Neck injury keeps Turner from dream
By Candace Buckner
Telegraph Staff Writer

For a few select high school football players in Middle Georgia, today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

These area standouts will sign letters of intent to play in college, joining thousands of other talented seniors.

But today isn't such a big deal for Mitchell Turner, a linebacker at Tattnall.

"It runs through my head all the time. I had my picture of college, going to The Citadel, playing football, a picture of Charleston (South Carolina) all in my head," Turner said. "It was pretty much set what my life was going to be like for the next four years.

"Then it all got taken away from me. Now I kind of wonder what am I going to be doing. There's nothing certain anymore."

For two seasons, Turner inspired the Tattnall defense as its' everywhere-you-are-he'll-be middle linebacker. Think Adam Sandler in the "Waterboy" minus the comedy.

But now, under recommendations of three doctors, Turner should not play another down and will not sign today, as he had once imagined, to play collegiately.

Because of a spinal cord injury commonly seen in the elderly that could possibly turn much more serious, Turner knows as much about arthritis and Vioxx as he knows about blitzes and a "52" defense. His five-year football career has been abruptly halted.

He's 6-foot-1, weighs 195 pounds, bench presses 100 pounds more than his weight, and appears in the prime of physical condition. If he plays football again, though, he risks paralysis.

A few months ago, Turner was a co-captain standing out for the senior-driven defending GISA Class AAA state champions.

Led by Turner, the Trojans' defense allowed fewer than two touchdowns a game while the offense rolled over the opposition. Turner registered 123 tackles in 2002, an impressive achievement considering he seldom played more than a half because of Trojans' blowouts.

"He was fun to watch. He did some things on the field (like) a tackle on the sideline for a two-yard loss. I don't know how he got there, but he made the play," said Trojans linebacker coach Dwight Danuser. "From sideline to sideline, he's one of the best linebackers in Tattnall school history."

But throughout his senior season, Turner kept a lingering problem mostly to himself. The daredevil youth who suffered his first concussion before he learned cursive writing grew into the 11-year-old mountain bike racer who had his share of minor spills, and later blossomed into No. 23, the human battering ram.

By the end of his freshmen year, with two years experience as a B-team linebacker and fullback, Turner was experiencing lower back problems. In fact, he sat out his entire sophomore season due to the pain. Cleared to play as a junior, Turner continued tackling with his neck stretched forward.

"It's a feeling like you could hear my neck grinding sometimes," he explained. "That's when you know something's wrong, when you move your neck and you get a stinger (pain) down your arm and you get a burning sensation down to your fingertips."

Turner said he realized just how uncomfortable the pain was after a hit on a kickoff against rival FPD on Oct. 25. He was shaken, but he played on, just as he had so many times before. Sometimes complaining a little, other times thinking it's all part of the game, Turner always played on.

As the season progressed, The Citadel took notice in Turner and two teammates. Recruiters liked Turner's speed and size, Tattnall head coach Barney Hester said. Through the fall, The Citadel stayed in contact with Tattnall coaches.

To Turner, not everybody could make it at the military college and not everybody could play on its team. To Turner, The Citadel was a goal.

Around the time of a November unofficial visit to the school, he confessed his neck was hurting.

"Every time I saw their linebacker tackle somebody, I'd get a pain in my neck," Turner said. "By the time we left there, my neck was so sore and painful, as soon as we got back home on Sunday night, I was like 'Mom, I have to go to the doctor tomorrow. I can't play football till I go to the doctor.'"

Doctors say Turner's spinal cord looks like it belongs to a middle-aged man or someone whose been in "hundreds and hundreds of car accidents."

Turner suffers from degenerative disc disease (DDD). "Degenerative" means it will get worse with age, the disc refers to the cushion between the bones of the spine, and doctors may believe "disease" is a misnomer, a word just shouldn't be associated with somebody like Mitchell Turner.

"It doesn't look like he's hurt, so why can't he play?" Turner's mother, Natalie Mason has asked herself several times.

He looks healthy. He seems like a regular 18-year-old, his brown curls sweeping behind his ears, his laugh disarmingly soft.

But the disc around the back of Turner's neck has narrowed and doesn't have the same power to absorb shock, causing pain to shoot down his back. A Macon doctor told Turner as much in a second opinion visit, and suggested Turner quit playing football. The doctor also recommended Turner visit Dr. Mixon Robinson in Athens, a team orthopedist for the University of Georgia.

"I was thinking that everything's going to be all right," Turner said prior to his visit to Athens.

But it wasn't. There wasn't strength in Turner's left arm - at times during the season, his left arm went numb - the DDD would only get worse with more pounding and Robinson wouldn't clear Turner to return to contact.

"I never imagined that he was going to tell me that I couldn't play again," Turner recalled. "It took me a while to grasp onto it. I still right now think there's a chance that I'll play, just because I spent four years working out for it, countless hours in the weight room.

"You don't like to be told that you can't do something. That's low. I guess I'll realize it next year when I'm not playing at The Citadel."

After returning home, Turner had to tell Hester to inform The Citadel to look elsewhere.

"I enjoyed it. I loved playing football. ... I just wish I never got hurt, of course, but I wish I would've spoken up," said Turner, sitting in the empty stands at Tattnall's field. "I guess I never really liked to say when I get hurt. If I could go back, I'd start telling when I felt the pain."

Now, Turner thinks he'll take the ACT (he's taken the SAT twice), attend Gordon College next fall to get core classes out of the way and join his older brother Brad at Georgia.

Today, Mitchell Turner just hopes to move on.

"I never 'til this day believe my football career is over with," Turner said, then paused. "Even though I'm sure it is."


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Contact Candace Buckner at 744-4400, or e-mail at cbuckner@macontel.com.