BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On the morning of March 9, 2015, former Patriots fullback Kevin Turner was losing his struggle with an incurable brain disease. His parents, who had left their longtime home and moved in to care for him, saw his nurse guiding their terminally ill son out of his house in his wheelchair.
Turner, a divorced father of three minor children, was all but paralyzed. He was breathing through a tube in his neck, and he took nutrition through a tube to his stomach. His mother asked the nurse, Allison Sanford, where they were headed.
Turner, then 45, was the face of a class-action suit by thousands of National Football League veterans over brain damage they suffered playing the game. As the lead plaintiff, he had campaigned from his wheelchair for the league to compensate the afflicted and make the sport safer for future generations, including his son, Nolan, now a member of Clemson’s undefeated football team.
“The nurse said they were going shopping,” his mother, Myra Turner, recalled.
Instead, they went to a church, where Turner’s nurse became his wife — and heir.
Was it an act of devotion, as Allison Sanford Turner claims? Or the product of a caregiver’s greed, as Turner’s children contend?
Turner died a year after that private wedding. Only then did his children — Nolan, now 20, Natalie, 17, and Cole, 15 — learn that he had created a trust two days before he took his last breath. The trust made Allison Sanford Turner, who never lived with her husband, the sole beneficiary of his NFL pension for the rest of her life: $108,000 annually for four years, $43,200 a year thereafter.
Turner’s estate also was awarded $5 million when the NFL settled the class-action case after he died. The trust called for Sanford Turner to receive 35 percent of the payment, with his children left to equally divide 65 percent, after loans and other obligations were paid.
For the children, the grief of watching their father wither in his final years has been compounded by losing much of the compensation for the disease and disabilities that led to his death to a woman they have not seen or heard from since his funeral, his parents said.
Now the children are fighting back, alleging in an Alabama court that the football-related disease that killed their father — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which Boston University researchers say caused him to develop a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) — rendered him mentally incompetent to marry his nurse and create an estate plan on his deathbed.
In the age of football and CTE, the Turner case represents yet another wrenching outcome for the family of a man who dedicated his life to the game and lost it to brain damage.
“It’s a big, tragic mess,” said Joyce Turner, his former wife and the children’s mother.
The children have asked a judge to annul the marriage and order Sanford Turner to forfeit her inheritance. Standing with them is an influential ally: Dr. Ann McKee, the director of Boston University’s CTE Center.
In October, McKee submitted an affidavit stating that she knew Turner well during the last five years of his life. She reported examining his brain and spinal cord postmortem and discovering he died with “severe and widespread CTE.”
“It is my learned opinion,” McKee stated, “that Kevin Turner lacked the mental capacity to make an informed decision concerning entering into a marriage contract.”
Sanford Turner, in her own affidavit, said her husband’s mind “remained sharp” until his death. She cast doubt on how well McKee knew him, and she said surrendering her inheritance would cause her “major financial difficulty” as she supports herself and her own three children.
Sanford Turner, through her attorney, declined to comment for this story. She lives in Dora, Ala., outside Birmingham, in a home she bought four months after Kevin Turner died. Records show she has received nearly $300,000 in NFL pension funds since his death.
Lawyer’s fee contested
In the days after the church ceremony, Kevin Turner told his family and friends about it. His charitable foundation made it public in a Facebook post a week after the marriage.
“Please join us in congratulating the newlyweds!!’’ the post said. “Crazy kids up and eloped!’’
But as the couple honeymooned at home, Kevin Turner’s family began wondering about the ethics of a registered nurse marrying him. Licensed health care workers are responsible for maintaining professional boundaries with their patients.
Turner’s children allege in their lawsuit that Sanford Turner “engaged in an ongoing romantic and sexual relationship with her patient in violation of Alabama Board of Nursing rules and regulations.”
Joyce Turner filed a complaint with the state board, citing the allegations, which Sanford Turner has denied. A spokeswoman for the nursing board declined to comment on the case, other than to say Sanford Turner remains licensed. Sanford Turner stated in June that she was working part-time at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
While Kevin Turner’s wife and children wrangle over his inheritance, the children are coping with another financial challenge. Their grandfather, Raymond Turner, said Kevin Turner’s lawyer in the class-action case is wrongfully demanding an exorbitant fee from the $5 million award. Raymond is fighting the lawyer in court on the children’s behalf.
“He’s not taking the money away from me,” said Raymond. “He’s taking it away from the kids, and that ain’t right.”
Lawyers for Turner’s children declined requests to interview them.
Turner’s lawyer in the NFL case, Florida-based Steven Marks, already has been awarded more than $6 million in fees for helping to represent the class of players suing the league, including Turner. Records show Marks initially sought 40 percent, or $2 million, of Turner’s $5 million award, then asked for 25 percent ($1.25 million).
Now, Raymond Turner said, Marks wants $850,000.
Marks said by e-mail, “Our firm proudly represented Kevin Turner for more than six years. During this period, we devoted extensive time and resources to his individual case in addition to the common benefit work we did for the class. We are only seeking a fair and appropriate fee for our work.”
As the litigation continues, a court-appointed guardian for Turner’s children reported to the Alabama judge in September that he “is deeply concerned about the minor children’s future and financial stability.”
Turner’s children live with their mother, who said she needs to sell the family home to support them. Nolan received a football scholarship from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, his father’s close friend and former teammate at Alabama. He is a sophomore safety preparing to play Notre Dame Dec. 29 in the Cotton Bowl, with the winner advancing to the national championship game.
But Nolan’s sister Natalie is headed to the University of Alabama next year without a scholarship, and Cole is a ninth grader at Vestavia Hills High School in suburban Birmingham.
Noticing a change in him
Joyce and Kevin Turner met in Boston in 1993, during his second season with the Patriots. A third-round draft pick out of Alabama, Turner never missed a game in his three seasons in New England. He also never shied from a collision.
The Globe dubbed him a “human wrecking ball,” and the Patriots prized him.
“He is leading us in tackles, total points, big plays, and has been extremely productive,” Dante Scarnecchia, then the special teams coach, told the Globe. “He’s just a hell of a football player.”
When Bill Parcells became Patriots head coach in 1993, his offense relied in part on Turner plowing holes for running back Leonard Russell, who gained more than 1,000 yards that year. Turner typically blocked — and tackled — by leading with his head.
“He would show his helmet with all those scars on it as evidence,” McKee said in announcing his CTE diagnosis.
Turner was honored in 1993 as the Patriots’ unsung hero.
Joyce Turner said she knew she wanted to marry him when they left a Boston nightclub one night after an outing with a group of Patriots. While everyone else walked past a homeless veteran on the sidewalk, she recalled, Turner patted him on the back, thanked him for his service, and handed him a $50 bill.
“You couldn’t find a better person, honestly, truly,” she said.
But he changed over time. Although he was always a loving father, Joyce said, Turner became more dispirited as the effects of countless head blows took a toll. She said he was cognitively deteriorating even before he finished his NFL career in 2000 after five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Turner retired with $3.8 million, Joyce said, but he lost much of it through habitual day trading: buying and selling financial securities the same day. She said he also became addicted to painkillers after multiple football-related surgeries, his once-sunny disposition further fading.
Kevin Turner bottomed out in 2003 when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a security guard with whom he was friendly outside his hotel room in Nashville.
“I didn’t even know who he was anymore,” Joyce recalled. “Kevin knew something was wrong, too.”
They reached out to McKee as well as Ted Johnson, another former Patriot who has suffered from CTE symptoms. They got explanations but no solutions.
There are few treatments for CTE symptoms and many unanswered questions about the disease, including why some players get it and others don’t.
“Kevin immediately said, ‘I’m donating my brain,’ ” for research, Joyce Turner recalled.
He also created the Kevin Turner Foundation to raise money for research. Yet his personal finances remained in disarray, and he and Joyce divorced in 2010, around the time he filed for bankruptcy protection.
Raymond Turner said he also sought answers for his son’s faulty decisions, some of which involved commercial real estate deals in Birmingham.
“I asked Dr. McKee if the CTE affected Kevin’s decision-making, and she said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Raymond recalled. “To me, that explains him getting married [to Sanford] and some of the other things he did.”
Diagnosed with ALS
Studies have shown a link between repetitive head trauma in football and CTE. They also have found that NFL players are at least three times more likely to develop disorders of the brain and nervous system such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.
Turner began playing tackle football when he was 5. He played every fall for the next 25 years, and he estimated that he had more than 50 concussions, two of which rendered him unconscious.
The last knockout came in 1997, when he was playing for the Eagles against the Green Bay Packers in Philadelphia. When he regained consciousness on the sideline, Turner recalled, he asked a teammate, “Are we in Philly or Green Bay?”
According to a statement he gave a US Senate committee in 2014 through a former Alabama teammate, Turner said an Eagles doctor screened him on the sideline. One test required him to memorize four simple words and repeat them two minutes later.
“We did that test four times until I got it right,” Turner recalled.
He said he was cleared to play and eagerly returned to the game. He then participated in practice two days later “with no time to let my brain heal.”
“When I look back,” Turner testified, “I really wish I had not been so ignorant about what head trauma can do.”
He was diagnosed with ALS in 2010 at the age of 41. ALS and CTE attack the brain and spinal cord, but the effects differ. ALS patients lose control of their muscles, leading to paralysis, while their minds generally remain intact.
The opposite is true of CTE. People with CTE can suffer from a wide range of cognitive damage, from depression and aggression to dementia and suicidal thoughts, but they are far less likely to lose muscle control.
After Turner died, McKee discovered that he essentially was afflicted with both diseases. She concluded from an autopsy that he died of an ALS-type disorder caused by CTE, which she had diagnosed in 16 other deceased football players.
“The severity of Mr. Turner’s CTE was extraordinary and unprecedented for an athlete who died in his 40s,” McKee said.
The NFL accepted Turner’s diagnosis of ALS, which meant his estate would receive the largest award possible under the settlement: $5 million. A payment for a CTE diagnosis is $4 million.
Nurse comes onto the scene
In 2012, Turner filed a will in which he directed that his inheritance be divided equally between his children, with his father serving as their representative.
When Turner’s ALS began to rapidly advance, his daughter Natalie, then 11, began caring for him, including injecting his medication. But when the demands became more than she could handle, Sanford was hired in 2013.
Several months later, Joyce and Kevin Turner reconciled. They bought a large home and the family reunited. Joyce said they spoke of remarrying.
Sanford remained Turner’s visiting nurse.
“Kevin liked her, and we were happy for him,” Joyce said.
Within four months, however, Joyce became suspicious about their relationship and asked Turner about it. The next day, she said, he moved back to his previous home, where his parents would also move to help care for him.
In an affidavit, Joyce said Kevin explained that he left his family “because the nurse told him that if he didn’t move out of our house, she would no longer be his nurse and he would not be able to start a relationship with her, and that scared him.”
Sanford Turner, in her answer to the civil complaint, denied that she exploited Turner or engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship with him in violation of state nursing regulations.
She stated that she became engaged to Turner in December 2014, soon after he moved out of the family home. She had divorced her husband, Dennis Reno, earlier that year.
“Kevin’s family and friends knew about our engagement,” she said. “It was not a secret.”
She submitted to the court a copy of a Washington Post story, published Dec. 15, 2014, that cited the engagement and commented on Turner’s mental condition.
“Turner’s mind is sound — his humor, personality, charm all still there,” Post reporter Rick Maese wrote.
The pastor who married them, Rev. Wade Griffith of Grace, a United Methodist congregation, stated in an affidavit that Turner was “completely lucid and coherent” at the time. Two church workers served as witnesses.
“Both Kevin and Allison seemed genuine in their commitment to one another,” Griffith said.
Two lawyers helped Turner plan his trust, which superseded his 2012 will. The lawyers also asserted in affidavits that Turner was mentally competent until his last breath.
His parents say otherwise. Raymond Turner said his son’s mental condition had declined since at least 2012.
“Kevin was totally committed to his children,” he said in an affidavit. “It was inconceivable that he was of sound mind at the time of the marriage due to his severely compromised mental and physical condition and his inability to appreciate the effect the marriage with the nurse would have on his children.”
In late November, Turner’s parents visited a football stadium in Prattville, outside Montgomery, where their son played as a child and starred in high school. The field has been named in Turner’s honor and a granite monument to him has been erected there, topped with an anvil to signify his strength and perseverance.
From the football stadium, the Turners traveled to their family plot at Prattville Memorial Gardens. It was a gray morning. A wintry wind whipped across the cemetery.
As they stood at their son’s grave, Myra wept and Raymond spoke of hope and faith and their son’s legacy, which endures through film documentaries: “Climb for Kevin,’’ which focuses on a group that scaled Mount Kilimanjaro to honor him, and “American Man: Kevin Turner’s Price for Gridiron Glory.”
At their feet lay Turner’s golden-engraved headstone. It bore the inscription, “Our beloved son and world’s greatest father.”