There are days when Navy wide receiver Brandon Turner wonders how he is still at the academy, his college football career winding down and graduation within sight.
Many of those who Turner started with at the Naval Academy Prep School five years ago are long gone. Jordy Spriggs, a high school teammate and friend who first encouraged Turner to call Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo about recruiting him, went back home to the Seattle suburbs before their first term ended at NAPS. Many others left after getting to Annapolis, a few not by their own choice.
"I can't believe I made it through my first year," Turner recalled recently. "There are like 10 of us left from NAPS [of around 35] who started. It feels good to be one of those guys who've stuck through it, and now I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I've had a lot of things happen to me, but I'm happy I'm still here."
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So is Niumatalolo.
Having suspended Turner from this season's opening game against Notre Dame in Ireland for flunking an academy-wide conditioning test, forcing last year's leading receiver to earn back his starting position, Niumatalolo knows Navy (8-4) might not have turned around its season after a 1-3 start — or beaten Army — without the 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior.
"He's an extremely emotional, passionate guy, he's got highs and lows, maybe not as even keel as Matt Warrick or Josh Cabral," said Niumatalolo, whose team will play Arizona State (7-5) on Saturday in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco's AT&T Park. "He's high-strung, but some of that energy almost got him in the end zone [against Army] when he caught that pass. He was going to drag that safety into the end zone. That kind of passion makes him who he is."
Niumatalolo called the 49-yard pass Turner hauled in from freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds late in the fourth quarter of Navy's 17-13 comeback victory over Army in Philadelphia "maybe the biggest play we had all season." It was Turner's 20th reception of the season — a personal career best and team-high for the season — and helped set up Reynolds' 8-yard game-winning touchdown run.
Turner said he was unsure how his senior year would unfold after he failed his Physical Readiness Test last summer.
"It sucked, just watching those guys practice and not being able to be there," Turner said. "It pissed me off for awhile. It is the first time we had ever done something like this [suspensions tied to the test], and I felt like [Niumatalolo] turned his back on me after all the things I had done for him, putting my body on the line and being a leader on the team. I felt so alone. But I kept my mouth shut, went with the flow and everything turned out all right."
Back home outside Seattle, Bobby Turner wasn't surprised to hear the younger of his two sons had flunked the PRT after not completing a 1 1/2 mile run in a prescribed 10 1/2 minutes.
"I noticed over the summer that he wasn't working out as much as I thought he should be, and when I would tell him that, he would say, 'I got it Dad, I got it,'" said the elder Turner, who played two years of college football at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee and later served in the Army Reserves with the nursing corps. "I told him that you reap what you sow, and you don't want to ruin your senior year."
Despite his son's setback last summer, the elder Turner has seen his tranformation, particularly over the past two years. It began after the younger Turner was put on restriction for 45 days during his sophomore year following a series of infractions. The younger Turner was struggling academically, as well as having a hard time adhering to all the rules at the academy.
"I think he began to realize that when you make a decision, you have to take responsibility, the academy is not going to change for you, you're going to have to adhere to their rules," Bobby Turner said. "When he came to his contract year [after his sophomore year] I told him, 'If you don't want to stay at the academy, you have to have a plan.'"
Turner stayed at the academy, and became a player toward whom others gravitated because of a personality that seems to stand apart from the typical midshipman.
"There are two different types of people at the academy — there are people that are 'Yes sir, no sir' who are not loose," said junior wide receiver Casey Bolena, who considers Turner a close friend. "Both of us come off as loose, but we get our stuff done. We understand what to do. That's what I notice about Brandon. He's a great leader and we'll all follow what Brandon does."
Turner admits his irreverent personality, in stark contrast to most of the Navy players, hasn't helped him in certain situations.
"My parents always taught me to be respectful, to say 'sir' or 'ma'am' out of common courtesy, but if I don't respect you or you haven't earned my respect, I don't believe in calling you 'sir,'" Turner said. "Sometimes I forgot that I had to do that here, and it's gotten me in trouble. But I've learned from my mistakes and I've never repeated them."
Said Niumatalolo: "He's a normal [college] kid. We get spoiled a little bit, everyone is like 'Yes sir, no sir.' He's a good kid — at any other school, he would be an angel. It's not like he robbed a bank or anything. He kind of marches to a beat of a different drum. He's not the only guy we've ever had that way. He's a free spirit, he finds a way to comply with the system. I don't think he's one of those defiant type of guys."
Niumatalolo, now finishing his fifth season as Navy's coach, admits he has a special connection to Turner.
"I'll always remember Brandon because I was in the parking lot of his school when Chet [Gladchuk, the Navy athletic director] called me and said, 'You need to fly back immediately because Paul [Johnson] might be going to Georgia Tech,'" said Niumatalolo, who was the team's offensive line coach at the time. "I've always treated him like a son. I not only want him to do well on the football field, I want him to do well in life."