“Most explosive player in the MAC.”

—Lindy’s Big Ten

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August 28, 2003


By Malcolm Moran/USA TODAY

The selling of Michael Turner has spawned a logo, a Web site, T-shirts, hot sauce and several burning questions, all before the first play of his senior football season at Northern Illinois University. How can Turner build upon a 2002 season he began as a backup tailback and concluded with a Mid-American Conference rushing record of 1,915 yards?

And how many nicknames can one player possess?

Turner's preference is "Big Mike." The logo developed by the school for its promotional campaign, which happens to include the word "Heisman," promotes "The Burner." The university's decision to distribute small bottles of hot sauce " there's a theme emerging here " led to another nickname among Turner's teammates: "Sauce."

The nation's leading returning rusher will open the season tonight against No. 14 Maryland (7:30 ET, Fox Sports Net) in a game that could move more hot sauce, increase Turner's credibility and establish the Huskies as a dangerous opponent. His rise from a recruit out of North Chicago with one scholarship offer to a place among elite rushers was made possible by his leadership growth and last year's absence of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Thomas Hammock because of a heart condition.

Northern Illinois' season, which includes a home game against Iowa State and a trip to Alabama, will begin with a tribute to Shea Fitzgerald, a sophomore tackle and an important part of the offensive line, who was killed with 12 others in a porch collapse June 29 in Chicago. Fitzgerald was the second NIU player to die in as many years

The Huskies, the preseason selection to win the MAC championship, are continuing a tradition of running the ball, an approach head coach Joe Novak refers to, tongue-in-cheek, as his "East Coast offense." Since 1989, NIU has had 10 1,000-yard rushers and 18 games in which a player has exceeded 200 yards. Turner, who did not become a starter until last year, produced seven of those 18 200-yard games.

The 6-foot, 228-pound Turner's offseason work resulted in a 400-pound bench press, 7.4% body fat and a 40-yard time of 4.41 seconds. "I'm more focused now," he said quietly. "Just the mentality of being a starter. It's a big difference. You can work and run all you want, but when you know that you're not starting, you prepare a certain way. Then when you know you're going to be a starter, it's a totally different preparation."

His high-profile nickname was introduced in the DeKalb Daily Chronicle a year ago this week, when there was little reason for NIU to consider promoting Turner for awards. Hammock, a two-time, first-team academic All-American, was the senior starting tailback. Turner was the backup, with talent that inspired coaches to seek creative ways to get him the ball. Their goal for Turner was 15 touches a game, through kickoff returns, screen passes and whatever else they could conceive.

"I was more like a supporting actor, just being there when the team needed me," Turner said.

"Our concern was how to get them both on the field," Novak said. "They were better, both of them, the more they carried it."

From the beginning

Turner began his career with 983 yards in 2000, an average of 89.4 a game that was best among Division I-A freshmen. That season ended with Turner gaining 230 yards against Eastern Michigan and 281 " on 52 carries " against Central Michigan. As a sophomore, he took nearly one-third fewer snaps with the offense but rushed for 395 yards and averaged 35.4 yards on kickoff returns. Hammock did not have Turner's speed, but his consistency, reliability and leadership made him the clear choice.

Last season, Hammock gained 172 yards in the season opener against Wake Forest, and scored the go-ahead overtime touchdown in his school's first victory against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. Turner returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score. Northern Illinois, which had a 23-game losing streak from 1996-'98, Novak's first three seasons, had developed two impact players at tailback. The tandem was on its way.

Then it was finished.

Several days after the victory, Hammock mentioned to assistant coach DeAndre Smith that he had experienced chest pains. "I knew something was wrong," Smith remembered, "because he would never say that." Smith calmly suggested Hammock have the condition checked. But his mind immediately thought back to Jawan Jackson, who was trying out for the team when he collapsed and died because of an enlarged heart Feb. 1, 2002.

Smith, the coach in charge of walk-on players, had teased Jackson that his earring would not be welcome at Huskie Stadium. "I said, 'The next time you come up here, you've got to take that out,' " Smith recalled. "He said, 'Oh, OK, coach. I'm sorry.' That was the last thing he ever said to me."

Hammock's condition was being examined by specialists who eventually determined that a thickness in the heart wall meant the end of his career. The Huskies were jolted by the news, less than seven months after Jackson's passing and just over a year after Northwestern player Rashidi Wheeler's death.

"Several of them asked, 'How do I know I'm not another one, too?' " Novak said. "I'm sure they're a lot better, but there are still concerns. When they get a little tired or they get a little pain somewhere, that's something that's always going to come to mind. I don't think you ever lose that."

Turner, whose career was once characterized by few words and an uncertain promise, was suddenly the starter. "When I first got here, I was concerned that this kid doesn't like me because he doesn't say anything," Smith said. "Then once I got to know his mom, she said, 'He doesn't say anything to me. He doesn't talk to anybody.' "

Extra unofficial coaching

Hammock was no longer on the field, but he became Turner's full-time mentor and unofficial coach. "And maybe more valuable than any of us," Novak said.

Turner's growth was accelerated. "He was just waiting for his opportunity to assume a leadership role," said Hammock, now a student assistant at Wisconsin. Turner had long looked up to Hammock. Now Hammock was with his friend on the sideline, on bus rides, anywhere he could share information and insight.

"He would give me a different perspective than what the coach would see," Turner said. "Thomas was actually on the field. He knew exactly what I was going through out there. He was like an extra coach, that other side of the coin that people don't see all the time.

"I knew he had to be just crushed," Turner said. "I can't imagine going through that myself. I'm just glad he noticed something was wrong with him before it became tragic."

After a 37-6 loss to South Florida in the Huskies' first game without Hammock, Turner's response was 160 yards in a narrow loss at Wisconsin, 282 against Western Illinois and 203 against Kent State. He exceeded 100 yards in nine of Northern Illinois' last 10 games and gained more than 200 in five. He twice scored five touchdowns, against Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan. Turner's average of 159.6 yards a game was less than a yard behind the nation's best, Penn State's Larry Johnson.

Turner's total of 1,915 was second in school history behind LeShon Johnson's 1,976 in 1993, and the 13th-best total in I-A history. A sign in the east stands at Huskie Stadium declared: "The Best Turner Since Ike & Tina." A bed sheet last season first connected the last names of Turner and John Heisman. A logo has seconded the motion. The rest is up to the Huskies.

"I just feel the team putting that load on me, depending on me," Turner said. "Last year they had me and Thomas. The burden wasn't as big. This year it's all me to carry the load, and I've got to teach the younger guys after me to carry the torch after I'm gone."


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