'"
Turner, who had previously played for the Rams and Bills, would finish up the 1994 season in Tampa and then play part of one more year back in Detroit. He would finish with more than 200 combined punt and kickoff returns and also log a handful of receptions and carries on offense, much of that with the Rams in 1991 and 1992. He would be gainfully employed in the NFL for six years, and while his groundbreaking touchdown for the Buccaneers was clearly his top professional highlight, merely holding onto his NFL career was his most important accomplishment.
What most of his teammates didn't realize during those six years is that his professional career was a matter of life and death, not for him but for his family. He describes his childhood as one that should have led him to a life of crime, and even though he resented his mother he was heartbroken when she did in 1983. His stepfather also passed away, leaving Turner as the caregiver for his four younger siblings. The football dreams he had nurtured since he fell in love with the game at the age of 10 became something deeper, a means to keep his family together, as he had promised his mother a year before she died.
There is, of course, much, much more to Turner's story, and it led to him publishing an autobiography called, "The Next Level: A Game I Had to Play." That book is the source material for the movie he is currently pursuing as he attempts to take his message global. Read more about Turner's journey here.
"Throughout my whole career, I was always a private person," he said. "I never revealed the things I went through. During the course of my career in the National Football League, all I was fighting for each and every year was to stay on a team so I could keep my family together. Every kid has an aspiration of being a professional something, but mine changed when both my parents died. I was left as the oldest of five to take care of my brothers and sisters.
"I knew that if I didn't make it, my family was gone, and to me that was life and death. That's the reason I made it, because of extenuating circumstances. I would say that I had a successful career because I was able to provide for my family, and the icing on the cake was everything that transpired in my career, especially that punt return."
That punt return. Would Turner be where he is now if every block and cut hadn't gone just right? It was the validation of all his work. It was what he saw echoed in the plot lines of the true-story moves he loved so much, and that he watched in a marathon session one night in 2012 - The Blind Side, We are Marshall, Invincible, Rudy. His favorite of them all was Cinderella Man, the 2005 Russell Crowe bio-pic about boxer James Braddock in the 1930s. Turner especially loved the moment in the film when Crowe was asked what it was he fought for. "I'm fighting for milk," said the Braddock character.
In other words, Braddock was fighting to keep his family alive. That's all Turner ever did during his time in the NFL. He was able to keep his family not only alive, but together, and now he wants to take his journey one step further and help others who are battling through difficult circumstances.
"Everything happens for a reason," said Turner. "What I want people to understand is that, for me to get to that point, I don't think people realize what all I had to get through to get to that point. It's a story that really has to be told, and will be eventually.
"What a journey. If I can make it through the craziest and most improbable circumstances, than anyone can. And that's why it's so important that that story ends in that end zone in Tampa Stadium. It's so important that that happens."