It was one of the greatest games in Patriots history. The Minnesota Game.
An afternoon -- 34 minutes and 10 seconds, actually -- which serve as a line of demarcation in the franchise’s history.
The first 33 years of Patriots history before November 13, 1994 were marked by ownership and coaching blundering, a lunatic fringe fan base, and intermittent seasons of on-field success. And each on-field highpoint ended in either heartbreak (1976), blowout (1963 and 1985) and/or embarrassment (1978 and ’85).
The first 30 minutes of that particular game was more of the same. The 3-6 Patriots fell behind 20-0. At that point, they were 8-17 under head coach Bill Parcells. The previous week, they lost to Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns as second-year quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw four interceptions. It was not going well for the first-year owner Bob Kraft.
At halftime, Parcells found the correct button on the enigmatic Bledsoe and pushed it. Bledsoe went out in the second half and tied the game at 20-20. By the time overtime was done, he’d thrown threw 53 passes, completing 37. And that was just after halftime. For the game, Bledsoe completed 45 of an NFL record 70 attempts good for 426 yards and three touchdowns.
The final throw Bledsoe made, the 14-yard game-winner, fell from the clouds into the arms of a scrappy, second-year fullback from Alabama named Kevin Turner. The Patriots didn’t lose another game in the regular season. Two years later, they were in the Super Bowl. Belichick -- by then, exiled by the Browns -- was on their coaching staff where he’d impress the third-year owner, Kraft. Four years after that Super Bowl run, Belichick was the head coach and Tom Brady was drafted.
That day against the Vikings stands out as a special one for the franchise.
It was for Turner as well. Just 25, he was in the midst of the best season of his NFL career. A battering ram with the softest hands, Turner caught 52 of the 74 passes sent his way. At the end of the season, the Eagles made Turner the second-highest paid fullback in the league signing him to a three-year, $4.125 million offer sheet with a $1.5 million signing bonus. The Patriots declined to match and got a third-rounder in return that they turned into Curtis Martin. Still, Parcells didn’t wasn’t happy losing Turner.
“There's nobody out there who wouldn't like [Turner] as a person, player, practice habits, versatility," Parcells told writer Tim Graham in 2011. "This kid had everything. He was a special kid. He was a first-down player and was capable of playing on third down because he had such great hands. He really was an all-purpose back. And you don't see those fullbacks anymore. Kevin was a traditional, old-time, versatile, run-block-and-catch fullback."
For five more seasons, Turner smashed a path for running backs like Ricky Watters and Duce Staley and remained a threat in the passing game.
He retired after the 1999 season. In April of 2010, researchers at Boston University linked repeated head trauma to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In June 2010, Turner was diagnosed with ALS.
He was told he’d probably live until 2012 or 2013. Turner died on Thursday, March 24, 2016. He was 46.
Turner’s career and its aftermath are a case study and a cautionary tale of what could happen as a result of playing football. If precautions aren’t taken. If health warnings aren’t heeded. If players don’t listen to their bodies. If the doctors and scientists who were supposed to protect them fail to do so and if their employers are complicit in allowing or coercing those doctors to do so.
It’s poignant that, on the day Turner died, the New York Times published a story that showed the NFL’s five-year study from 1996 to 2001 underreported the number of concussions players suffered. The league spent the rest of Thursday trying to explain how it really didn’t purposely leave more than 100 concussions out of their data and where the Times misinterpreted things. But the truth is, any qualifiers that the information the NFL put out was incomplete was in the finest of print.
Players of Turner’s vintage and earlier weren’t provided with the information that repeated blows to the head could leave them addled, depressed, suicidal or too weak to squeeze out toothpaste. Rather, the NFL insisted there was no evidence of danger and that -- near as they could tell -- everybody was safe to play even after being concussed.
"If they would have come to me and said, 'I've seen the future. This is what happens.' Of course, I would stop playing immediately," Turner told Graham. "But, as we all know, nobody can see the future. For me, it just falls into a long line of bad decisions."
Considering the possibility that his vocation and his passion are what led to his illness, Turner said, “Football had something to do with it. I don't know to what extent, and I may not ever know. But there are too many people I know that have ALS and played football in similar positions. They seem to be linebackers, fullbacks, strong safeties. Those are big collision guys."
Turner was one of the two lead plaintiffs in the concussion-related lawsuit brought by former players against the NFL. In 2013, the league reached a settlement that was approved in 2015.
Turner represented players who have a diagnosable disease covered in the settlement.
When Graham met with Turner, both his sons -- 13-year-old Nolan and 7-year-old Cole -- were playing football.
"It's something I struggle with every day, whether to just lay the law down and say, 'No, we're not playing,'" Turner said. "Or do I let him live his life and take a chance? But, God, I can't tell you how hard a question that is, especially in Alabama. I'm still not sure that I'm going to let him."
Nolan will be a freshman safety at Clemson University this fall. He was given a full scholarship by Clemson coach, Dabo Swinney, who played with Kevin Turner at Alabama. Nolan’s plan prior to Swinney’s offer? Walking on at Alabama.