Thursday, March 24, 2016

How concussions may be linked to ALS: An interview with former NFL player Kevin Turner

(Kevin Turner passed away from complications due to ALS on March 24, 2016. This feature was originally published on June 23, 2011.
"What does anyone want to do with their life, other than to make a positive difference in this world?" - Kevin Turner
I had a chance to speak with former NFL fullback Kevin Turner recently. We discussed a wide range of issues, including the progress that he has made since he first announced that he had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Information about Turner's foundation can be found at: www.kevinturnerfoundation.org
Role models Our role models are people who inspire us to be strong and to pursue our dreams.
Beyond family members and friends, there are other sources of inspiration. Athletes stand on a stage that has been built by our modern society. They play a role in influencing who we are and who we want to be. Their choices strongly impact our culture.
The traits that we hope our heroes have lie within 42-year-old Kevin Turner. More than a year ago, the former football player learned that he also had something else inside of him, ALS.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It is a progressive, neurodegenerative, disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
Each person is affected differently by it. In some individuals the disease slows, or seems to stop. In others, paralysis and a degeneration of motor neurons eventually leads to death.
Old school days
"I remember being in the fourth grade, telling my teacher that I was going to play in the NFL. After I got there, she sent me a letter that I had written about wanting to become a football player," Turner said.
After high school, Turner played college football for Alabama. He was then selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 1992 NFL draft.
Former Patriot teammate Sam Gash
Sam Gash was drafted out of college the same year that Turner was. Their professional association and friendship began when both rookies made the New England Patriots roster in 1992.
"We fed off each other and it helped both of us in our careers. Kevin was smart player who was always looking for the big play," Gash said.
The Penn State alumni played with Turner for three seasons in New England and has remained friends with him ever since.
"He exalted God because he put forth everything he had whenever he stepped on the field, whether it was practice or in games.
"He rightfully got a big contract with Philadelphia, because he was one of the best all-around fullbacks in the League at the time," Gash said.
The two-time Pro-Bowl fullback went onto to play for the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens before retiring after the 2003 season.
In mid-June, Turners foundation held a charitable event in Tennessee. Gash was one of many people who was happy to help Turner in that cause.
"He is really an inspiration to me. Kevin won't back down from a challenge. I still hear the same spunk in his voice when I talk to him.
"Kevin is the type of guy who will give you the shirt off his back. He has my friendship for life," Gash said.
Turner played for the Patriots until, as Gash referenced, the Eagles signed him as a free agent in 1995.
Reflections from Eagles Coach Juan Castillo
"Kevin always handled himself in a professional manner on the field. I saw how smart he was when I became a position coach," Castillo said.
Castillo played outside linebacker for Texas A&I and then played inside linebacker for the USFL's San Antonio Gunslingers in the mid-1980's. After his playing career ended, he began to coach full-time.
In 1995, he was hired as an Offensive Assistant by then-Eagles Head Coach Ray Rhodes and eventually became the team's Offensive Line Coach. Current Eagles Head Coach, Andy Reid, named him Defensive Coordinator during this off-season.
"As we grew, there were some things that I think we did because of Kevin. I thought it was amazing how he understood protections and blocking schemes. We also had Deuce Staley at that time. Both guys were smart.
"Kevin loved and understood the game. He would stay after practice and work on run blocking, pass protection and cut technique. He would also always help the young guys with their development and in the classroom," Castillo said.
After retirement
In 2001, Turner accepted an offer to be an Offensive Coordinator at Wetumpta High School in Alabama.
"I absolutely loved it. I got a thank you note from the quarterback of that team back then. Recently, I received another note from him. He thanked me for all of the things I taught him. Those notes mean the world to me," Turner said.
After coaching, Turner worked for three years with a real estate development company in Birmingham, AL.
He then formed his own development company in 2005 and worked with retail corporations, including Dollar General, on land development deals. While his business had been very successful, the collapse of the real estate market forced him to declare bankruptcy in 2009.
Ever resilient and adaptable, he smoothly transitioned into medical sales before being diagnosed with ALS. Within the last year, Turner's physical condition has left him unable to function well enough to continue working.
Dr. Sponaugle
Shortly after his retirement in 1999, Turner continued to feel the physical effects of his football career. That is when he became addicted to pain medication. 
In 2000, he first met Dr. Marvin 'Rick' Sponaugle, who heads the Florida Detox and Wellness Institute in Tampa Bay, Florida.
Dr. Sponaugle's program helped him to break his habit and allowed him maintain a healthy lifestyle for approximately five years.
"In 2006, when I started taking pills again, I went and saw Dr. Sponaugle. He was the first doctor that did a blood work up. He told me then that my brain was not functioning properly.
"I got off the pain pills, but had not taken the prescription that Dr. Sponaugle had given me. Eight months later I was in his office again, because I had relapsed. That is when he told me again that my brain was not functioning properly."
ALS diagnosis in 2010
Four years passed. In May, 2010, Turner was diagnosed with ALS by a number of different Neurologists that he met with. The condition was mostly affecting his upper extremities and back at that time.
"I first noticed that something wasn't right when I was playing my guitar one day. My fingers weren't going where they were suppose to go and I had played the guitar for 20 years."
"I think that, over time, the hits that I took to the head changed a lot about how my brain worked." - Kevin Turner
Sports Legacy Institute
It must seem as though the Alabama graduate is back in college, because his experiences in the last year have been similar to enrolling in a medical degree program.
Dr. Robert Cantu is a concussion expert and a clinical professor of Neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine. He is one of the prominent doctors that Turner has met with and is also the founder of the Sports Legacy Institute. Cantu believes that Turner may have a version of ALS.
"I decided to go public about my condition (in August, 2010) because of the encouragement of Chris Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee," Turner said.
Both are also connected to the Sports Legacy Institute. Nowinski is the President and CEO and Dr. Ann McKee is a Neuropathologist.
"I called Chris back in June, to let him know that I had just been diagnosed. He told me that Dr. McKee was going to publish a paper in August that linked head trauma with ALS."
Foundation formed and music video recorded
Tamara Alan, an attorney and friend from college, helped him to establish the Kevin Turner Foundation. The foundation helps to raise funds and awareness about the disease.
Country music star, Ty Herndon, contributed to Turner's charitable efforts in a unique way. 'Journey On', the title song to his Grammy nominated album, was written about Turner and dedicated by Herndon to his foundation. The accompanying music video also featured Turner and his children.
"I had always wanted to do something like that and was glad that we had the chance to. It is so great."
New protocol
Turner could have chosen to remain silent and to fight his health battle in private. But, the former NFL player transformed his passion from one public field to another when he decided to go public about his condition.
Turner worked throughout the spring of 2011 on a new health protocol. Doing so allowed him to maintain his football playing weight of 235 pounds.
Medical science is making progress in the area of head trauma, but it is still a developing issue. Cutting edge treatments are being tested, but true solutions are not yet available to the general public.
"Dr. Sponaugle called me on November, 1, 2010, and said that I needed to see him. So, every month I go to the Institute for at least a week. I get intravenous medications that are mostly vitamins and all-natural supplements that help get rid of toxins in my body."
He said that he is not aware of any Doctor who is involved in the type of work that Sponaugle is involved in.
Turner undergoes significant testing at the institute. He reviews his results and is informed of any recommended treatment adjustments. He was at the Institute in Florida at the end of April and didn't felt himself regressing after he received his treatments.
"I didn't go there in May and I noticed that since then some things had changed. Recently, I was trying to put gas into my car and I couldn't pull the trigger on the pump with my fingers. That was the first time that had happened."
Dr. Sponaugle has worked with Parkinson's and Multiple Sclerosis patients, but Turner is the first person with ALS that he has worked with.
Turner has considered many potential surrounding causes that may have affected the development of his condition. He has also been told that he has a highly abnormal marker point for Lyme disease.
Testing for a concussion through a thumb print
"Head trauma leads to ALS-like symptoms. I say that because it has been documented in so many other people.
"I think that, over time, the hits that I took to my head changed a lot about how my brain worked. If you look at the football players who have been diagnosed with ALS, all of them have come from collision positions. Fullbacks, strong safeties, linebackers, special team guys, they are the ones that have this disease."
Dr. McKee taught Turner about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Her work at the Brain Bank at Boston University allows her to study the brains of many individuals who have suffered various forms of head trauma.
"I learned through a meeting with doctors, that there is such a thing as a neurofilament that is released into the blood stream when the head is traumatized. I believe that we will get to a point where people will be able to be tested genetically so they can know what conditions they are predisposed to."
Turner wants to raise money to help fund various innovative ideas that are currently being explored.
Developing technology would allow players to be tested on the sidelines, immediately after they have suffered a hit, through the simple prick of a finger. Doing so would allow neurofilaments in the blood to be measured to gauge the severity of any head trauma that has occurred and to determine if remnants of a concussion existed.
Moving forward
Turner has overcome some financial and personal challenges within the last year that were unrelated to his health concerns. He refused to relent as he worked through bankruptcy and a divorce. His determination helped him to weather those storms and has taken him to a better place in life.
"I'm as happy now as I have been in years. I know that I have gotten ALS for a reason. I think God has a plan and this is part of his plan. I have the right circumstances to make a difference in this world. What does anyone want to do with their life, other than to make a positive difference in this world?"
Turner and his former wife have maintained a connection that benefits their children. As a result, his relationship with them has remained strong. His three children just completed a good year in school, earning A's on their report cards.
His oldest son, Nolan is 13 and has played football for a number of years.
His daughter Natalie is 10 and is a cheerleader. She is also especially attentive to her Dad's health needs and helps him with any household tasks that he finds difficult to perform.
"Certain days I can do things better than others, like button my shirt. My daughter helps me with things like that."
Cole, his youngest child, is 8.
Going back to Philly
On January 2, 2011, Turner traveled with Nolan to Philadelphia to see the Eagles host the Dallas Cowboys. The trip allowed him to talk with players and spend time with old friends, including Juan Castillo.
"We spent some time together and I got to see his son move around a little bit and catch the ball. He is a hard worker like Kevin was.
"When you work together, it's important for people to know that you care about them. It's a game, but it's also about relationships and trusting each other. I have a lot of respect for Kevin," Castillo said.
Connecting with the fans and with former colleagues has continued to play a vital role in Turner's life. Whether it be a former Alabama fan, New Orleans Head Coach Sean Payton, or a current player who also has the condition, he offers advice to all who seek his input.
Working on solutions
Turner had only been aware of two concussions that happened during his career. One came in 1994, with the Patriots and the other in 1997, with the Eagles.
In recent years the NFL has been addressing the issue of head trauma through a number of rules changes, by placing informative posters in locker rooms and through the creation of 'return to play' guidelines. Turner knows the eduction process is key to awareness.
"This month we have partnered with the ALS therapy alliance. At every CVS store in the country, people will be able to make a $1 donation to ALS research. On June 18, we had a fund raiser in Tennessee with former players," Turner said.
When asked what advice he would offer to football players of any age, he responded with a comment about his youngest son.
"Based on what I know now, I'm thinking about holding Cole back from playing football this year. Maybe it's not the best thing to play Pee-Wee football and I've been coaching it for the past six years."
Turner, Turner, Turner!
Fans of the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles heard Turner's name mentioned many times when he was on their team back in the day. These days, the father of three is out in front of an issue that deserves focused attention.
When medical breakthroughs happen, in the hopefully not-too-distant future, certain prominent individuals will be recognized for their positive efforts.
At that time, the name Kevin Turner will be mentioned as one of the people who helped to create solutions for a problem that needed to be solved. That is what heroes generally do.
Information about Turner's foundation can be found at: www.kevinturnerfoundation.org
(All rights to this feature, which was originally published by the Yahoo Sports Contributor Network, are owned by the author, Sean O'Brien.)
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Saturday, March 19, 2016

Behind the hockey scenes: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins



Today's behind-the-scenes report will be different than past efforts. Instead of providing total game details, I want to blend the past, present and future together.

Introductions

After the standard security check-in, similar to what paying fans experience at the gate, early press arrivals head to the Balcony Level, where the media's workspace exists. After setting up, lunch down at the Event Floor level with Philadelphia Flyers' staff takes place. The TV and radio announcers along with former National Hockey League faces, scouts, etc., can also be seen eating a nice lunch before game time. Then, back up the elevator shaft to finish preparations for the early-afternoon game.

Peering down at the Wells Fargo Center arena (as the lead photo to this feature shows), ghosts of the Spectrum are evoked prior to the start of an unexpectedly crucial mid-March game. Playoff implications were in play for both Eastern Conference teams today. Ron Hextall, the hero of 1987, was watching aside of the press level location where I was stationed. He, more than any current player, appears to be demonstrating the ability to create extended shots at Stanley Cup III. If Philadelphia had defeated the greatest offensive team of all-time, the Edmonton Oilers, in the spring of 1987, would Hextall be the Flyers' general manager today? An unknowable answer that will be revisited later.

Organizational loyalty, faulted by many for the team's inability to hoist Lord Stanley's prize, is never noted when Gene Hart's daughter, Lauren, looks to the skies. And, with the National Anthem sung to perfection once more, the players, the officials, and the fans became the focus this Saturday afternoon on the last day of winter 2016.

The big pre-game news involved Jake Voracek's return to action, as he'd been missing since last month due to injury. Steve Mason, who started in place of expected starter Michal Neuvirth, looked from one crease across the Philly pond at Marc-Andre Fleury as the opening face-off ensued.

First period

The Pens outshot the Flyers 11-4. Some penalty kills proved to be the only 'highlight's' of the frame.

The enduring passion of the fans has underscored the true success of this franchise. Seven appearances in the Cup Final since the last moment of glory in 1975, and yet sellouts, or mostly filled buildings, have been seen ever since. This blueprint (correction, orange print) shows how every business should honor its customers.

Second period

Radko Gudas scored his fourth goal of the season to break the double shutout at 1:58 into the period. Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds assisted. But, the lead only lasted slightly over a minute, as Trevor Daley scored his fifth goal of the year (at 2:59), as assisted by Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr.

Carl Hagelin scored his ninth goal of the season at 16:56, assisted by Bonino, to give the Pens a 2-1 lead. Then, with 1:35 remaining in the frame, Chris Kunitz scored his fifteenth, with assists credited to Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist. Pittsburgh was thoroughly dominating, posting 25 shots, to Philadelphia’s eight, at that point in the game.

The 25-9 shot split, which showed on the scoreboard, belied a tough challenge heading into the third. To this point, it seemed that the Flyers' recent playoff push had an energy zapping effect. More importantly, the Pens were up to today's task.

Third period

An apparent late Pens' goal took place with 1:38 remaining and a Masonless net. However, the play was reviewed. Kris Letang received credit for the tally (his fourteenth of the season), with assists to Kunitz and Crosby. And, the game ended in a 4-1 victory for the Flyers' cross-state rival.

Pittsburgh stymied Philadelphia's offensive attempts, as the Flyers had minimal opportunity in the center zone from the defensive blue line through to the opposing net. Philadelphia's solid shot totals in recent weeks allowed their goal differential to be cut to -4 (185 goals allowed, 181 goals scored) before today's game. That mark probably must be pushed to double-digits (on the positive side) if even the eighth playoff space is able to be colored orange by April 10, which is the last scheduled game of the regular season.

The Penguins now have 86 points (11 games remaining) and currently hold a Metropolitan Divisional spot. The Flyers stay at the 80 point mark (12 games remaining) and are one point behind the Detroit Red Wings, who play the Florida Panthers tonight. 

Takeaways


Down the media-packed freight elevator after the final horn. We meander our way toward the locker room and then to the post-game presser with Hakstol. His workman like demeanor, seen in full view after games, is what this developing group needs. Hextall's choice of the former North Dakota coach is proving to be sound. Hakstol appears to maintain a balanced view of present circumstances and future goals.

He advised that Voracek's first game back was what he expected. His 9:46 TOI reflected the first reconditioning segment. Future games will allow him to regain skating legs and endurance after suffering an ankle injury in February. Neuvirth's situation wasn't defined as being connected to a recent team flu bug, or to injury. His status will be further defined by Monday, at the latest.

The head coach began his presser by saying, “Well, I think they played a good hockey game. It was a day where we couldn’t find any energy and we just couldn’t get ourselves going in the right direction. Obviously, it comes at a bad time and against the wrong team, but that’s what it is. We looked like we had spent a lot of energy, maybe a lot of emotional energy, on the back to backs with Detroit and Chicago. We just couldn’t find that same energy tonight, so we got to put it behind us real quick and get back at it.”

Claude Giroux, speaking about the Flyers' effort said, "...maybe it looked like the effort wasn’t there, but it was there. The last month and a half I think we have been playing some really good hockey. You are going to have games like tonight where it is not going your way. A lot of frustration on our part. You are going to have games like that. Like I have said before, we aren’t going to win every game for the rest of the season. It is going to be how we are going to respond to this. This year, well the last two months, we have been doing a good job when we get a tough loss we always bounce back."

Voracek, commenting on his return, said, “No. I don’t want to say the percentage wise, but I was still favoring a little bit of the left leg. It didn’t eliminate me as much as my hands did today. I think  I coughed up a couple of pucks, which I expected it was going to happen and we have to find a way to help the team to win a game the next time.”

Mason, commenting on his unexpected call to start said, "That’s just the nature of the position sometimes. Sometimes you get called on short notice. That’s kind of why you prepare everyday as if you were going to play."

The Flyers travel to play the New York Islanders on Monday. Like the Pens, the Isles are also ahead of the Flyers in the standings and are in playoff position as of this weekend. Philadelphia's strong push from February through St. Patrick's Day week merely made a post-season spot possible. This team's work will remain hard through its last 12 games.

My own experience as a modest freelancer is always ready to be offered as proof of how generous this NHL organization is. It doesn't have to allow me, and my fellow freelance colleagues, access. Yet, it does. An initial interview I conducted with Bernie Parent opened the doors for me. That connection developed through a friend (Dan Morroni) and then, as he told me, I took it from there. Chances do present themselves in life. When they arise, taking them doesn't always result in lasting success. However, not making the effort back then would almost certainly have led nowhere.

A final glance from the inside

Up the elevator once again with various scribes. Passed Dave Brown, Flyers' Director of Player Personnel, after arriving at Press Level. Brown's hockey player presence disappeared with the mild-mannered well-wish he offered me as we passed. A fitting send-off to today's experience, as nearly five seasons behind-the-hockey scenes have allowed me to increasingly learn what the hockey world is all about. From the beginning, through today, I've enjoyed sharing these experiences with readers who live in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and elsewhere across the globe.

And, as I prepare to leave, the arena isn't empty. A final glance over my packed bag shows two local teams cutting the ice below.

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