"My thing was always to go to UCLA," said Turner. "Football gave me a way in and I'm going to try do my best while I'm playing football."
Lightly recruited out of Ventura, Calif., Turner used his academics to bolster his candidacy for admission into UCLA.
"It was around the middle of my junior year, or a little bit after that, that I started thinking about trying to play football there, but I was doing it all with my grades," said Turner.
At 5-10, 180-pounds, Turner was a versatile player for the Cougars, playing receiver and returning kicks. But his size wasn't something that wowed college coaches.
It was a far cry from the high school career of his father, the late Eric Turner, a Ventura legend and UCLA Hall of Famer.
When Eric Turner signed with UCLA in 1986, he was a consensus Prep All-American, one of the jewels in the Bruins' top-ranked class of 1986. Turner would go on to be an All-American for the Bruins, a starter for four years at safety, the #2 pick in the 1991 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, and a two-time Pro Bowler with the Browns and Raiders. Tragically, his life was cut short in 2000 by cancer.
The younger Turner, who was nine years old at the time of his father's death, didn't get to watch much of his father's NFL career and has seen very little of his time with the Bruins, but he's heard plenty.
"I've seen a little bit of both of his NFL and college highlights, but I've mostly heard stories of him playing," said Turner.
Turner said his dad encouraged him to seek other sports as he was growing up, trying to shield him from a career on the gridiron. "He actually wanted me to stay away from football," said Turner. "When I was younger, he'd keep me away from watching football."
So Turner crafted his trade in soccer before enrolling at Ventura High, where the desire to play football came to the forefront.
The field at Larrabee Stadium, on the campus of Ventura High School, was renamed "Eric Turner Field" in 2000, when another former Cougar, and future Bruin, Tyler Ebell had his record-setting season in which he set the national high school rushing record.
Five years later, E.J. Turner would suit up in the black and gold as his father did, wearing the retired #29, following in the footsteps of arguably the finest defensive player in Ventura County history.
|UCLA All-American Eric Turner.|
Now in Westwood, like he always aimed to be, Turner is adjusting to new surroundings, new academics, and, more relevant to football, a new position.
"They have me playing cornerback, which I have never played before," said Turner. "Coach (Carnell) Lake is coaching me. I know he and my dad played together and I think I might have met him when I was little."
One of his father's closest friends at UCLA was Reggie Moore, the Bruins' current wide receiver coach, who entered UCLA in the same vaunted recruiting class of 1986.
"I knew Coach Moore a little bit growing up," said Turner. "He was my dad's roommate."
Turner said several coaches, including head coach Rick Neuheisel, who was on the Bruins' staff when the elder Turner played, were instrumental in allowing him the opportunity to walk on.
When he arrived on campus, and jersey numbers were given out, Turner got a familiar looking number. "I didn't even ask, they just gave me #29," said Turner. "I was pretty excited, I wore 29 when I played in high school."
A year ago, his father was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame. During ceremonies on the field during the Washington State game, Turner had to stay in the stands, because he was a recruitable athlete, but got to attend a dinner prior to the game. His next time in the Rose Bowl will be on the sidelines for the season opener against San Diego State, wearing #29.
Because he wasn't recruited much in high school, he didn't attend any camps or combines, or get to take an official visit. So Turner started his time at UCLA knowing few of the other recruits.
But one player he has already connected with is another player whose father had a decent career of his own, Jerry Rice Jr.
"Jerry and I relate a little bit," said Turner. "Everyone always talks about his dad, so I can kind of relate to that. I don't say anything and he doesn't say anything about it, so we can both actually feel like a normal kid."
Turner knows what he's working against, coming to UCLA in a deep secondary at a position he's never played. But it's not a matter of him being satisfied just to be in Westwood. "I have to play a new position, and work very hard, against guys who've played it their whole life," said Turner. "But I'm ready for it and look forward to it. It's pretty exciting."
One play involving his father at UCLA that Turner is plenty familiar with is the interception in 1987 against USC. Turner picked off USC quarterback Rodney Peete and seemed headed for a sure pick-six and all the momentum in the world. Depending on which side of the rivalry you are on, Peete either made a great, Rose-Bowl-saving tackle, or Peete made a Rose Bowl-costing facemask.
But Turner knows his dad made one mistake on that play.
"He should have never looked back," said Turner.