It was Jan. 9, 2011 — move-in day for the incoming freshman — and just one day after he had competed in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, one of the most prestigious high school all-star games in the country.
He was 1,022 miles from UNC, and while the winter weather had not reached the game’s venue of San Antonio, several rainstorms in the area added to an already stressful situation.
Turner rushed to the airport to try and catch the first plane to North Carolina, eventually settling for a flight into Fayetteville, 224.5 miles from the University.
Because UNC could not give Turner a ride due to NCAA rules, the freshman would have to find his own way to make the trek. Luckily for Turner, a family friend and father of former UNC fullback Kenny Owens lived in the area and offered to give him a lift.
Turner would arrive on campus late that night. With classes starting the next day, he eventually settled in and awaited the journey to come. He had finally made it, and in the end, that was all that mattered.
“I was just excited to kind of get on campus,” he said.
“I was only stressed out about it because I was like, ‘I can’t be late before I even get there.’ But everything worked out kind of seamlessly.”
While Turner’s first day on campus was less than conventional, it was just another step in the road he had traveled since high school — one filled with adversity — and one he would soon meet again in Chapel Hill.
The road back
During his sophomore year of high school, Turner had to learn how to walk.
On the first series of the first game of the season for Harrisonburg High School in Virginia, Turner broke his left ankle and suffered severe ligament damage to his foot.
“There were a lot of expletives ... I think I said every one I knew,” he said.
“I was very emotional because I could tell the severity of it. I didn’t know how bad, but you get a feeling.”
A metal plate and three screws were placed in his ankle that night. Despite early optimism that he would perhaps return to the team for a playoff game, he was eventually ruled out for the season.
The next few months consisted of strenuous rehab, as he slowly transitioned from a hospital bed to a wheelchair, then to crutches and finally a walking boot.
But when Turner eventually returned to the football field the next fall, he began to craft a legacy that placed him among the best players in Harrisonburg history. In his final two seasons with the Blue Streaks, Turner earned All-State honors twice and helped the team’s running backs rush for over 5,000 yards.
He verbally committed to play for North Carolina in July 2010, the summer before his senior year of high school. Later that month, the NCAA launched an investigation into the program.
It was still early on in the recruitment process, and as the news of the investigation began to spread, Turner’s family sat down with him to discuss the possibility of changing schools. But Turner had no intention of backing out — he had made his bed, and he was prepared to lie in it.
“He was very adamant,” said Dawn Womack, Turner’s mother. “He said, ‘Let the chips fall where they may. Carolina is my home, and I made a commitment. I’m a man of my word, and I’m going.’”
The road in between
When Turner joined the North Carolina football team in January 2011, he did so under Butch Davis, who had led the Tar Heels to an 8-5 record and a bowl win the season before.
That spring, Turner spent the majority of his time adjusting to the speed of the college game in the coach’s pro-style offense.
But with pressure from the NCAA investigation mounting against the University, UNC decided to fire Davis on July 27. The Tar Heels eventually named Everett Withers interim head coach, but Turner never played a snap for him, as he redshirted the 2011 season.
That winter, North Carolina found its new leader in Larry Fedora, an offensive mind from Southern Mississippi with a drive to return UNC to the success of the past.
Fedora brought with him the spread offense — an attack vastly different from the pro-style game Turner had spent almost two years learning. And while he would have to learn a new system, perhaps the most daunting aspect of the coaching change was the physical one.
For Turner to gain the mobility needed to play in the spread, he needed to lose a considerable amount of weight. But rather than sulk about the changing cast around him and the work he needed to put in, he embraced it.
“Coaches getting fired and new coaches coming in changes the systems. Those were things that were out of my hands,” he said.
“I could complain about it, get angry about it, but at the end of the day I still have a job to do and responsibilities to maintain.”
It was the mantra Turner carried with him throughout the offseason — to focus on the things you can control.
He eventually dropped from 350 pounds to 320, giving him the physical makeup to challenge for a starting role in 2012.
Turner got his chance in October, as an injury to fellow lineman Brennan Williams left a spot open in the starting lineup — one Turner would fill the final four games of the season.
“I think that stretch of four games was the biggest growth that I had in the system that we have now, even more so than in the spring or in training camp before it,” he said.
Once Turner gained a grip on the starting job, he never looked back. He went on to start in 23 games the next two seasons, along the way earning both All-ACC and Preseason All-America honors.
The road ahead
When Turner was in the first grade, he made a vision board for a class art project. He and his fellow students were told to draw a picture of what they dreamed about being when they grew up.
He wasted no time getting to work. While other kids drew pictures of themselves as policemen and firefighters, Turner drew a picture of himself sleeping with an NFL blanket.
The words around the picture read: “While I was sleeping, I dreamed I was a player in the NFL.”
As Turner progressed through his college career, the NFL dream seemed like it could become a reality. He did whatever he could to make sure he was in the best position to achieve his vision.
While other players kept to themselves, Turner always looked to his older teammates for advice on how to make himself better. And when some of those teammates moved on to the next level, he made sure to keep in touch.
“The biggest thing I’ve said to him is to outwork everybody,” said former UNC offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper, now with the Arizona Cardinals.
“Make sure that you know your plays and really just focus on being the best player you can be. Don’t let all the outside stuff distract you.”
Turner has shown he is no stranger to the path less traveled. Instead of waiting for things to come to him, he has taken the initiative to make himself better — to control the things he can control.
And if the fifth-year senior eventually finds himself in a position to make an NFL roster, that drive could make all the difference.