A Tragic End For A Football Star
The death of a former college football star raises questions about when police officers use deadly force
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
BOONE, N.C. ó So when is lethal force justifiable for a police officer?
I found myself asking that question on Tuesday morning when I heard of the tragic death of former Cincinnati Bengals running back and kick returner David "Deacon" Turner.
Turner, who lived a troubled life off the gridiron in his 56 years, was shot and killed on Sunday in an altercation with Kern County Sheriff's Department officers in Bakersfield, CA., a shooting that has many in this community raising serious questions.
Police in this San Joaquin Valley town were already under severe scrutiny before the killing, which was the fifth shooting by Kern County law enforcement personnel in the past two months.
Is it right for a police officer to take a life because someone allegedly throws a bag containing two 24-ounce beer cans at another officer, a police allegation that was disputed by witnesses?
Apparent an officer by the name of Wesley Kraft thinks so, because he pulled the trigger as Turner's 19-year-old son and a 16-year-old friend watched in horror.
One bullet wasn't enough for Kraft to do the job. The four-year police veteran actually fired twice, reportedly hitting Turner in the back.
Turner, who was shot in front of a convenience store after making a purchase, died a couple of hours later at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.
Kraft is now on administrative leave as the police investigate the controversial killing.
"Deadly force is appropriate in situations of great bodily injury or death, so you have to look at the facts before you and determine if this a deadly threat," Kern County Sheriff's Department Commander Ed Komin told a Bakersfield TV station.
As if a couple of beer cans in a bag are a deadly threat?
I have a hard time thinking that there is ANY scenario where the ends of this case would justify the means and end in the death of another human being. But we'll explore more about that later.
THE FOOTBALL STAR
Turner never played for a Football Championship Subdivision team, though his San Diego State squad had competed against many of the teams that now make up the FCS back in the days of what was then called the College Division.
By the time Turner became an NCAA rushing champion in the mid-1970s, the Aztecs were playing Division I football in the days before the I-A and I-AA split.
Turner and I were linked by one of the greatest high school football games I have ever witnessed. His Shafter High Generals knocked my Central High Grizzlies out of the Central (California) Section playoffs on a cold, fall night in California in 1973.
It was a game that matched two future NFL players, Turner and Carter Hartwig, a wide receiver and safety who went on to play for a national championship team at USC (starting ahead of some guy named Ronnie Lott at one point) and then spent five years with the Houston Oilers as a defensive back and kick returner.
The two took turns making special plays on this spectacular night in a back and forth game.
It was a contest that didn't end until Shafter recovered a controversial fumble in the red zone to win 35-27 as my team was driving for a game-tying touchdown in the final minute.
Later on, my journalism career took me to Turner's hometown of Shafter, where I served for nearly two years as the news editor of the Shafter Press and Buttonwillow Times and was reminded constantly of Turner's football exploits.
By all accounts, Turner always struggled in the classroom. There were even stories at the time of our prep encounter that Shafter High didn't even call plays for him, but simply handed Turner the ball and let his natural instincts take over.
He was as fast and graceful as Miami Dolphin star Mercury Morris when I watched Turner for the first time. He even wore the No. 22 of Morris and looked just as sleek.
On one kickoff that night, Turner took the ball near the goal line and raced up the middle of the field without anyone laying a finger on him.
He finished with over 200 yards rushing and a couple of more touchdowns before this game was through.
COLLEGE EXPLOITS AND THE NFL
Turner moved on to Bakersfield College, where he shattered the junior college rushing records of O.J. Simpson and then journeyed for two years at San Diego State before being selected by Cincinnati in the second round (45th overall) of the NFL draft in 1978.
By his second year in the NFL, Turner finished first in the league in kickoff returns with 55 and second in total yardage with 1,149, an average of almost 21 yards per return.
He also rushed for 549 yards on 142 carries in 44 career games and scored a pair of touchdowns during his three-year career, which was shortened by injuries and ended in 1980. He also added 25 receptions for 141 yards.
His best year as an NFL rusher came as a rookie, when Turner averaged 4.0 yards per carry and gained 333 yards on the ground, making five of his seven career starts.
Following his NFL career, Turner struggled with substance abuse and unemployment and was arrested several times. He had also served time for drug charges.
But does a past record excuse a police officer for shooting an unarmed man in the back?
Family members described him to reporters as a rock of stability in the Turner family and a man that was quick to make friends. Other who knew him remembered Turner as a quiet, humble man.
"I loved him like a son," legendary ex-Bakersfield College coach Gerry Collis told a KGET-TV reporter. "He was a great player and such a great kid."
Collis, who said Turner was the best running back he coached in 27 years at Bakersfield College, also questioned police reports.
"He would never do anything like this. There had to be a reason. Somebody antagonized him or whatever happened."
Turner's son told family members that Turner was questioned by police, who were investigating reports of underage youths asking for adults to buy them alcohol and cigarettes.
Turner, who had just left the store, denied being involved, but deputies continued to press him with questions, his sister Jerrica Cor-Diva told reporters.
Asking if he was being arrested, Turner grabbed his bag and walked away after deputies said no.
It is here where the stories begin to diverge.
The police officers said that Turner threw his bag at Deputy Aaron Nadal, hitting Nadal in the head. Nadal, a three-year veteran of the force, was treated for minor injuries at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and released.
But Turner's son, who was too shaken to speak with reporters, painted a different picture for his family.
The son said he witnessed the officers coming up from behind Turner, one of them hitting Turner in the back of the legs with a billy club and forcing him to his knees.
Turner's son said the bag fell to the ground and the beer exploded before Kraft fired two shots.
The son insisted that Turner didn't hit Nadal with the bag.
My instincts from years of covering criminal cases tell me that the police most likely panicked and the result was a senseless killing.
Turner's family is now left to seek answers for the end of a tragic life. His son somehow must deal with a memory that no child should have to see.
In the years since I first watched Turner on the football field, I have often wondered just how good the player nicknamed "Deacon" might have been.
On that crisp night in 1973, Turner looked like he could have owned the world, instead of taking the role of the heartbreaking figure he was to become.
TRAGEDY IN MAINE
There isn't anything much more shocking in the world of FCS than the death of a player and the Maine Black Bears were stunned on Sunday by the sudden death of sophomore running back Charles Kyeremeh, Jr.
Kyeremeh was involved in a motorcycle accident in Schykill County, PA. on State Route 125 He lost control of his bike and hit a group of 10 motorcyclists who were parked.
"Charles was an outstanding young man who had a bright future, both on and off the football field," Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. "He was an important part of our team, and we are all devastated by this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with Charles' family and friends during this difficult time."
Kyeremeh redshirted last season after a standout career at Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, PA. Besides his athletic prowess, Kyeremeh was also an honor student.
"He was a great young man with a big heart," Tom Waranavage, Kyeremeh's high school coach, said to the Lebanon Daily News. "One of the things I remember about him the most was his smile. He always had a great big smile."