FAYETTEVILLE — The news was hard to come to grips with last Friday night, but Arkansas safety Alan Turner wouldn’t waver in his decision.
He wanted to play. He had to play. It was what his father would’ve wanted.
“He just told me before don’t ever give up on anything,” Turner said. “So I just wanted to go out there and play.”
Turner followed the advice and played with a heavy heart during the 31-21 win against Samford in Little Rock last week. Turner played after finding out the night before the game his father, Paul Turner, passed away after battling cancer.
Arkansas’ coaches, of course, gave the Junction City native the option to go home to grieve with his family even though he was scheduled to start in place of injured safety Rohan Gaines. Turner declined, saying he needed to play through the grief.
“It was tough, but I knew I wanted to play for him,” Turner said. “I practiced all week and I didn’t want to let my team down. I just wanted to go out there and give it my all. It was pretty hard, but at the same time, it’s something I love. It was just something that, like, take it off, let it go. It’s just eased me because I love the sport.”
So Turner earned his second straight start for Arkansas’ defense and finished with six tackles. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash said he was like most other Arkansas defenders Saturday night, turning in some good plays and some bad in the win.
But Ash said Turner stood out from the rest because of his work through the pain.
“It’s hard for me to imagine what he’s going through having never been in that situation,” Ash said. “And really as a coach I’ve never had a player that’s been in that situation to have a father that passed away the night before a game. I left it up to him whether he wanted to play or not. He said, ‘I’m playing.’ It wasn’t even a question.”
Turner said he found out his father had cancer six months ago.
He also knew Paul Turner “had it bad.”
So the Friday night news may not have been a complete shock to Turner. Still, the junior leaned on coaches and teammates as he dealt with the reality Friday night.
“All of them have been right there with me, asking me if I’m OK. Can they do anything?” Turner said. “It’s just … That’s why I’m glad I’m here because it’s just a family environment. This is like my second home, my second family.”
Turner made it through the game and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said afterward his courage “spoke volumes about what kind of kid we have there.”
Turner also has decided to stay with his second family this week with Arkansas preparing for Saturday’s game against Southern Miss.
The junior may find his way in the starting lineup once again with Gaines still working his way back from a knee injury. If so, it will be Turner’s third straight start and he ranks second on the team with 12 tackles after two weeks.
Arkansas once again left the decision to Turner. He had the choice to go home and spend time with his family ahead of his father’s funeral, which is scheduled for Monday. But, once again, Turner wasn’t ready to leave.
“He said, ‘No, I’m going to be here with this family,’” Ash said.
“There’s going to be a time he’s going to be with his family and pay his respects, but I’ve been really impressed with the way he’s handled it.”
So have his teammates. Most of them have said they can’t fathom what Turner has been going through the past week. He has earned their respect, though.
“He’s a strong guy,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “I don’t believe I could’ve done it, but he went out there and played and kept his focus.”
Linebacker Braylon Mitchell understands what Turner must have been feeling Saturday night. His father, Boyce, passed away roughly a year-and-a-half ago.
But even Mitchell — who was Turner’s roommate their first two years on campus — said he’s been amazed at how well Turner has handled his father’s death this week.
“Right now, he’s doing a way better job than I did when I first lost my dad,” Mitchell said. “I talked to him last week when we first found out and let him know that everything was going to be OK. Alan is a strong dude. … I think he’s been doing a pretty good job. When you see him, he doesn’t have too much emotion on his face.”
Turner will finally take a leave of absence after Saturday’s game.
He and Byran Jones — who was Turner’s teammate at Junction City High — will head home for Paul Turner’s funeral, which will be held in nearby Spearsville, La.
It will be Turner’s opportunity to say good-bye to his father.
“It was pretty tough,” Turner said of his decision to play last week. “I knew at the end of the day … We always talked and he just wanted me to stay strong and finish.”