Turner's presence still felt by Raiders

Teammate: In remembrance, the Raiders have left untouched the locker of Eric Turner, the former Raven who died of cancer in May.

January 10, 2001|By SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

OAKLAND, Calif. - Eric Turner died in May, but his locker in the Oakland Raiders' locker room is still stocked with his practice gear, shoes and photo of his son, Eric Jr.

On Monday, the TV cameras and cables scuttled back and forth across the locker room, looking for an angle for Sunday's AFC championship game against the Ravens. How about that Ravens' defense? How about the playoff pressure? How about those Raiders fans?

Here's one: How about Eric Turner's locker?

Want an angle? Try Turner, who was a Pro Bowl safety with Baltimore in 1996, then signed with the Raiders as a free agent. Turner started for two years, had an injury-filled season in 1999 and then died unexpectedly in the off-season from intestinal cancer.

When the Raiders came to camp this year, they decided to leave his locker as it was until the season ended. It is now going on seven months.

"I kind of got mixed feelings on that," said Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson, nodding to Turner's locker. "You come here and you couldn't help but remember the guy ain't here anymore."

Woodson didn't go way back with "E-Rock," like some of the guys who had been in the league with him at Cleveland and Baltimore. In fact, Woodson said he hardly knew who Turner was when he finished his first Raiders practice, pulled off his gear and headed for the shower.

"Hey," the veteran defensive back told the rookie, "you can't go in there with no shower shoes."

And Turner threw him a pair of his own. It turned out that wasn't all the kid needed. He needed someone to show him around the Bay area. Someone to show him the ropes in the NFL. And, most of all, someone to make fun of the way he looked.

"We both got pretty big noses," Woodson said, slipping into the present tense as if Turner hadn't died nine months ago. "So there were a lot of nose jokes."

One thing they didn't talk about was the pain.

"We knew something was wrong with his stomach," Woodson said. "He told me he had a stomach ulcer. I didn't think much of it, because a lot of people have ulcers."

Turner must have known he had cancer, although he refused to let even his closest friends know it. Stevon Moore and Antonio Langham, two players, like Turner, who played for the Cleveland Browns and then the Ravens when owner Art Modell moved the franchise, tried to come out to see Turner in California. But Turner wouldn't take the calls and stonewalled the visits until it was too late. Even two weeks before he died, Turner issued a statement saying that he was fine.

Woodson, a second-year guy enjoying his off-season, didn't have a clue. He was vacationing in Cancun, Mexico.

"That was probably the toughest thing, getting the phone call the day he died," Woodson said. "It was just getting over the reality that he was actually gone. How could this guy, 28 or 29 years old [actually 31], be gone?"

Without really meaning to, Woodson has developed a pre-game ritual. Sitting at his locker, he opens the game program. By now, he even knows the page. It is Turner's memorial picture.

"I go through the guide," Woodson said, "and I see him on the fourth page. I look at his picture real quick, because it is kind of hard to look at."

Want to know someone else who will feel a pang of regret if he sees that picture? Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. In 1996, Turner's last year with the team, Lewis was a big-talking rookie and Turner and Moore went to the Pro Bowl at free safety and strong safety, respectively.

"I've watched you guys," Lewis told Turner and Moore. "I love watching you guys play."

Lewis might have been another one of the young guys Turner took under his wing if things had worked out differently. Turner may have been popular in Baltimore, and the son of a minister might have been involved in the United Way and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but when the Ravens had financial troubles, the highest-paid player on the team had to go.

Turner left the Ravens to come to the Raiders, even taking less money because he wanted to be on the West Coast to take care of his son. He had sworn he would not have a child before he was married, but "I made a mistake and I live with it."

To be brutally honest, Turner's play was not sensational with the Raiders. He endured a series of injuries and was slowing down. There is no telling, in the last season, how much the cancer affected his physical condition.

But he left a mark on this team and this season. Coach Jon Gruden said: "We allude to him a lot. We still talk about him."

Unlike some football teams that have lost a player, Turner's locker looks nothing like a memorial. It is just another locker in the line, with a practice jersey hanging from a rod. But Gruden said he can't help noticing that "a lot of our players, before the game will wear some of his things."

It is just a gesture, a moment of remembrance, that probably wouldn't mean a thing to anyone who didn't know the significance.

"As a matter of fact," Woodson said, looking at his feet as the locker room was officially closed to the media Monday, "these are the sandals he gave me right here."

As the door to the locker room shut, Woodson was still looking down.

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