Breathitt Boy Taken in NFL Draft

by Stephen D. Bowling

Breathitt High School has a long story of success in football.  Since its first team in the early 1970s, three Kentucky State Championship trophies have found their way back down Highway 15 to Jackson.  We have supplied numerous colleges with high-quality and high-impact players, yet one accomplishment remains unachieved.  BHS has not placed a player in the National Football League draft- yet. 

However, one Breathitt County-born man did hear his name called in 1963 during the second round of the NFL draft.

Herschel Turner was born on June 17, 1942, in Breathitt County to Greenberry and Deltha (Turner) Turner.  Their families, the Turners, Mayses, Johnsons, Shouses, and Barretts, settled the hollows of the Appalachian foothills shortly after the turn of the 19th Century. 

Herschel Turner

Like so many mountain families, Greenberry and Deltha Turner left the hills shortly after World War II concluded to settle in Campbell County.  Their son, Herschel Turner, attended Campbell County schools, where he played right tackle and guard for the high school football team.  Turner grew in stature and was described as a “giant of a man.”

He graduated in 1959 and looked for opportunities to play at the college level.  Head Coach Blanton Collier recruited and signed Turner to play football for the University of Kentucky.  He worked his way up to a lean 230 pounds and stood 6 feet and three inches tall as he entered college.  Coaches across the Southeastern Conference took notice.

In 1961, Turner made his first big splash in the SEC as a Sophomore when he and the defense held Vanderbilt scoreless on the way to Kentucky’s 7-0 win.  Turner was responsible for the “most brazen theft of a football” when he forced Commodore’s superstar quarterback, Hank Lesense, to cough up the ball in the third quarter.  Earl Ruby, a writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal, said, “Turner bullied his way through the line and bore down on the passer, who was frantically looking for a receiver… Lesesne found no receiver– and no escape.  Turner clamped both his big arms around the passer and– right before a homecoming crowd of more than 26,000, two or three dozen cops and assorted guards– he stole the ball out from under Lesesne’s arm and galloped off with it.”

He did not score; in fact, the papers said that he did not even get far.  But the takeaway helped spark a Kentucky rally that led to a touchdown two possessions later.

Herschel Turner wore number 70 during his four years at Kentucky. He is the second from the left, front row.

When Charlie Bradshaw took over as Head Coach of the Kentucky Wildcat football team in 1962, Turner was an essential part of the defense for the “Thin Thirty.”  Bradshaw instituted a rigorous training approach and used methods that some players described as “brutal” when enforcing team rules.  By the time the season started, Turner was one of only 30 players remaining on the roster.

Herschel Turner at UK.

During his four years at Kentucky, Turner and his teams compiled a record of 16-20-4.  Despite the teams’ struggles, Turner received recognition for his on-the-field efforts.  He was named the Team Captain in September 1963 for his leadership on and off the field.  Later that year, Sports Illustrated Magazine named him the National Lineman of the Week in November following a breakout game against Baylor.  He and the defense forced Baylor into a negative -44 yard afternoon.  He recorded nine tackles and three assists, but Coach Bradshaw said his constant pressure on the quarterback “changed the game and is not on the stat sheet.”  Bradshaw also commended Turner for his blocking, allowing quarterback Rick Norton time to complete passes.

After the season ended, Turner was named to the First Team on the UPI All-SEC as a senior.  He was invited and played in the 26th Annual Blue-Gray Game in Montgomery, Alabama.  He also showcased his abilities at the Senior Bowl.

Turner received All-SEC honors in 1963 and a listed in The Nashville Banner on November 26.

The American Football League owners met in New York City on November 30, 1963, and conducted the 1964 Draft.  Turner, listed as a Tackle, was selected by the Oakland Raiders as their ninth-round pick (72nd overall).  The following week the National Football League met.  On Monday, December 2, 1963, while Turner was preparing for the Blue-Gray match-up, owners of the NFL teams met at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, to draft prospective players.  The St. Louis Cardinals chose Turner as their first selection in the second round (number 24 overall).  Turner had to choose between the two offers from two teams in different leagues.

After discussions with his coaches and family, Turner signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.  In 1964, He played left tackle in 14 games and recorded five starts and two fumble recoveries.  Turner won the team’s “Big Red Rookie of The Year” award. 

Herschel Turner during training at Fort Leonard Wood.

In the off-season, Turner fulfilled his 6-month requirements to the United States Army and attended training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Newspapers reported that the nine-week training course was “nothing more than a workout” for the well-conditioned lineman.  Turner, a reservist with the 21st General Hospital, told reporters that the military discipline would not ruffle him because he played two years at Kentucky under Coach Charlie Bradshaw.  He said he would “just do as I am told, and everything should be just fine.”  After his graduation, the Army assigned Turner, the “soft-spoken giant,” to Fort Sam Houston as a dental technician. 

He was out of military training in time and reported to the Cardinals’ training camp in July 1965 at Forest Lake, Illinois.  In 1965, Turner played in 13 games and recorded one fumble recovery.  He told reporters he would like to play football for another eight or nine years before retiring.

On October 24, 1965, Turner and the Cardinals lost to the Washington Redskins 24-20.  The greater loss resulted from a knee “bruise” that offensive tackle Turner experienced late in the game.  Jack Rockwell, the Cardinals trainer, dismissed the injury and said that Turner would be ready to face New York the following week.  Rockwell later changed Turner’s status on October 24 to injured. Rockwell told reporters, “The knee bruise he received last Sunday turned out to be more severe than we thought.” 

Doctors determined that Turner suffered severe damage to the cartilage in his knee and scheduled surgery at the Barnes Hospital in December 1965.  He was removed from the active list on December 9, and Cardinals coach Wally Lemm called up Ed McQuarters to fill Turner’s spot.

Turner underwent surgery, and a long and difficult rehabilitation followed.  By 1966, it became apparent that a return to the team would be delayed.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that “there is no great hope that they (Turner and running back Bill Thornton) will be ready until well into the season, although they will remain with the team to nurse stubborn knee difficulties that followed surgery more than six months ago.” 

Sadly, his knee injury forced his retirement.  He never played another game in St. Louis, and the team later sent Turner to New Orleans, and he signed to play one year with the Los Angeles Rams. The injured knee never recovered enough. Another injury later sealed the deal.

Number 63 completed his football career but never gave up his love of football.  Early in his all-to-brief career, a reporter asked Turner which position he would likely play.  Turner told him, “It doesn’t matter where you play football.  If you love this game, you have to be willing to play anywhere.”

Turner left the league and worked 15 years for the 3M company. He left and started his own successful packing and shipping company which he manage until his retirement.

Herschel Turner, Breathitt County’s only connection to the NFL draft, retired from the game he loved so much and currently lives with his family in the St. Louis, Missouri area. 

© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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