SAN JOSE, Calif. — The first time David Johnson met Trai Turner, he was sure something had to be wrong with the massive teenager in front of him.
The St. Augustine sophomore standing in front of Johnson was 6-foot-3 or 6-4, at least 350 pounds. Johnson took one look at Turner and figured the offensive lineman in front of him had to have plenty of scholarship offers already and another handful of elite schools chasing him.
“He had no idea what I was talking about,” Johnson, now an assistant coach at Memphis, said. “I was like, well, I’m going to check your grades, because something is wrong, or I’m missing the picture. I checked his grades. That kid was like a 3.0 student, all the teachers liked him. I thought something must be wrong. I went back and talked to him again, I said ‘Tre, who’s talking to you, who’s recruiting you?’ ”
Turner’s reply shocked Johnson.
“Coach, no colleges come here,” Turner told Johnson.
Back then, St. Augustine did not have a reputation for producing top talent. The school won just nine games in the three years before Johnson took over. Not only did schools not really know about Turner, there was little attention swirling around a small, but fierce upperclassman at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu.
Turner had big dreams. He wanted to play in the NFL.
He just had no idea how to get there.
“Being in New Orleans, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Turner said. “I didn’t know what you had to do, I just knew I wanted to go. ... You see people playing college football, but you don’t know how they get there. You don’t know how to get a scholarship offer, your parents don’t know how to get a scholarship offer.”
Johnson opened Turner’s eyes.
“I was like, ‘Trai, this is what’s going to happen. We’re going to get you in some shape, I’m going to take you to some camps, show you off a little bit, and somebody’s going to offer you, you’re going to go to college for free, you’re going to play in the NFL,” Johnson said. “And he kind of laughed at me.”
Few St. Augustine players had ever been to a major college football camp before, but Johnson realized what kind of talent he had, and he drove Turner, Mathieu and a few other Purple Knights to a camp at Tennessee.
“That was his first time being around a field where not just he was good, but everybody was good,” Johnson said. “On the drive back, he told me ‘Next time I go to camp, I’m going to know what to expect, and I’m going to dominate.’ ”
Johnson took Turner to LSU’s camp next.
“The next thing you know, it’s 30, 40, 50 offers,” Johnson said. “People coming through.”
Turner committed to LSU early in his junior year, took a redshirt in his first season on campus and then started 20 games over two seasons in Baton Rouge.
But the childhood dream of playing in the NFL remained strong. After a redshirt sophomore season where he battled an ankle injury, Turner submitted his name to the NFL’s draft advisory board to find out where he might fit in the 2014 draft.
Turner was tagged with a seventh-round grade. In not-so-subtle fashion, the NFL was telling him to go back to school.
Turner refused to listen. After carefully considering his options and praying on the subject, Turner decided to enter the draft anyway, shocking the people at LSU, who assumed he’d be back for his junior season.
“You jump out in faith, and there’s only two ways it can go: good or bad,” Turner said. “Some people are just too scared to take that jump.”
Turner was right. Shortly after he declared for the draft, Johnson — by then an assistant coach at the collegiate level — talked to an NFL scout who hinted that the draft advisory board’s projection might have been wrong.
“Coach, this kid played all year with a hurt ankle,” Johnson remembers the scout saying. “He’s the most powerful guard in the draft, and nobody knows about him. He told me, Coach, he’s going to be a Pro Bowler.”
Turner’s decision to leave LSU with two years of eligibility might have seemed like a mistake on the surface.
But at least one NFL team saw the decision as a positive. Carolina offensive assistant Ray Brown, a veteran of 19 seasons as an NFL offensive lineman, worked out Turner early in the process, and he loved Turner’s guts.
“He believed in himself,” Brown said. “You don’t want a guy that’s sitting on the fence, saying, ah, I don’t really know if I made the right decision. He was clear and adamant about coming out. That’s what blew me away.”
Turner also convinced Brown that he wasn’t the type of kid to make a decision for no reason. His mother, Capacine, and his father, Barry, raised him in a household that taught him to be responsible, taking him to Asia Baptist Church every Sunday and instilling a belief in Christianity that Turner credits for his personality. Johnson never had any problems with Turner at St. Augustine; neither did LSU’s coaches.
Turner’s parents also taught him to believe in his own abilities.
“It’s really hard to get off track, because my foundation was so strong,” Turner said. “They were always behind me. They’re like, ‘You set your mind to this, and we’re behind you, and we’re going to push you. Let’s go. When you have someone behind you that can be a driving force, and they genuinely care about you, the sky’s the limit.”
Brown got a glimpse of Turner’s character right away.
“Usually, when you work a guy out, you ask a lot of questions. You know, What do you like best, etc.,” Brown said. “He started me asking me questions. How do we prepare, etc. So we really connected during that time, at the Combine also, at his private workout.”
Carolina drafted Turner in the third round — the seventh-round grade from the NFL’s draft advisory board still makes Turner laugh out loud now — and put him in the starting lineup as a rookie.
Turner made the Panthers happy about their investment rapidly.
“He worked incredibly hard,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. “He was a raw talent when he came in, and the experience he’s had and the work he’s put in really helped evolve his game and paid off.”
Working next to a veteran in Kalil, Turner evolved into one of the NFL’s best guards this season. A starter for all 16 games, Turner has become known for his power — somewhat famously planting Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt on his back this season — and was voted to the Pro Bowl, proving Johnson’s friend in the scouting community right after just two seasons.
And Brown said he thinks Turner is there to stay.
“He’s a physical player. He’s very versatile, in the sense that he can play you in the box real physical, then he can get out on pulls and sweeps and be a very effective blocker that way,” Brown said. “He’s going to be there for the next 10 years.”
Now, Turner is two days away from playing in the Super Bowl, a dream that seemed so far off on the day he met Johnson.
He hopes his story can be an inspiration.
For kids like him, particularly kids in New Orleans who would love to play in the NFL but have no idea how to get there.
“It’s more that I can look at my little cousins, and my family, and say hey, I did this, you can do it, too,” Turner said. “You’re from here, I’m from here. It’s all possible.”
All it takes is the right opportunity.