FULLERTON, Calif. — Antoine Turner will graduate from Fullerton College next week and then join Boise State’s football team as a promising defensive tackle on a full-ride athletic scholarship.
This should be the ride of his life.
Instead, Sunday night, Turner slept in his girlfriend’s car.
Turner crashed there because he is homeless ... again.
He upgrades to cheap motels only on nights his girlfriend, R’Mya DeMarrco, earns enough tip money at her job as a waitress.
These are actually good times compared with the nights Turner spent alone, with suicidal thoughts, sleeping on a steel-grated picnic table at Anaheim’s La Palma Park.
“That’s when I was like, ‘I’m never going to ever get out of this,’ ” Turner said Wednesday during an interview in the football offices at Fullerton College.
Fullerton’s coaches helped Turner develop into a Division 1-A player worthy of Boise State’s attention. Turner had 34 tackles last fall for the Hornets with six sacks, 13 tackles for loss and one interception.
Overcoming poverty was another matter.
Turner grew up poor in New Orleans, and nothing changed in California. When Fullerton head football coach Tim Byrnes called Turner’s grandfather in Louisiana for help, Byrnes was told the player could “sleep better on the streets out there than he can here.”
Turner is 21 but he’s still waiting for life to deal him blackjack.
His situation substantially improved last year after he was allowed to board with DeMarrco’s family, but that arrangement ended last month. Turner said his girlfriend’s relatives are living in subsidized housing and authorities discovered an extra football player on the couch.
So Turner headed back to the street.
His story made national news after television station KTVB in Boise aired a story Sunday chronicling Turner’s plight. The segment’s title: “A Suitcase and a Dream.”
The station and school were flooded afterward with requests to help Turner, but many people were outraged to learn it would be against NCAA rules.
Tuesday, Boise State’s compliance department issued a statement to the TV station reminding everyone Turner could not receive assistance until he started summer school classes June 6.
“We need to make it clear to your viewers and Bronco fans that it is NOT permissible within NCAA rules for boosters of Boise State athletics to provide benefits to Mr. Turner,” the statement read. “That would include money, loans, gifts, discounts, transportation costs, etc.”
It was another reason for people to lash out, mostly on social media, about the NCAA’s arcane rules regarding the welfare of student athletes.
However, in this case, the NCAA quickly responded to Boise State’s waiver request and issued a Twitter reply posted at 10:21 Wednesday morning: “After Boise State’s request last night, the school may provide immediate assistance to football student-athlete Antoine Turner.”
Turner’s scholarship covers tuition, housing and food and provides him a chance to pursue NFL dreams.
The waiver allowed Boise State to put Turner up in a hotel immediately and provide him three meals a day.
Boise State spokesman Max Corbet confirmed Thursday morning the school would pay for Turner’s transportation to Idaho as soon as he completes his classes at Fullerton.
Turner was relieved, almost beyond words, when he learned help was coming soon.
“I’m kind of shell-shocked,” he said. “I never really expected anything like this to happen to me. I always had to learn to survive on my own. ... It’s just very, very emotional.”
However, Turner did not go so far as to say things were turning his way.
“The struggle is never over, it’s an ongoing struggle for me,” he said. “Even if I get the food and I get the place to sleep, I still have this planet on my shoulder that I have to get off. It’s not a chip, it’s a planet.”
Mild-mannered off the field, Turner said he intends to channel his lifetime of hardship and bring “football destruction” to Boise State’s opponents.
“And bring inspiration to every kid across America,” he added. “Let them know that no matter what you go through, no matter what someone says to you ... nobody can stop you from making your dream come true.”
Still, it is impossible for Turner to look forward without looking back.
“I’m always going to have anxiety because I feel like somebody always can take something away from me,” he said. “I’m never going to be calm.”
Turner is guarded because of what the world has already taken.
He lost his mother to cancer when he was 4. At 12, just before the school year started, the floods of Hurricane Katrina uprooted his family from New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.
Life has never been the same since. Katrina started a handoff from Turner’s father to a parade of relatives who were all just struggling to survive.
Turner turned to the streets, ran with a bad crowd for a spell but eventually found refuge in football at McDonogh No. 35 High School in New Orleans.
Turner didn’t have the grades to play at a four-year college so he opted for community college. He said Fullerton was the first school that popped up in his search.
“I had a feeling this was the college for me,” Turner said. “I felt like God planned all this out in an intricate way and it all worked out.”
Frank Daggs, his high school position coach at McDonogh, recommended Turner to Fullerton assistant coach Tom Maher. Maher said it is not uncommon for coaches of poor high schools to offer several players, but Turner clearly had potential.
“They want them all to escape,” Maher said. “But we just wanted the one.”
Turner arrived at Fullerton hoping for a life change but fell flat on his face. He redshirted his first year and played only five games as a second-year freshman. He was failing so miserably in school that Byrnes was forced to kick him off the team.
“He was stressed out, crying, he had no plan,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes initially had no idea how dire Turner’s financial situation had become. Byrnes has to juggle the ongoing problems of more than 100 players on his roster.
Byrnes said he told Turner “you need to go take care of your life.”
Turner didn’t know where to start. He worked briefly at a laundromat but mostly foundered. “They kicked me off and my life was shambles,” he recalled.
His relatives back home had no money to help. “They tried,” Turner said.
Turner moved to the park and went hungry. He said his weight dropped from 290 to 220 pounds. His life turned around when he met DeMarrco, a Cal State Fullerton student, and was allowed to move in with her relatives.
Eating steadily, his weight shot back up and his grades rose, too.
Byrnes offered Turner a second chance at football last fall. “He got stable,” Byrnes said. “He’s figured out how to make it.”
Turner said he is on track to graduate.
“He got another opportunity and he made it,” Byrnes said.
Turner might argue that he’s “made it.” Remember that chip on his shoulder the size of a planet?
At least now Turner has a plan. Plan A is to earn a degree at Boise State, he said, and Plan B is to play in the NFL.
Turner’s idol is former Minnesota Vikings All-Pro defensive lineman John Randle. Turner resembles Randle physically, but they also share similar back stories.
Randle grew up poor in Texas and made the NFL Hall of Fame despite not being drafted.
“He went through a lot just like I did,” Turner said.
Turner’s goal is to return the favor for disenfranchised kids coming up behind him.
“I want to inspire people,” Turner said. “Perseverance is a big word for me. You control whatever you want to do in life.
“I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.”