Threaten a man's life once, and, if that man is New Orleans Saints tackle Kyle Turley, he'll more than likely let it go, for it probably means that he has been pushing you all over the field, allowing you nary a whiff of the New Orleans quarterback. So it was last Sept. 10, when San Diego Chargers defensive end Neil Smith, after a play in the second half of the Saints' 28-27 win over the Chargers, approached a prostrate Turley and threatened to "come down to New Orleans in the off-season and kill me and kill my family," according to Turley. Having tossed Smith, a six-time Pro Bowl player, around like a throw rug that day—Smith wasn't credited with so much as an assist in spot duty—Turley shrugged off Smith's invective with a laugh, chalking it up as another rant from another frustrated defender.
Threaten a man's life twice, however, and, if that man is Kyle Turley, you've got quite a piper to pay. So when Smith approached Turley after the game and, according to Turley, reiterated his threat, an incensed Turley morphed into the 6'5", 300-pound hulk who's fast becoming the NFL's most menacing and, among his opponents, most hated man. "Sorry, Neil, I don't have any family in New Orleans, but you should still come over," Turley told Smith. "I live at 4408 Rue Saint Peter. So you come on over, and when you do, I'll slit your damn throat." (SI couldn't reach Smith for comment.)
Months later, after hustling through Ontario ( Calif.) International Airport to board a plane bound for Las Vegas to attend a friend's birthday celebration, Turley shakes his head at the memory and says, " Neil Smith has been in the league for all those years, and he's crying all game about this and that, then he makes that lame threat twice? He's got no class. Crying to the refs about how I was [cut-blocking] him or holding him—and, I don't know, maybe I was, but that's football, man. I say, give me my due if I've kicked your ass, because if you kick my a...."
He catches himself just as a matronly flight attendant delivers a bag of peanuts. After a sheepish Turley thanks her profusely, she drops a second bag into his lap. In that moment, the dichotomy of Turley—equal parts gentleman caller and evil superhero, cartoonishly blond-haired, blue-eyed and square-jawed—flashes to life. "Kyle's a two-headed monster, because he's so nice off the field, but on it he's as violent a player as I've seen," says New Orleans offensive line coach Jack Henry, whose career as an assistant dates to 1970. "He plays the game as it should be played, all out. Of course, if he weren't on my team, I'd probably hate him too."
Unlike former NFL guard Kevin Gogan—a middling talent who in 1998 was described on the cover of SI as the league's dirtiest player—Turley, 25, is a devastating blocker who, along with teammate William Roaf, the Baltimore Ravens' Jonathan Ogden, the St. Louis Rams' Orlando Pace and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Tony Boselli, is one of the league's elite tackles. Drawing on a Southern California childhood spent skateboarding and surfing, passions that, along with wrestling, kept him from organized football until his senior year of high school, Turley has a combination of footwork, balance and hand skill that's exceptional. Last season, in a banner year for the Saints, who wrested the NFC West from the defending Super Bowl champion Rams, Turley earned first-team All-Pro honors. "He's not just a badass, he's also a special player," says Henry of Turley, who allowed one half a sack in 2000. "His flexibility and his leverage let us do things on sweeps and rollouts we otherwise couldn't do, and his pass-blocking is astounding."
Watch Turley over the course of a game, though, and it becomes apparent why he didn't make the Pro Bowl. Despite earning 30 of the 31 coaches' votes—a coach can't cast a ballot for one of his players—Turley received no first-team votes from the league's defensive units. Why? He's a lineman possessed who makes constant, hyperaggressive forays downfield in search of second and third hits.
"He's strong as an ox, with good quickness and great hands, and he always plays hard," says Tennessee Titans defensive end Kevin Carter, who faced Turley seven times while he was with the Rams, "but he's underrated because of the dirty things he does. You always have to watch out with him because he'll tattoo you, take out your legs. He'll do the kind of stuff that can end your career. That's why he doesn't get [Pro Bowl] votes. If you play hard and clean, you get the votes."
Turley especially enjoys ambushing unsuspecting defenders standing near a tackled New Orleans ballcarrier as he plays until he hears what he calls "the echo of the whistle." (Indeed, the nasty business with Smith intensified after Turley took a running leap at Chargers safety Rodney Harrison as the whistle was blowing.) "My coaches have preached that to me since high school," says Turley. "Playing that way keeps me from injuries because you get hurt when you're standing around a pile and somebody gets thrown into you, or somebody rolls up your legs."
It came as little surprise, then, that Turley, the seventh pick in the 1998 draft out of San Diego State, was pulled aside during his second NFL season by Mike Ditka, New Orleans's coach at the time. "Son, I love the way you play," Ditka said, "but it's going to cost you a lot of money."
In fact, Turley has been fined only piddling sums four times, and it bothers him that he's thought of as a dirty player. He fancies himself merely a throwback, one who employs the cut block (in which a lineman takes out the defender at the line of scrimmage with a block around the feet) to brutal perfection. "Guys cry all the time about cut-blocking," says Turley, "but tough luck. It's legal, and until it's not, I'm going to use it. Don't call me dirty just because I'm doing my job and you can't make a tackle."