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Kyle Turley sets the record straight
"If I turned that switch on, he’s got no chance. That office would have been a mess and he would have been bloodied and on the ground."
Kyle Turley waits in the pick-up line to grab his two middle-school-aged kids. It’s a massive school in Tennessee and if you don’t line up early the wait could be eons, much like the line for a table at a hot, new brunch spot.
Turley, the colorful former Saints offensive tackle, who also played for the Rams and Chiefs, doesn’t mind. He’s just thankful to be there. Alive. Drafted 7th overall in the 1998 NFL draft out of San Diego State, Turley took New Orleans by storm with his flashy, effective line play. He gained legendary status, at least with fans, in 2001 when Jets safety Damien Robinson jerked Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks to the ground by his facemask, Turley grabbed Robinson and gave him the same treatment. Turley emerged with Robinson’s helmet and flung it across the field.
Turley’s NFL journey, while successful enough to warrant first-team All-Pro Honors in 2000, came with a massive price. He experienced severe neurological symptoms while playing which became even more pronounced in retirement. Turley suffered two documented concussions, but he estimates over a 100 given the sub-concussive hits that he says are commonplace in the trenches.
He felt burned by NFL medical personnel who treated Turley for everything under the sun except brain disease. Turley claims he’s been diagnosed with CTE, the degenerative brain disease that has claimed the life of many former greats and can come with a tarrying cocktail of side effects while living. Turley dabbled in cannabis while in the NFL, but it wasn’t until after his life hit rock bottom, his symptoms raging, that he discovered salvation in cannabis.
The cannabis industry turned into a massive passion of Turley’s; he’s owned a number of cannabis companies as the plant has become legalized in more and more states, and he’s made a continued plea to the NFL to recognize and utilize it as a treatment.
Turley doesn’t hate the NFL. In fact, he’d love to coach though he says he keeps getting rejected for opportunities.
In a candid conversation, Turley talks about the infamous Jets incident, his run-in with Mike Martz, details how cannabis saved his life, and how he’s found salvation in making music.
Melissa Jacobs: Why didn’t you start until you were a freshman in high school?
Kyle Turley: I was a wrestler and baseball player first. It was hot in Southern California, where I grew up. I loved surfing and spent all my summers at the beach. When I considered having to give up two weeks of his summer for preseason football training, I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’
The other factor was that my ton of Riverside was a football hotbed, guys were huge. Eight players the year before I played received played Division 1 scholarships. You knew if you stepped on the football field you were going to have you ass kicked.
But I had in the back of my head that I would play his senior year. My dad reminded me of the spring before because you had to be in the weight training program to play. And our weight program was no joke. In the spring of my junior year, I was 180 pounds and could bench press 190. By football season in the fall, I was 215 pounds and could bench 250.
MJ: When did you realize you were good enough to go pro?
KT: My freshman year when I finally got to college and was able to be on the field with Marshall Faulk and Darnay Scott and all these guys who were getting looked at by the NFL. I get to San Diego State and I see this little guy, Marshall Faulk. He’s tiny. And this guy was a first-round draft pick. I saw everything that happened with him and thought, ‘I can do that,’ and I did.
MJ: Poor Marshall Faulk.
KT: He never lifted weights. He never came out and practiced more. They coddled him the whole time we were there. I mean, I love Marshall, he’s a great guy but it was just this situation where if this guy could make it, so could I. I saw that he wanted it, and he was good and talented enough.
I already knew I was talented enough in high school. Then I stepped onto the field and started getting recruited by everybody in the country and I knew football was the thing for me. I didn’t shy away from that. I accepted it and embodied it as soon as I put the helmet on everyone’s like, ‘What is this guy going to do?’
MJ: You had a sensational draft season, quickly moving up draft boards, and you obviously caught the attention of Mike Ditka. How’d you do it?
KT: I just showed up. I played well enough in college to get the center stage and the center stage was the Senior Bowl. I went to the Senior Bowl against all the SEC guys and started destroying everybody. I made sure I put my mark there including in practice against my own team. They hated me but I was there to prove myself. Those guys were just there because they went to Alabama or Tennessee or whatever it was. Here’s a little surfer boy from San Diego State at the offensive line, give me a break.
First day of practice at the Senior Bowl I made everyone real quick know who I was. That’s where it started. My work ethic was also big. I was the only guy in the weight room every morning at 5 A.M. with all the strength coaches from all the teams working out. I knew I had to go the extra mile coming from a small school. If I had gone to an SEC school, I would have been the no. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft. Peyton Manning would not have been. I can guarantee it.
MJ: Did you feel real complacency from the SEC guys?
KT: Absolutely. That whole attitude is that they’re big-time. I showed up to the Senior Bowl and slapped them around like the bunch of spoiled kids that they were and let them know real quick that this kid from San Diego State was going to take their draft position. That’s what I did.
I was a captain in the Senior Bowl and then followed it up at the NFL Scouting Combine where I had the opportunity to be around everyone. And I showed out. That’s when Mike Ditka saw me and realized I could help him win football games. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning. I didn’t play quarterback. [Laughing]
MJ: What was it like playing for Ditka?
KT: It was awesome. I wish we would have won more with him and had some stability. If we had won with him, it would have been amazing. We did win the first year and had a chance to go to the playoffs. Then the second year the wheels fell off. We went 3-13 and he was fired. But truly a great man and I stayed connected to him throughout my career and with his charity, Gridiron Greats. Ditka’s a perfect example of a guy, like me, who played the loved the game, loved everything about it, and more so the brotherhood and family aspect of it. It was an honor.
MJ: You were known as a rough, flashy player and really came into national prominence with the famous helmet-throwing incident. Do you remember what was going through your brain?
KT: It was very much in slow motion for me. It was this moment when my teammate was being harmed, and Aaron Brooks let out this shriek. That was really it. I saw what was going on. I knew this was bad and then a shriek like I’d never heard on a football field. This guy [Jets safety Damien Robinson] is twisting his head back and pulling his facemask. I had never heard anything like that shriek, and I’ve seen bodies broken and bent. So, I just snapped. That’s what I told the psychologist, at least.
MJ: They made you go to a psychologist?
KT: Oh yeah, they made me go to anger management. It was weird. The whole situation. Everyone knew what I was doing. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me in the league today if I would have done that. I’d probably get suspended for a year and be forced to go to all kinds of counseling.
But at the end of the day, they really don’t care. They didn’t care then; they don’t care now. Five times now they denied me that I have this semblance of the disease CTE through all their testing even though they tested me for Stage 2 progressive dementia. They still deny it because I’m out here still going.
MJ: So, you knew something was going on in your brain while playing?
KT: Oh yeah, and I voiced it. And they tested me too. I had real neurological stuff going on beyond the emotional stuff. Vertigo became a constant. Out of nowhere, I’d be in a dizzy spell. Then the mood and the rage and emotions. And they tested me for everything under the sun. I went through this whole series of battery tests in New Orleans after my first documented concussion. But they didn’t do one thing: scan my brain.
I passed on everything else, so they were basically like ‘ok we’ll just monitor this’ even though every sign was that I had either a bad brain disease or Meniere’s disease and they didn’t even test for that stuff. Looking back, I checked every box for these neurological diseases, and they pawned me off. They didn’t warn me that this was something that can be detrimental to my future.
MJ: If the team doctors aren’t helping you out with this stuff, what are you doing to try to do to deal with it?
KT: At the time I had no idea. I thought maybe I was eating something wrong or needed to go to counseling. And the team wants to pawn it off on anything. They blamed my parents’ divorce. They’d blame me for falling off my bike when I was little or for skateboarding. They had a myriad of excuses that had nothing to do with it. They just wanted to act as if it came from things you experienced in life and not a progressive brain disease that is very visible on what turned out to be a simple MRI when I went to the hospital after my concussion in St Louis.
My wife had to take me to the hospital because the team refused to. After the game, I’m completely concussed. I have no clue who I am or where I’m at. My wife is in frantic mode and finds a police officer to take me to the emergency room. The entire department for brain trauma went Red Alert! Red Alert! Alarms went off. Everyone starting comes around and they go ‘Oh, what’s this image we got? Oh, you play football, got it.’
MJ: Why wouldn’t Rams take you to the hospital?
KT: They knew I was fully concussed. Dr. Bennet Omalu had already addressed the NFL on this issue. They were trying to sweep it under the rug and not document me with a concussion. They then went to an effort to take me out of the hospital I stayed the night under the full surveillance of the hospital all night because they feared I would die if I went to sleep. They came and got me and put me back in practice two days later. I never saw those doctors again.
MJ: And how does your wife remember that day?
KT: She says that’s the day I became a different person. That was our first introduction to this being something bigger than vertigo.
MJ: And what’s the effect of painkillers? I understand you had a high frequency of use.
KT: It was daily for 20-25 years. They prey upon the disease and make it worse. If you have a bad brain, you should never be taking these synthetic medications. The warnings are on the bottles. They give you meds and then they start giving you psych meds, and you go to them and say you’re dizzy all the time. After my career, I ended up in up in the emergency room because I passed out in public and started to go into a seizure.
MJ: We’re going to get deeper into your neurological issues but first, can you explain what really went down during your spat with Rams head coach Mike Martz over your back injury?
KT: I’m coming off this second massive concussion when this occurred. So, I’m already reeling from those effects and don’t have a good filter on me. I already didn’t have that. My back injury had occurred, and I’d been complaining about it all season and they just kept denying it. They kept telling me, no you’re fine, it’s in your hip. When you have a back injury, you do get hip pain because it goes down the sciatic nerve and that’s what I was telling them. I had a sore back, I play football, and I didn’t think it was from a herniated disc. But it was probably some kind of bulge and I probably could have healed that thing with the right kind of treatment.
Knowing what I know now about back injuries it was insane. If you want a correct diagnosis, you’d be better off going to a walk-in clinic than an NFL team doctor. The NFL doctors are looking out for the team but any doctor who honors their Hippocratic Oath is going to give you a real examination and diagnosis. NFL doctors will figure out what’s going on with you, because they know, and then they’ll distract you and steer you in a different direction. There are lots of players out there who can expose this. Cam Newton in Carolina. The doctor there pressured the crap out of Cam to get all these surgeries on his foot and did not really help him. I know other guys who have played for the Panthers and had the same thing with this doctor. They’ve been told they need to do this and do that with an injury.
There are great doctors out there. Dr. Andrews does shoulders and he’s a great guy; there’s the doctor in Carolina who specializes in feet; there’s Dr. Watkins in LA, who works on backs. But ultimately these guys all side with the league. I went to Dr. Watkins in LA for my back and when you’re trying to get an understanding and document these things so you can get them fixed, that’s when it starts. I told them I wanted a record in case my injury didn’t get fixed here or something happens, they wouldn’t give it to you.
So that’s all the backdrop for Mike Martz. He went to the media and said I wasn’t doing my part to play football. I see why he was saying that. I was in LA away from the team but that was his fault. He didn’t want injured players around the team. I wish he did. I even asked if I could be around the team when I was out for the season in ’04 to help and he wouldn’t let me. I had to sit in the stands to watch the games. That’s when I decided to go to LA. I figured the team can’t handle me, they have a whole team to handle. I’m going to rehab with Dr. Watkins, who the NFL says is the guy on backs. I took his advice, did everything he said, was ready to play football the next year but they cut me because Mike Martz was still the head coach and during ’04 started making comments like, ‘I don’t even know if Kyle Turley wants to play anymore.’
So, I went into his office and asked why he was saying that. And he said, ‘Because I don’t think you want to be here, Kyle. I think you came here to take the money and run.’ And he was saying that to a person who did everything they could to get back to their dream, did everything to help you win when he was out there and is trying to tell him, I’m coming back, I want to be here.’
Then it erupts into an argument because Martz says, ‘No you’re not, not if I have anything to do with it, you’ll never play here again. So then you have a few choice words for that individual and tell him exactly what you think about him because if they’re never gonna let you play again, then why not?
MJ: Did Martz say those words verbatim?
KT: Verbatim. To my face. So, I told him, ‘Go fuck yourself, I’m coming back next year because I had a good relationship with the GM and we’ll see how this unfolds. And I’ll be the best guy.’ He knows this. He didn’t care. He again said, ‘You’ll never play for me again, Kyle.’ Fuck you, you piece of shit. Who the fuck do you think you are? He got so upset that I spoke to him that way that he called NFL security and said I threatened to kill him and came across the desk at him. Are you kidding me? Go back to the helmet toss. If I turned that switch on, he’s got no chance. That office would have been a mess and he would have been bloodied and on the ground.
MJ: In regard to the CTE, what has been your lowest low?
KT: You just don’t know who you are anymore, and it breaks you down into nothing. Then you must contemplate life. What it is you want to do with it and do you even want to live it. Yeah, I called the suicide hotline a few times. You’re just in this mental disarray. You have no control over your life, and you feel trapped. You have all these things you should be grateful for but you’re hopeless. I was lucky that I went out there and found something to help but it wasn’t until I got rid of all the pills that I realized, I’m still me.
But you lose all that. Even surfing, I’d go out and sit there and think, this sucks. Junior Seau said he had the same experience. To have something like that happen where you’re sitting out in the beautiful ocean and doing something you love to do but not enjoying it. The lowest point was about 10 years ago. I had just moved back to California, trying to escape what was happening to me in Tennessee, and worried about the impact on my two young kids.
Even getting off the pills, this disease still exists. As soon as I got off all those pharmaceuticals, I was able to have another shot at life. Finding my strength through cannabis was a godsend because that’s when I actually began to deal with this disease and make it manageable.
MJ: What was your first foray into using marijuana?
KT: It was probably when I was 22 or 23 years old. A Hall of Fame player gave it to me after practice one day. He said, ‘I see them giving you all these pills, KT, and I see it’s not working. You need to try this and get some sleep tonight.’ I said I couldn’t because I’d test positive on a drug test, and he said I already took it; it was just once a year. When I realized that, I took it that first night. I slept through the night for the first time in months. So, I knew then. I had been losing weight, and couldn’t eat due to stress. I got my appetite back, so I immediately saw these medicinal benefits.
When I was finishing my career in Kansas City some musician friends of mine from New Orleans were touring. After the show, I went backstage and smoked with them. They had just come from Colorado so had all this killer weed. I took a couple of hits off the joint and walked out of there with my head held high. I understand strains hit everybody differently and everybody has different cannabinoid systems but that was it for me. Then going back to California in the Prop 215 days, permitting the legal use of medical marijuana, I had the opportunity to be free and try everything. It was a great program they had. There are shops everywhere and you can go try all these different strains.
There was one night, literally, when I hit the right one, and my light sensitivity was gone. I hadn’t been able to go to the movies with my family for 7 years because of the loud noises and lights and I had to wear sunglasses. Within 30 minutes of getting into these sativa strains, the light sensitivity disappeared. You go back now and find that they’ve been prescribing this to glaucoma patients for years because the sativa strains deal with ocular pressure. I’m down to only experiencing vertigo once or twice over the last several years and it’s only in super stressful situations where I didn’t have those strains available.
MJ: Last year, the NFL and player’s union agreed to amend the CBA to test for marijuana only during training camp and issue fines but not suspensions like they used to. What do you make of the change?
KT: It’s complete bullshit. They’re still demonizing and stigmatizing it. To punish players for something – even after I went to them and did a PowerPoint presentation to the entire medical board at the NFL, and they told me I was right. They said, ‘It’s just going to take some time, Kyle.’ These guys are the top doctors in the world according to the military because they oversaw the neurology during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These guys shook my hand, told me I was right, praised me for being able to stand in front of them and give the presentation I did, and then they said they know but it will take time.
Then what do they do right before the season started this year? They put out a press release saying they aren’t going to suspend players anymore. But then they ghosted me. I had an email chain going with the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer, Allen Sills, who lives down the street from my house, and he ghosted me after my presentation. He refuses to see me. And then the league and the union make the horrible decision to continue to vilify this plant and not expose players to its importance. All they did is raise the nanogram capacity to the IOC standard. Then they said that players who test over 152 nanograms of THC in their system are subject to three games with no pay. It’s not a suspension, they’re going to dock your pay which could happen to anyone using this as a true medicine and not using synthetic pills.
MJ: You’re also an accomplished musician. How much sanctity has music provided?
KT: Music is something, as Bob Marley said, when it hits you, you feel no pain. It is truth. When you’re in the moment, whatever it is you feel passion about and your blood flow and endorphins are going. That’s what music is for me.
MJ: Your music is no joke. There is much messaging about the effects of playing football. Like in Fortune and Pian when you sing the chilling lyrics, ‘Now my friends are dying and all I feel is pain,’ followed by a rolling list of obituaries featuring players who died from CTE. How did people react to it in and out of football circles?
KT: People loved it in the football world. When I finally got my life together and started coaching, kids knew all about my music. They said Fortune and Pain was the song that really hit home for them because I wrote it for that purpose. I’ve written several great songs about what football does like Final Drive about Justin Strzelczyk. That song is very personal to me as it goes through the mindset of what was his tragedy. I wrote a lot about these painful football stories but now I’m back it and trying to write about other things. Music is that one thing, like cannabis. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be.
MJ: When I spoke to you many years ago, I asked where you see yourself in 10 years and you said hopefully alive. You didn’t sound confident. Now that you’ve found salvation with cannabis but still have CTE, how long do you think this savior medicine is going to extend your life?
KT: Before discovering cannabis, I thought I’d be dead around 55-65, around the statistical average for linemen who played in the NFL. I truly believe with the benefits of cannabis you really have the ability to live into your hundreds and that’s what I’m shooting for.