When people hear the name Kyle Turley they often forget he was once a storied offensive tackle in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. A first-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints, Turley was a two-time All Pro over a productive NFL career which spanned nine seasons.
Yet it was the cumulative effects of those years – especially the numerous undiagnosed concussions, according to Turley – that have led him to the strange, frightening world for which he now resides. Despite the support system loving wife and two kids, Turley has suffered multiple seizures, considered suicide and rarely feels like himself. According to doctors, Turley’s grim future possibly includes early dementia and Alzheimer’s, markers for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Through music, social media and frequent public appearances, Turley is fighting back best he can: by trying to illuminate the science behind brain injuries, a task he is starkly critical of the NFL for not leading.
In the conversation that follows, we discuss Turley’s music as therapy, his current symptoms, the NFL as a culprit and what his future holds.
Warning: This interview contains offensive language.
MJ: Your music website calls you an “outlaw country artist.” What does that mean?
KT: Not a pop country singer. My music is called outlaw, I’m not sure why. I guess because it’s original. I thought that was what music was supposed to be. The context of my music is controversial and I guess it’s just country music and not the whole cowboy stupidity.
MJ: How did you get involved in music? Did you take lessons, or are you self-taught?
KT: I’ve never taken any lessons. I don’t know how to read music. I can play the guitar and drums pretty well. I just find if you sit down and focus you can pretty much do anything. Nowadays, you have YouTube to help as well.
MJ: That’s true. I learned a little conversational French on YouTube.
KT: Yeah, there’s really no reason to pay schools thousands of dollars anymore.
MJ: Who are some of your musical influences?
KT: I grew up with a lot of old school country. My dad was a truck driver and farmer so I grew up with a lot of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and all those guys. We moved to Southern California when I was ten and the early 90’s were a boom of music here. Everything was new. Punk rock was becoming famous. The rap scene exploded. Reggae was a big part of my life.
My influences span a lot of genres. New school rap and new school country is a bunch of bullshit. What’s real are the real stories. My rap influence is N.W.A. because I connected with those guys.
MJ: A LOT of your music seems to be framed by your experiences in the NFL. Your label is Gridiron Records. Your newest album is called Skull Shaker. How therapeutic is it for you to express your experiences in musical form?
KT: That’s been a big savior for me personally. With the post-traumatic brain injury situation, that’s been a huge outlet. Probably the number one way for me to get my mind right.
MJ: How has the NFL reacted to your music?
KT: Well, they don’t support it at all. The thing about my stories and music, it’s all good. I’ve had ESPN use my music. Once. It was olive branch extended. Then I said some things about the NFL and that olive branch got taken away.
The NFL probably doesn’t like my message about football and they haven’t supported it at all. You’d think that having an athlete who can do such a crossover would be beneficial to them and they’d want to capitalize, but I’ve definitely written a couple of songs they don’t appreciate.
MJ: I guess the NFL won’t be enlisting you to perform at the rookie symposium any time soon.
KT: Well, they should. I can help their players out a lot and give them a bit of reality and help them with their futures. But instead the NFL would rather bring in guys who are going to tell them how to invest and lose their money down the road for them, not give them the actual information they need.
MJ: How are you feeling these days?
KT: Like shit. I’m not where I thought I’d be. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs anymore. Well, what I call drugs is really a lot of prescription drugs the NFL gave me. Body wise, it all hurts. And because of the neuro-damage that’s been caused I have a lot of issues I deal with daily which are quite a struggle.
MJ: What are your symptoms and how do they affect your day-to-day life?
KT: Ever since my last concussion, the result of which was me passing out in public out of nowhere – I had a seizure and spent three days in the hospital – there’s been a waterfall effect. At least cognitively. There are some memory loss issues that are growing. A lot of issues dealing with rage and emotions as well.
But the thing is over the last 5-6 months, I weaned myself of all the prescription drugs so I’m kind of optimistic about my future. I’ve found being in California there are various strains of marijuana that are doing some good things so I’m starting to get my life back. I’m starting to feel like me again.
But it’s a slow road and the damage that’s been done is definitely not a quick fix, and I don’t know if it can ever be fixed. It’s really a struggle. It’s all smoke and mirrors because on the outside I look great. I eat well, work out, I do everything I can to ensure that I stay healthy, but beneath it all is just an arduous struggle to maintain.
MJ: How has your family dealt with the shift in your mental health?
KT: ‘Committed’ is what I can say. My wife is a saint and an angel for me. There’s no reason for me to still be married to her and it’s not because of infidelity. I’ve given her every opportunity and plenty of reason to walk. She’s been more than my rock in helping me through all this. I don’t what my future holds – though doctors seem to think I’m headed down the path where I have dementia and Alzheimer’s in my future – but my family is committed.
I’m on a big mission to help progress some science in to how to deal with this injury and hope that leads to some cures, some medicines out there that will change the way we deal with brain injuries. And ultimately change the outcomes in these cases.
MJ: You’ve recently criticized the media for not demanding more answers from the NFL regarding player health and safety. But look at the two biggest players. NFL Network is an extension of the league and ESPN, coincidental or not, has recently neglected to renew the contracts of its two most prominent Goodell critics. What is realistic for coverage at this point?
KT: That just speaks to who’s in charge of those networks. They’re just pussies, to be honest. There’s no backbone whatsoever. These individuals are allowing kids to die every year in youth football by not talking about the serious nature of these injuries. They’re allowing professional football players to commit suicide continuously by not talking about these things. And the NFL gets to just run from all these issues. They’re just afraid they’re going to scare people. They look at dollars, not saving lives. They have had opportunities over and over to address these issues. I don’t get it.
Since we’ve had this settlement, they’ve allowed it to go away. There are still hang-ups with the settlement, and meanwhile guys are dying from horrific diseases because these courts are not allowing sensibility to dictate what happens to NFL football players.
MJ: Junior Seau is getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few weeks. How do you think you’ll feel when you see his bust but not him?
KT: It’s going to be a great moment but it’s going to be quite sobering to a lot of people who are into football. Drinking, losing his money, whatever these people are going to say about Junior, it wasn’t the case. It was the brain issue.
Those who care to be informed know what can happen to our brains as football players. It’s going to be hard for parents to explain to their kids when they ask why Junior isn’t there. That’s where the media has gone astray when they give reasons why it occurred that have more of a voice than the real reason it occurred.
MJ: You’d think that if Junior Seau’s suicide doesn’t incite anger and provoke questions, nothing will.
KT: Again they’ve got every TV station in their pocket so you won’t get the full story as to what happened. Viewers won’t know how the NFL failed him. They’ll do amazing things with everything else about his life but they won’t talk about how information about brain injuries was kept away from us so we couldn’t deal with it.
When I hurt my ankle or a leg, I knew I could recover if I dedicated myself. I knew the path. We didn’t have that opportunity with the brain injuries.
Kids aren’t going to stop dying. You’re going to have another 10-20 kids die from brain injuries this year. You’ve got President Obama talking about how if we can do whatever it takes to save one life, then it’s worth it. All you have to do is tell kids they shouldn’t play tackle football until they’re 13 and you’re likely going to save 10-20 lives this year. We don’t have to not play football. We can play flag football and do other things in football. Getting kids ready to play the sport vs. throwing them out with pads. We’ve created all these things around football about being tough and macho to reassure us of our manhood, and meanwhile we’re losing it.
MJ: I’m by no means a defender of The Shield but I will say the league is taking a few steps like partnering with USA Football for Mom’s Clinics to teach about safe tackling and putting more resources behind flag football. Is the NFL doing anything right?
KT: Yes, in little ways. But they’re the NFL; they can do things in big ways. Let’s call it what it is and progress with science and innovation and let’s get real about this. Kids’ brains are developing. This year my kid went to kindergarten and everything was great until he came home with a sheet of paper to sign up for Pop Warner football. What the hell? I guess they’re afraid kids won’t want to play football anymore if they don’t rein them in from age 6. I don’t understand.
I just don’t think the NFL is doing enough. They’re not helping the game progress because they’re giving people false hope. You can’t replace helmets. You can’t do anything about the fact that when you come to an abrupt halt because you’re being hit your brain is moving around like a ping-pong ball.
MJ: I assume you’re not letting your son sign up.
KT: He won’t play until he’s in high school. I’m following the science, which says kids shouldn’t play until then. If the NFL could accept this, football would be a lot better off.
MJ: Where do you see the NFL in, say, ten years?
KT: That’s interesting. The suicide rate amongst NFL players will continue to climb. They continue to run from that issue. Meanwhile, football is dying. Who knows? It could be like boxing and you can have another sport that will come along and thrill everybody and the NFL will be forced to take a back seat. People in mass numbers may start not wanting their children to play.
MJ: And what about you? What are you doing in ten years?
KT: Hopefully I’m still alive. That’s not a joke. I hope I don’t do anything fucking crazy or kill myself.
I hope that in ten years I find the progression of relieving myself from all these prescription drugs they gave me will lead to me facing my own problems and help a lot of guys at the same time. I’m starting to get my life back so I really hope I’m still here.