Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book Review: The Next Level – A Game I Had to Play, by Vernon Turner

By Rick Morris

NOTE: A few months ago, FDH booked Vernon Turner as a guest on our program and prior to doing so, we acquired a copy of his book. We wanted to post a review of it after we had the opportunity to read through it a few more times. He had long been on our radar, as a high school football star from Staten Island – the same area populated by our Senior Producer “The FDH New York Bureau” Steve Cirvello.

The genre of sports memoirs can almost be a bit numbing, filled as it is with stories of overcoming great odds to achieve unlikely success. It’s the rare book that forces you to put aside such cynicism and to understand that on occasion, an athlete can relate a tale of great inspiration and motivation to others. Vernon Turner accomplishes just that in his masterful story THE NEXT LEVEL: A GAME I HAD TO PLAY.

The odds he overcame were almost insurmountable, both for their severity and their repetition at various points along the way. His physical frame, deemed too small for the NFL by most talent evaluators, carried a heart large enough to beat back those challenges and the far more fierce ones thrown at him literally since the day of his conception – occurring as it did in the form of a gang rape on his teenage mother.

That horrific detail, and his mother’s subsequent descent into drug abuse and prostitution as a result of her psychic scarring, set the tone for a life of challenges that should make the rest of us feel more than a bit guilty the next time we whine about having a tough day. A private person by nature, Vernon chose to make his story public in the hopes that it can inspire others who are facing overwhelming challenges. The logic in his belief is unassailable. It was good to hear in our interview that unburdening himself of the secrets has proven therapeutic as well. God knows he deserves some relief.

I’m going to outline key parts of the book in such a way not to spoil the way that he lays it all out, but in a way that demonstrates the threads that he ties together very well.

^ in his adolescence, how frustration and bad circumstances led him to fights with both his mom and his dad (who he pointedly notes moved past the “stepdad” designation decisively) not long before they passed away – and the guilt that these instances caused him

^ the regrettable part of the fatherless-family cycle repeating itself in the form of daughter Ashley and son Joshua, whose lives did not really include him

^ how he overcame his slight frame by developing his body through intense training to be capable of immense speed – and how he came to be part of a crop of players in the 1990s (along with others such as Eric Metcalf and Dave Meggett) who paved the way for later small-back superstars like Brian Westbrook and Chris Johnson

^ finding the right small-college atmosphere when he was overlooked by the big boys even after an award-winning high-school career – and winning two national championships for that program

^ the satisfaction of other accomplishments, such as setting the city long-jump record in high school

^ the incredible feeling of having an impossible promise come true – when Bo Jackson presented him with an award at a banquet, he told him he’d play against him in the NFL some day

^ the inspiration of being able to look up his hero, Walter Payton, and obtain training tips from “Sweetness”

^ the angels aside from his parents who surrounded him throughout his developmental years: his aunt Pat, Pop Warner coach Bill Thatcher, high school coach Bill Olivieri, Carson-Newman College coaches Ken Sparks and Dennis Webb and the college academic affairs administrative assistant, Lynda Hill

^ his NFL journey – from the lows (being undrafted, getting cut in his first training camp by Denver, suffering through the perils of life under Coach Wayne Fontes in Detroit) to the highs (going to the Super Bowl in his rookie season with Buffalo – albeit as a player who had been deactivated just prior to the playoffs – and the triumph of notching the first kick or punt return TD in Tampa Buc history with Fontes watching from the opposing sidelines)

^ leaving the NFL prior to having the jersey pulled off of him and deciding to sample NFL Europe while he still had some football left in him

Vernon tells an honest story and does not spare himself, including his wish that he had been a parent more actual than biological to the two kids he fathered in his early days. He poured open his soul to write this book, to prove definitively to those in need of an affirmative example that faith and Faith can take you anywhere. Few overcame more to achieve what he did and when he says, “If I could do it, you can do it,” you can trust the statement absolutely.

Here’s his appearance on our program discussing the book and the single greatest moment of his career.

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