Exhaustion would be an understatement. Frustration, fatigue and worry don’t begin to cover it. With a big sigh, a glance up the ceiling and two hands running down his face to wipe off the sweat – but not the pain – coach Matt Turner said it all without saying anything.
For two-plus years, I’ve watched coach Turner be the invincible force out front leading the Pioneer football program back to prominence. He’s already larger than life in most circles – both figuratively and literally. He commands the room and, most importantly, the respect of those who follow him.
Brought up in Warren County and taught from an early age what it’s really like to work hard and deal with all the struggles life will throw at you, Turner persevered. As Johnny Cash might say, Turner grew up quick and grew up mean - His fists got hard and his wits got keen.
OK, Turner may not be mean (all the time). But everything else, it fits. Years of battles in the trenches, throwing men to the mat and wielding a wrench hardened Turner and made him a Steve Austin special – a tough SOB. Losing his parents, ones that he cared for deeply (and you know it if you’ve ever had the chance to listen to him speak about them) made him grow up quick.
Even if coach Turner and I still joke about how I recommended somebody else for the football job that he got, we’ve become good friends. Maybe that’s not professional on my part, but I don’t care. He’s hard not to like and even harder not to root for in life and on the football field.
He’s the prototypical big guy with a heart of gold. His players, almost universally, love him. His foes, almost universally, respect him – even if they’d probably like to take a swing at him every now and then (I wouldn’t recommended it).
His loyalty is unchallenged. His players are his children. Even if he will get in their grill to make a point, nobody outside of the program should dare run them down. Getting body-slammed through a table would probably be the least of the troubles if you dog a Pioneer in Turner’s presence.
He fights for his kids – and I saw how much fighting he was doing in the last 10 days.
It ripped him apart inside to make that call to DeKalb County last Friday and it was only more intense when he stepped up – BEFORE ANYBODY ELSE IN THIS COMMUNITY – and shut down his program for 10 days Tuesday. Every part of him wanted to fight, but he knew fighting COVID wasn’t going to be as easy as simply imposing his will.
This was a battle that had to be conceded so Turner and the Pioneers could win the war. And they still can, hopefully starting Monday, Sept. 6.
That being said, it still wasn’t easy to digest the thought of shutting down for 10 days. I sat with Turner for hours Tuesday, gathered in his office with his assistants as we all used the conversation as a coping mechanism.
Sitting in front of a wall that adorns his Pioneer logo, one he took the time to paint on the weekend he found out he had the job, Turner let out his feelings a little at a time.
About DeKalb County’s postponement: “We made the right call last week. That conversation was tough, but it would’ve been a lot worse to be calling them this week and telling them we’ve exposed their team.”
About missing a matchup with the up-and-coming Warriors: “Man, I told their coach they looked like world beaters in Week 1. They’re salty, but I liked our game plan. I knew it was going to be a good game. I really wanted to match up with them and maybe we will at the end of the year – we’ll keep our options open.”
About not getting to go to Memphis: “Memphis was going to be a big trip for a lot of these kids. It wasn’t just the game – we were going to make it a weekend and take them to see Memphis play that Saturday. It was going to be really big for our team to grow together, but there is just no way to put that many kids in close contact for two separate five-hour bus rides.”
We talked about a lot more too. By the time we were wrapping up, Turner looked at the clock and realized practice would’ve been well over by that time – had they had a chance to get on the field. All the coaches said they could’ve been home early for a change. I laughed, knowing all-too-well that even if the team stops practicing at 6 p.m., Turner doesn’t stop working until much later.
As if to prove my point, I started toward the door and Turner made a reverse course toward his office and the equipment room. Maybe there was some laundry to be done or helmets to hang up. It could’ve been him needing to go over some more paperwork or sit down and contact some kids to make sure they were OK.
Whatever it was, I’m sure Turner was working for his kids. He’s always working for his Pioneers.