Falcons' Turner proves looks can be deceiving

Jason Cole
Yahoo! SportsNovember 19, 2008

ATLANTA – Survival of the fastest: That's what happens when you grow up as one of six brothers. Six big brothers.

Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner is one of six boys who have all grown to at least 215 pounds and range from his 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-4.

At 242 pounds, Turner is proportioned like his siblings – a stout man built like a bowling ball with legs.

And boy can he run. Not exactly the kind of artistic, graceful style of a Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis, but plenty effective in terms of running with a football.

Or racing for a box of cereal.

"In our house, you had to get moving in the morning if you wanted your favorite cereal," said Keith Turner, one of Michael's younger twin brothers. Michael was fourth in the line of Turner boys, but first when it came to speed.

These days, Turner is the focal point of a Falcons attack that has the organization on the road to recovery. At 6-4, Atlanta is part of a three-way tie for the final playoff spot in the NFC despite playing with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.

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Turner gets a hug from Ryan after a fourth-quarter TD against the Packers.

( Getty/Matthew Stockman)

While Ryan has obvious talent and maturity, Atlanta's success on offense arguably could be attributed more to the work of Turner. As former 49ers guard and current television analyst Randy Cross put it: "(Ryan) has the luxury of a really good running game to help him out. Most rookie quarterbacks don't get that."

Turner is third in the NFL with 971 yards, trailing only Adrian Peterson and Clinton Portis – two guys who have been mentioned as Most Valuable Player candidates. The league leader in carries (227), Turner is also tied for fourth in the league with nine rushing touchdowns. That's a great foundation for any offense to work from and the most significant reason why the Falcons are No. 2 in the league in rushing with 1,534 yards. They have already surpassed their rushing total of last season (1,520).

With a broad chest and thick legs, Turner is built like a piece of foundation. Solo tacklers careen off him like colliding atoms. However, Turner is not just a latter-day Jerome Bettis, pounding defenses into submission. He has some serious speed, which was displayed on a 28-yard touchdown run Sunday against Denver when he wasn't touched until he got inside the 5-yard line.

"Yeah, I hear it all the time, 'You're pretty fast for a fat guy,' " Turner said with a grin and a laugh. He's been hearing that for the better part of his life.

At North Chicago High School, Turner won the 100-yard dash in his Illinois sectional as a junior and senior, qualifying for the state meet. He did that after taking up track on a whim – and while looking decidedly out of place.

Before going out for the team, he'd race all comers. It didn't matter where. It could be on the blacktop, the school courtyard or even in the hallways after school.

"Indoor track season," Keith Turner said with a chuckle.

"I beat everybody in the school, so they asked me to come out for track … I was already like 200 pounds, so I was like 40 pounds heavier than most of the guys I ran against. They'd look at me and I knew they were thinking, 'No way that guy is that fast,' " Turner said.

What outsiders failed to realize is that speed runs in the Turner family.

"Michael has a cousin who was a big track star in Illinois," said older brother Damon Turner. "So it's not that unusual that he'd be that fast."

What has been unusual is that it has taken people in the football community so long to notice a running back with this combination of size and speed. Coming out of high school, Turner claimed to have gotten just the one scholarship offer – to Northern Illinois. Then, despite garnering Heisman attention – perhaps fueled by NIU's "Turner the Burner" campaign – Turner was just a fifth-round draft pick by the Chargers in 2004.

"I think it's been more frustrating to his family, the rest of us, because every time he'd go somewhere it was always, 'He's not this or that,' " Damon Turner said. "In college, everybody said the competition he played against in the [Mid-American Conference] wasn't very good, but they never said that same stuff about Ben Roethlisberger or Byron Leftwich. Then he goes to the combine and runs a 4.4 and he's still a fifth-round pick."

For four years, Turner sat behind LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, slowly getting respect as he played sparingly.

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Turner had a wide-open lane against the Broncos.

(US Presswire/Dale Zanine)

"It might have been frustrating if we hadn't been winning," Turner said. "But I figured, this team has a real good chance to win a Super Bowl, so just be patient. Let it happen. My time was going to come and LaDainian was always really supportive, telling me how good he thought I was and how I was going to get my chance."

In the 2007 offseason, the Packers and Titans were among the teams which reportedly showed interest in acquiring Turner before the Chargers decided to retain the then-restricted free agent. This past offseason, Turner's chance to move out of the background finally came in the form of a six-year, $34.5 million contract (including $15 million guaranteed) from the Falcons.

New general manager Tom Dimitroff got a good look at Turner over the past four years as a player-personnel man in New England, watching Turner play against the Patriots' stout run defense. What he saw was a guy who combined power and speed with some unusual moves.

"Michael can break people down, not just run them over," Dimitroff said during the offseason. "I don't think he's one of those power backs who's going to have a short career and then be done. He has a combination of skills."

Skills developed from years of fending off hungry or even angry brothers. Sometimes on the way home from football practice, Michael and younger brothers Keith and Kevin would argue about some silly thing.

"It would get to a point where we'd say, 'All right, come on,' and we'd put our football gear back on right there in front of the house and go at it. Let the better man win," said Keith, who is two years younger than Michael. "One guy had the ball and the other had to tackle him. Go straight at each other and see who wins."

After that, it was a race upstairs to see what was cooking.