Commentary

Former lineman Turley now slings guitar

Originally Published: September 30, 2010
By Mary Buckheit | Special to ESPN.com

Football players are rarely compared to great American novelists; especially football players minted at State who emerged with long hair and sleeves of tattoos.

[+] EnlargeKyle Turley
Gridiron Records"I always had side bands during football seasons," Kyle Turley said. "We'd play charity golf tournaments or shows at the House of Blues and we'd sell out the place. I always knew that when I was done playing football I'd continue to play music."

But consider the names F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Joseph Heller and William Golding and observe how quickly each name triggers exactly one singular exposition from each individual's body of work.

In that way, Kyle Turley's ubiquitously known helmet hurl of 2001 is the Catch-22 in the life of a thoroughly multitalented and impossibly conscientious entertainer.

From San Diego State, Turley was selected by the New Orleans Saints as the seventh overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft. The 6-foot-5 offensive tackle spent five seasons in New Orleans and earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2000 before he was traded to the St. Louis Rams in 2003. Turley played two seasons with the Rams and two more with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring in 2007.

After 10 years of pro football, Turley capitalized on his newfound freedom and indulged in his earliest passion by traveling the globe with a surfboard -- justifiably one of his greatest talents. Once he had his fix of the world's wildest waves, Turley moved to Nashville to focus on yet another one of his veritable proclivities: Music.

Turley was quick to venture into the business of the industry and launched his own label, Gridiron Records, with Tim Pickett. While representing other artists, Turley also wrote and recorded his first album. He released "Anger Management" (iTunes | Amazon), which debuted on the iTunes Top 200 Country albums list, earlier this year and now he is performing on stages across the country with Hank III (grandson of the great Hank Williams).

Maybe "flying helmet" will forever be the words associated with the name Kyle Turley, but at least after you read the interview with him, you'll know that Turley's certainly a man of many talents.

The Life: Some retired players cling to their NFL days. Sadly, they kind of fold without the structure that football provides. You are one of the few who welcomes the uncertainty of life after football. How come?

Turley: Oh yeah. I live for it. I stay free. I don't answer to the man anymore. I don't have people telling me what to do, what to write, what to sing, what to say, or who to distribute with.

When you're a football player, you just focus on football. Your job is to play your best. The music business is actually harder for me because I have to be a writer, and a musician, and a businessman, and an entertainer. But I believe in this thing so much and I really want to accomplish something greater than my football career.

I don't want to let a football career define who I am. That was just one thing that I was damn good at. I did everything I could to stand out in the NFL and I played as long as my body would let me, but music is a life-long passion of mine and it justifies exactly where I'm at on this road. For me, it's about being able to have something I love to do and going out there and doing it. It's not about people cheering for me, it's just about me. I'm doing this. I am proving everybody wrong and the self-satisfaction that comes from that is incredible. I'm enjoying the hell out of it.

The Life: Can I call your song "Flyin' Helmets" a bloody Valentine to the NFL?

Turley: Yeah. Oh yeah!

The Life: You named a lot of names. Have you heard from Mike Martz and Jerry Jones?

Turley: I hope I do! I really hope so. That means they've heard my record. We'll see. Those songs are honest and direct and they are for the fans.

People wanted me to write a book when I finished playing ball -- because I've got some stories to tell! It was one of those things I contemplated and I've even got chapters written but as I was writing it I was just like, you know what, man, I'm gonna keep writing but pour it into this album and make something that people can listen to and hear the passion in my voice and know how I'm feeling.

I just believe that music is really the best way to bring out the truth. If music is written by the same person who is performing it, there is perhaps no better insight to who they are and how they feel. That's why I wrote these songs. "Flyin' Helmets" is my story. It's my experience of 10 years in the NFL put to music. All of the ups and downs, and all the people I wanted to call out -- who I feel deserved to be called out -- it's my ode to life in the league.

The Life: In "Flyin' Helmets" you also express your discontent with the NFL Players Association. You've put in a lot of time as an activist for retired players. Part of the proceeds from your album go to the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund [a non-profit, 501(c) (3) corporation, established to provide financial assistance and coordinate social services to retired NFL players in dire need]. Why is this cause so important to you?

Turley: I remember one of the first union meetings I ever had back in New Orleans about retired player policies. A representative came down there and I sat and listened and I knew then that it was something I wanted to get involved with. For me, it's about never forgetting where I came from.

The fact that I was paid millions of dollars to play a game while the guys who taught me how to play it only made tens of thousands. That was never lost on me. It was a no-brainer to give back to those who came before.

The money continues to grow. And I don't care if you were a player who just got out last year! The NFL is not like any other company. Retired players can't be likened to some guy who worked in the mailroom for 50 years. This is a game that relies on its history for its present profitability.

The NFL will never make money off of its new incoming players to equate to the money that they make off of the far-reaching history of the NFL and the merchandise sold because of great players of the past. Being that the case, we have a responsibility to take care of retired players.

The Life: What are you most thankful for from your player experience?

Turley: I guess I'm just grateful to have the things I have. I've had three teammates pass away and it really hits home. I'm 35 … and that might seem young to a lot of people but I've lived a bunch.

The Life: What's your advice to the union and to your peers?

Turley: Research the retired player pipe. Understand the pre-'59 guys and the guys that played in the '70s. Every active player has to get educated and be involved. From there, the union's got to resolve the disability issues. Players are killing themselves. No matter the money being paid, life happens.

The one reality is that, in the NFL, when your career is done you get a box to put your pads in and all the stuff you had in your locker and then you're out the door on your way. There's no human resource person to walk you through the steps of the rest of your life and help you move on from the company. There's nothing like that. Nothing that any of these other corporations have in place.

The fact that our union has failed us, to just throws guys out into a world of the unknown for most guys because you've played football since you were a little kid -- that's all you know. People can say: "Boo hoo. Too bad, so sad. You guys made a bunch of money and you played in the NFL. I'd give my left arm for it." But the reality of the situation is, the guys that end up doing it don't know anything else. If you did it too, you wouldn't know anything else.

Just like a doctor, or a lawyer, or a guy who does construction. When your job stops, there should be things in place to help you move on from that occupation and the NFL has done the exact opposite. They've fought the NFL retired players tooth-and-nail -- and in some cases, to death -- and it's offensive and I take it very seriously. I will continue to do so and hopefully rally support and awareness and continue to keep these issues on the table as much as possible because until they make it go away -- which they can, they are capable of doing that -- but until they do, it's just going to continue.

The Life: In the song "Anger Management" you air out the helmet toss. Do you ever feel misunderstood because of what people think about you just because of that one incident?

Turley: I don't think I'm misunderstood. I still stand up for myself through that thing. I think people realize what they see is what they get with me. I'm long-haired, tattooed and don't give a s--- .

I'll tell you what I believe is right and wrong and if you don't agree with me then so be it; we can discuss things. I can talk religion and politics and sports and maybe I surprise a lot of people because they think playing football is the only thing I think about but that was never me. I always had other passions and that's maybe what makes me different. I was never just a football player.

[+] EnlargeKyle Turley
AP Photo/Bill HaberYou wouldn't have known it by this moment against the Jets in 2001, but Kyle Turley sincerely cares about his fellow NFL alumni and he's doing something about it.

My goal in life is to leave a legacy behind and for me to do that, I can't live on my laurels of past success. Now I'm in another phase and I need to move on and do other things. Every one of us is going to take the dirt nap and when I'm gone I want to make sure that they knew I was sprinting home sliding cleats up.

I don't want to be clean, I don't want to be unbroken, I want to be a tattered mess when it's said and done. That's at least what I want my kids to see so that they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I've lived life and I didn't just breathe the air on this beautiful planet.

The Life: You've only been away from the game for three years, does NFL season still trigger something in your game-time psyche?

Turley: Yeah, of course, you come to feel it, you know? My body has been conditioned to think that at this time of year, I'm supposed to be on a field somewhere. I think I'll always want to go out there and do it. One more play. But as each year goes by football days become more distant and -- it's a little weird -- but I'm starting to balance out and get used to the calendar of the real world. I have other passions to pursue.

The Life: How does traveling for college football and the NFL compare to your first tour as a rock star?

Turley: I certainly learned a lot from the football experience. The musician in me actually owes the structure of football a lot. There's much to learn from the schedule of practice, and travel, and meetings, and game day. The physical aspects of traveling to play ball and touring with the band are night and day. Football is so much more taxing on the body. My joints, limbs and lungs took the hardest hit from my playing days. I guess rock and roll has the upper hand on beating up my liver, but that's about it.

The Life: So all those Berkley hipster musicians don't know what they're talking about when they tell me that they rock so hard, the morning after feels like they just played a football game?

Turley: Hah! No way. They have no clue! The Monday after a football game is a very unique awakening. As much as rock stars like to think they run it hard and live that lifestyle, every football player goes out and ties one after a big game, too. Waking up after a celebration plus a physical beating is another animal!

The Life: Between performing and playing, you've had the chance to party in just about every major city in the country? What's your favorite place to wake up in?

Turley: Of course I love New Orleans. It's one of the greatest cities in America, I'm always telling people to spend time there.

[+] EnlargeKyle Turley
Gridiron RecordsKyle Turley's "Soul Bleeds Black And Gold" and he says Nashville's Cross Corner Bar is one of his favorite spots to watch the Saints.

I love San Diego, of course. Every time I go to San Diego I never want to leave. I wish I could just wake up every day, drive to the beach, jump in the water for a couple hours and surf and clear my head.

St. Louis, Kansas City and those Midwest hubs are cool. To me, the draw there is finding the little hipster neighborhoods around one cool concert hall or bar. I like finding the cool in the Bible Belt. There are very unique experiences to be had out there.

And you know, I've also learned to really appreciate the South. It's a beautiful place to vacation that a lot of people don't think about. Growing up in Southern California, I never knew the pristine beaches of the gulf south. Plus, it's so cheap! You can spend all this money to hang out with the in crowd in Miami, or you can hit one of the gorgeous coastal cities of the South. It's like the best-kept secret.

And I have to say that I love Nashville. It's the place for me to be, I'm older, I'm a little wiser and more mature, I guess, and it's home to me right now. The only thing Nashville is missing is somewhere to ride a wave but I hear there's one on a river somewhere when they let the dam out, or something. I'm looking forward to finding that.

The Life: Maybe we'll see that in a Field and Stream episode. Although it sounds kinda like the WaveHouse here in San Diego.

Turley: Yeah, yeah! It's just like that. There was something like that in Missoula, Mont. We had our tour bus parked across the street one morning. I wanted to run over and hop on but the guys had what looked to be 5mm wetsuits on so it didn't seem like a good idea at the time!

The Life: You really love to surf, huh, Kyle.

Turley: I do. I really do. I love the freedom and the space of surfing. I'm blessed with a lot of talents and abilities, but when I was a kid I wanted to be a pro surfer. As soon as I was done playing football I was back on my board riding huge monster waves and doing all kinds of craziness and travel. I surfed while I ran a bar down in Mexico, but every Friday night I'd play my music. Music has always been there, too.

The Life: Did you know, even when you were playing football professionally, that a music career was in your future?

Turley: I knew it would happen. The rock star that I always wanted to be says I knew this would happen. I've always stayed close to my music and I kept it in my life as much as I could. I decided to move to Nashville just to give it a go. I put all my focus into music and decided that this is what I'm gonna do -- everything in my power to make it a reality and I'll take it as far as it will let me go. I heard this record in my head before I could play it out. I wrote it all and it's all real. It means a lot to me.

The Life: Does making it to an elite level like the NFL allow you to believe that you can pretty much do anything you really want to?

Turley: Yeah, at some point you just have to throw your hat in the ring if that's what you want. I am one of those guys who knows I put in enough time learning an instrument and listening and studying what I love about music. I'm always watching BET and MTV and CMT and analyzing everything. If you've worked hard enough, you have no fear. It worked for me when I set my sights on the NFL. Success is a frame of mind. You're going to accomplish it if you're willing to put in an insufferable amount of hard work.

Mary Buckheit is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.