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Turner looks for the 'teachable moments'

Keith Turner at football practice. PHotos by Tom Urbanski/FDLTCC

Sometimes, it's good simply to play for the joy of the game.

As a boy, Keith Turner did just that growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.

"People always told me that because I grew up in a big city I'd have to be worried about this, that and the other thing," Turner said. "But we had fun. We played football in the street, went to someone's backyard and played basketball and when you got tired you went back to football until it got dark."

Turner, 47, parlayed that 'love of the game' into a career in education that he hadn't planned, particularly when all he wanted to do was play football.

And have fun.

Today Turner is the head football coach, athletic director and Director of Student Preparedness at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

He wears many hats - but he wears them all well.

He counts many people as special influences on his life, and they go back to his earliest days.

* * * * *

"The biggest influences on me were guys in the neighborhood," Turner said. "I still talk to a bunch of those guys. One thing I look back on is that I never hung out with guys my own age. They were always two or three years older, because I was so much bigger than everyone else. The problem was that I never grew taller."

"Those guys were your mentors," he added. "They shaped and molded you on being competitive and wanting to win. I tell my own children today that you still want to beat the opposing team but at the end of the day they have friends on the court."

Turner's early days were spent in rigorous exercise.

"Nowadays athletics are all about working out all the time," he said. "When I was a boy the workout came from running all the time. We didn't worry about TV. There was nothing on TV. We wanted to play."

The remainder of Turner's childhood was spent under the loving direction of his mother.

Turner's father, a day laborer, passed away when Turner was in sixth grade. As the only boy in a family of six children, Turner soon came to appreciate how hard his mother worked.

"She went to work full time when my grandmother also died when I was in ninth grade," Turner said. "My mom still does odd jobs. She can't stop working. She's had three knee replacements and won't slow down."

Turner learned quite a bit about working from his mother.

"We never had a ton of money, but my mother always made sure we kids graduated from high school," he said. "I was lucky in that I graduated from college and got a master's degree in education."

Turner's high school education was different as well.

In the late 1970s, Ohio schools were involved in busing to achieve racial integration. Turner never had to worry about that.

"I don't mean it like it sounds, but this is how it was said to me," he said. "My friend Ricardo Brown told me that a white guy is going to come around and give you a scholarship to a Catholic school. You don't have to worry about people throwing rocks at you on the bus or getting into fights and you'll get to play football with new equipment. I said I was in for that, so I went to Cleveland Central Catholic."

There, Turner met another great influence on his life.

* * * * *

Ricardo Brown told Coach Jerry Fasko that the new kid was going to make good.

"He told Coach Fasko, 'This is Truck Turner and he's your next starting fullback,'" Turner remembered. "He was a great influence on me and I still talk with him."

Fasko knew that Turner was aware of how he now stood out from the crowd.

"He made sure I did the things I needed to do to graduate," Turner said. "My focus at that point in time was playing at a big-time college and playing in the NFL. His focus was on me graduating. If I came to school without a tie (in violation of the dress code), he'd make sure I wore one. If I came to school without lunch money, he'd make sure I had it."

By the time his prep career was done, Turner's friend Tim McGee, a future wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals, told him that Tennessee wanted him to play there.

"I was in the first class where Proposition 48 was in place," Turner remembered. "They said my test scores weren't going to be good enough to play right away and they wanted me to go to extra classes and night school. There was no way I was going to do that."

So, Turner wound up at Grambling State University - a historically black university in Grambling, La. - where he played one season for one of the game's all-time great coaches, Eddie Robinson.

"Coach Robinson taught me that life is not all about you," Turner said. "It's about the people you touch and the things you are doing to shape and mold the person you are going to be. You hear those things from other people, but until you hear them from a man who did as many things as he had done, it doesn't always grip you."

Turner left Grambling after his freshman year to play for Rudy Semeja at Vermilion Community College where he became a junior college All-American. From there, Turner finished his career at the University of Wisconsin Superior under Coach Gil Krieger.

"I was very blessed to have coaches and people around me who were knowledgeable not just in football but in life, and how you want to treat and deal with people," Turner said. "I've gotten lots of philosophy from them, back to the neighborhood, from my mother to Coach Fasko. I went from places where I didn't see anyone different from me to a Catholic school where I stood out. I made the trek to Louisiana and cried on the bus for 13 hours being away from home for the first time. It was hard."

But now his playing career was over. Turner needed to find a new purpose.

* * * * *

Turner married Genie, a Chisholm native, and the couple moved to Little Rock, Calif.

"She was a sixth-grade teacher out there and I was doing odd jobs," explained Turner. "One day I got a call from Jack Gebauer at Vermilion, who offered me a job as an assistant and working with minority students. I didn't know if that was something I really wanted to do."

Genie Turner helped her husband make up his mind.

"She was ready to leave California," Turner said. "She was a Chisholm girl and wanted me to go back and just do the job. I thought I was going to be in Ely for three or four years. It wound up being 16!"

From there, Turner moved to the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, where he was an assistant coach in a very strong Pointers program.

"I loved that atmosphere and that culture," Turner said. "Then the Fond du Lac [Tribal and Community College] job came open and I saw it was going to be a challenge. It has been, in certain areas."

Turner has just completed his second season as the Thunder's head coach, but now that football is done for the year, he has the opportunity to concentrate on the students in his charge.

"The Division III athlete (such as at Stevens Point) is mature athletically and academically as well," Turner said. "Some of them are in a different place than some of the kids we have."

However, Turner is buoyed by the challenge in his job.

"We're working with students who are underprepared," he said. "In working with them, you are dealing with students who slipped up a little bit, or maybe they've got the freshman blues. They didn't do well in school and are getting a second chance.

"We're still coaching, we're still teaching," he added. "The one phrase we always go back to is that a mistake is a teachable moment. Are we going to let it slip away, or get those kids the right information?"

College management is very pleased with Turner's approach.

"I believe that Keith is a very intelligent man with an extremely big heart," FDLTCC President Larry Anderson said. "I am very happy with the job he has done in leading us on a long journey as we develop our athletic programs, but he also knows what's important. He knows that students need to get degrees and sometimes need help being successful in school. I can't think of a man with more character."

The Turners have three children - Claudia (16), Jaxson (13) and Eve (11). Those children may determine Turner's next career move.

"The kids have adjusted from moving to Ely to Stevens Point to here without missing a beat," Turner said with pride. "We have always said that we want to give our kids the best opportunity. We would go without before letting them go without. But it might be nice to watch my youngest kids on Friday night and during the week sometime.

"It's not about me," Turner is quick to add. "It's about the kids and how we are helping them to move along. This December we'll have eight sophomore football players graduate, with six more graduating in the spring. If we bring 20 students in here and change two of their lives, we've done our job. We aren't going to reach everybody, but we are trying to.

"My wife and I were talking about this not long ago," he continued. "I would like to be the head football coach and athletic director for a while, but at some point in time I think I'd like to be an administrator, whether here or somewhere else."

"He has the qualities to be a very good administrator," Anderson said. "He has the qualities to go beyond that. I consider him one already."

And as Turner continues his journey from street football into the world of administration, the odds are strong that he'll do just fine.