Save for his square-toed black hightops, Jim Turner never looked much like a kicker. At 6'2", 205 pounds, he filled his uniform with the broad shoulders and bulk more suited to a running back. His nickname was Tank, and early in his career with the New York Jets he took turns in practice at quarterback, fullback, halfback, tight end and wide receiver. Jets coach Weeb Ewbank, however, saw in Turner the potential to be a placekicker and soon turned him into one.
Turner went on to play for 16 seasons, seven with New York, then nine with the Denver Broncos, and score 1,439 points, a total that ranks 10th on the alltime list. "I didn't belong in pro football," says Turner, 60, who was drafted in 1963 as a quarterback, the position he had played at Utah State. "I had no moves. I just ran people over. Everything I accomplished was because of Weeb. I had attempted only two field goals in high school and three in college, but he let me try. He taught me."
Now Turner wants to return Ewbank's favor by helping others fulfill their potential and find success. Since the fall of 2000 he has been working at Jefferson Senior High in the Denver suburb of Edgewater as an academic coach in the National Football Foundation's (NFF) Play It Smart program, which provides educational counseling and mentoring to football players in at-risk high schools. At Jefferson, where many students come from low-income families, Turner spends an hour each day in study hall with about 30 football players. He's officially responsible for monitoring their academic performance but often winds up advising his charges, most of whom are Hispanic, on everything from girlfriends to job applications. Turner has taken to the work with a missionary's zeal, using an approach as straight ahead as his kicking style. "It's only me and the boys," he says. "It's not a United Way commercial. I'm there every day. They're good kids, but a lot of them have no
shot. I'm going to make sure they get their shot."
In the Jefferson players, Turner has found walling subjects. Midway through last year he discovered that some of the boys were coasting through school, taking an unhealthy dose of less demanding courses, including auto shop, ceramics and weight-lifting. "I got mad," he says. "If the students aren't satisfying their core requirements, they're not going to get out of here. I started checking everyone's classes then, and a bunch of the kids came to me and said, 'We want to go to college. Can you help us?' "
"That story almost made me cry," says Alex Kroll, 64, a 1961 All-America center and linebacker for Rutgers as well as the former president and CEO of advertising giant Young & Rubicam, who founded Play It Smart back in 1998. "Those kids did want to take algebra and physics. It's not like Jim's just talking about it. He's an evangelist for the program."
Turner feels he was born to the job because he knows where the players are coming from. His father, Bayard, who had only a fourth-grade education, worked for C&H Sugar on a loading dock in Crockett, Calif., near Oakland, and Jim grew up poor. "My dad lifted hundred-pound sugar sacks for 32 years before he got laid off," he says. "I was born on the county. I've been there. My boys know that if they try to bull---- me, it ain't going to work."
In only 18 months Turner and his players have achieved some fine results. Fourteen of the boys made the honor roll last semester. In Turner's first year 10 of his 11 seniors graduated, and eight are in college. "I was real excited to hear about Jim's involvement," says Archie Manning, former star quarterback at Ole Miss and for the New Orleans Saints, who helps administer the program as a board member of the NFF, which runs Play It Smart in 44 schools across the country. "Football is part of the whole high school experience. Not all these boys are going to play in college, but they need our support."
Turner's work was interrupted last summer after he suffered a heart attack—a particularly frightening event given that both of his older brothers had died of such attacks before age 30. As part of his recovery, which includes a three-mile walk on a treadmill and 12 pills each day, Turner has had to temporarily give up riding his bicycle, his greatest passion since he retired in 1979. "Normally I ride about 3,000 miles a year," he says. "My cardiologist told me that in June, if I followed his program, I'd be able to go over Vail Pass, which is at about 10,000 feet. It's a bitch, but it's a fun ride."
Jim and his wife of 36 years, Mary Kay, live in the foothills of the Rockies, in the house they built in Arvada, Colo., after Jim was traded to Denver in 1971. They have three daughters, all of whom are grown and live in the area. For now Jim contents himself with shepherding his flock at Jefferson. "I've told my boys, 'Just trust me, and I will lead you,' " he says. "I love these kids. I'm their counselor. I'm their surrogate father. I'm their friend."