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Noteworthy graduates: Vernon Turner, retired NFL football player

New York Teacher

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Vernon Turner, retired NFL football player
Sabrina Koogler
Vernon Turner endured an early life so rooted in poverty and degradation that at age 50 he remains shocked he’s alive. His mother was 18 when she was dragged to a rooftop in Bedford-Stuyvesant and raped by several men. Turner was born nine months later. His mother became a lifelong drug addict and a prostitute. When Turner was 6, an Italian-American customer of his mother’s asked her to marry him and she accepted. She, Vernon and, by then, his little brother moved to the man’s Staten Island home. “It was the 1970s, and Staten Island wasn’t known for its affection for black people,” says Turner. “I thought I was done for.” Instead, he was saved by two miracle workers, his 2nd-grade teacher and his high school coach. Each intuited what the traumatized child needed and provided it. “They taught me to trust,” he says. “That trusting someone didn’t always have to end badly.” In a twist worthy of Hollywood, the slight Turner transformed himself into a National Football League player so he could support his siblings. He had an eight-year career, primarily as a kickoff and punt-return specialist for the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and other teams. Today, Turner, a father of three, lives in Houston, where he supervises an oil refinery. In his spare time, he is a motivational speaker, visiting high schools, colleges and corporate events where he preaches the importance of hard work and focus, crucial traits in making it out of the past and into the present. “Nobody believes my life story,” he says ruefully, “not even me. So when they see me standing, they know they can make it, too.”

When we moved from Bed-Stuy to Staten Island, I stopped speaking. I was in the 2nd grade at PS 35 and looking back, I believe I was mute because I was terrified of my teacher, Mrs. Fisher, who was white. I thought that she being white and I being black meant she hated me. She was a gentle and kind lady. She sat with me in the lunchroom every day. She never pushed or pried. One day, she told me something amazing: “I am here for you, Vernon.” She was consistent, which is the greatest gift you can give a child. When I began speaking a month later, it was to her. Mrs. Fisher was my first lifeline.

But my home life was still rough and chaotic. In a few years, there were five of us children. My dad tried to help me cope. He had season tickets to the New York Jets so he took me to a game. That was it: I fell completely in love with football.

When I entered Curtis HS, I met Fred Olivieri, my mentor, my friend, my everything. He was an oceanography teacher and the football coach. I was 5’6” and 96 pounds, and you had to be minimum 100 to make the team. I tied a 10-pound weight around my waist, under baggy sweats and made it. Years later, Fred confessed he knew I was adding the 10-pounder. But he said to himself, “Yup, I got a football player here.” He’s always been a matter-of-fact person. He pushed me and at the same time he kept me grounded. He told me to remember I was never as great as others might tell me and I was never as bad as I told myself I was. I think he responded in the nurturing way he did because he saw a kid who gave it everything he had. He told me once that I have the heart of a lion. In my sophomore year of high school, my mom died of pneumonia. After that, my relationship with Fred and his wife and kids went to a new level. They treated me like family. Fred got me a football scholarship to Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee.

In my freshman year of college, my father had a stroke and died. An aunt cared for my brothers and sisters, but in my senior year she said no more. To keep them from going into foster care, I decided I would get myself into the NFL, a laughable notion I had no business even thinking about.

I turned to Fred and, as always, he came through. As a favor to him, an agent he knew took me on. I wasn’t the greatest player, but I was 185 pounds of muscle and ready to die on that football field to keep a roof over our heads. In 1990, the Buffalo Bills signed me to their practice squad. I went home, and my brothers and sisters and I cheered and hugged and celebrated. I went off later and cried like a baby. I made a good salary and sent every penny home.

I can’t say what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for Fred Olivieri. We talk once a week. I never hang up without telling Fred I love him.

As told to reporter Christina Cheakolos.