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49ers' Turner, daughter Ella share walk to remember at Purdue originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Keena Turner was simply following directions, as he had done so many times during his football career.
On Saturday, he was back inside Ross-Ade Stadium, where he was a star football player at Purdue University four decades earlier.
In his 11-year playing career with the 49ers, Turner was a favorite of the late Bill Walsh, a Hall of Fame coach and visionary. In addition to being a skilled all-around linebacker, Turner was known for being on-point with his assignments while also playing with great instincts.
Although he thought he was lined up in the right position, Turner needed a little coaching on an emotion-filled day when he walked in the school's graduation ceremony with his daughter, Ella.
“I’m such a rules follower,” Keena Turner said. “You’re supposed to go in with your class. Ella is with the science group, and I’m with the polytechnic group. I’m supposed to walk in over here, and Ella’s over there.”
But, no, that was not how it was going to work.
Credit Turner’s wife, Linda, for making an in-game adjustment. She called him when she noticed something was wrong.
“What are you doing?” Linda asked Keena. “The whole reason we’re back here is so you can walk in with Ella. Get over here.”
Said Turner, “And she was right again.”
Turner, 62, made his way through the sea of graduates in black gowns to find his daughter.
“And I’m just enjoying watching her interacting with her friends and being part of this moment,” Turner said. “I kept losing the piece where I was graduating or getting my diploma, too. It was just really, really cool.”
Ella is the middle child. Her older sister, Sheena, attended USC. She has her Masters and PhD and is teaching. The Turners' youngest, Miles, attends the University of Portland, where he plays on the men’s basketball team.
Ella set her sights on attending college out of state. The spot she chose came as a shock to her dad.
“When I got into Purdue, I was so excited to have that connection with my dad,” Ella said. “That is really the main reason I chose Purdue.”
Turner was a star athlete at Chicago Vocational High School on the south side. He admits he probably would not have attended college if it were not for the opportunity that presented itself through football.
He also recognizes that he did not take his school work seriously during his time in college. Education is something Linda and Keena stressed to their children. Keena said he was surprised when Ella decided where she wanted to attend college.
“Her mom and I really supported her leaving California, so wherever she would have decided would've been cool,” Turner said. “But, obviously, when she picked Purdue, I was pretty pumped about it.”
With Ella going to the Big Ten school in West Lafayette, Indiana, her dad had reason to travel back to his old college with more frequency. Her choice also proved to be the impetus for her dad to take care of some of his own unfinished business.
Turner played his entire NFL career with the 49ers. He won four Super Bowl rings as a player. Following the end of his playing career, he finished his degree at the University of San Francisco as part of a degree completion program that Dr. Harry Edwards established.
“So I did fulfill that promise to mom,” Turner said. “But this was always still hanging out there that I didn’t finish at Purdue.”
More than a dozen years ago, Linda began looking into the requirements her husband would have to fulfill in order to receive his degree from Purdue. Ella’s decision to attend Purdue brought about a greater sense of urgency.
“Me choosing to go to Purdue sparked that back up,” she said. “When it was presented to us that he could potentially walk with me, he asked me right away if it was OK with me. He didn’t want to take anything away from me on my special day.”
Turner said the evaluation of which classes Purdue would accept from USF and the degree alignment took a while. Ultimately, he had to satisfy a science and an upper-level management requirement in order to earn his degree.
He took physical geography and supply chain management classes — one in the fall of 2019 and one in the summer of 2020. He spread out the class work so it would work out that he could walk with Ella on Saturday.
The physical geography class was especially challenging, said Turner, who received some academic advice from Ella while they were back under the same roof at the family home in Tracy.
“He is a perfectionist,” she said, “and he was trying to do everything perfectly, and I was like ... ‘Dad, we can’t stay on this for two hours. We got to move on.’ It was funny to switch roles.”
Ella earned her degree in Selling & Sales Management. She is currently interviewing with companies in Arizona, as she hopes to land a full-time sales job. Her dad’s degree is in organizational leadership.
Turner, a member of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, is an icon within the 49ers. He has spent a quarter-century with the organization as an executive. In 2018, he was promoted to vice president and senior advisor to the general manager.
In a life filled with remarkable accomplishments, what made this so special for Turner was that he shared this achievement with a loved one.
The graduation ceremony at Purdue does not usually take place in the 60,000-seat football stadium. Because of the pandemic, the event last week was held outdoors. And that could not have been more fitting for the Turner family.
“That made it all the more special to have the ceremony where he actually played,” Ella said. “It was really an awesome moment. I’m just really proud of him for coming back and finishing. It was just really cool we got to experience it together.”
Ella said she never had any reservations about sharing her big day with her father.
“I don’t like the limelight to begin with,” she said. “I was OK with doing it. I didn’t look at it this way. I know he was focused on me and not about getting attention or doing anything else. He was really proud of me. I was all for it.”
Her dad was a four-time letter winner at Purdue from 1976 to ’79. He led the team in tackles for loss three consecutive seasons and had a team-leading three interceptions as a junior. The 49ers selected him in the second round of the 1980 draft, and he started on the 49ers’ first Super Bowl champion one year later.
His daughter never saw him play football, but she knows the man and she has a good idea of what made him special as a player and teammate.
“He is super-supportive and super-determined, and I feel like I’ve seen that my whole life,” Ella said. “And that kind of gives me a glimpse (of him as a player), even though I wasn’t able to see him. I think that’s something I’ve been able to see over this year also with him taking classes and doing everything, too.”
If there was regret for decades about not completing his Purdue degree, all that was wiped away with one memorable walk a week ago.
As it turns out, things could not have worked out any better for Keena, Ella and the entire Turner family.
“The emotions hit me after the fact when we were all gathering afterward and talking about our best moments at Purdue,” Ella said. “And we both mentioned this as being our best moment.”