LEWISTON — Mason Giroux gained a new appreciation for having Jared Turcotte as a teammate, the hard way, during the summer before Turcotte’s senior year at Lewiston.

The Blue Devils were attending a football clinic at Bates College, but were lined up on opposite sides of the ball. Giroux, who was about to become a junior and Lewiston’s starting quarterback, was playing defense when he encountered the 6-foot-2, 230-pound running back.

“I went to tackle him and he stiff-armed me so hard at my face mask that it blew both of my contacts out,” Giroux recalled. “I said, ‘Dude, we’re teammates.’ And he said, ‘Sorry, man. All I see out here is red.'”

Turcotte made opponents see all sorts of colors and shapes with a physical, angry playing style that led to him winning the Fitzpatrick Trophy in 2006 and being an All-American at the University of Maine. It also had him on a path to fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL before injuries and a young family led him to re-evaluate his priorities and become a devoted husband and father to four children.

COPING THROUGH FOOTBALL

Long before that shift, though, Turcotte believed he was put on this earth to play football.

“I knew from the first time I strapped on a football helmet that football was for me,” he said.

Turcotte never knew his biological father. His mother, Nadine, raised him and two younger sons in her Lewiston home while also working as a teacher and a waitress. Her father, Jared’s grandfather, was the closest thing he had to a father growing up.

Turcotte’s first youth football coach was also a much-needed male figure. Having had years to reflect now, he believes that was why football was so appealing to him as a boy.

“I don’t know if it was a coping mechanism for me to have that connection with that male role model,” he said. “The further removed from football that I get, I feel like that’s a hell of a lot more the case than I would ever want to admit.”

By the eighth grade, he had decided he wanted to be a professional football player. His mother and others with whom he shared his future plans, told him he would have to take school seriously and earn a Division I scholarship if he wanted his dream fulfilled.

“The only reason why I cared about school then was because of football,” he said.

Turcotte immediately started applying himself in the classroom the way he applied himself on the gridiron, and produced just as impressive numbers. (He would ultimately graduate from Lewiston with a 93 grade average).

Blessed with uncommon self-motivation and discipline for an adolescent, he was either cracking books or running wind sprints while his peers were poking each other on Facebook or watching a Harry Potter movie again.

“I remember him telling our mother, ‘Mom, you’re not going to have to pay for me to go to college,” said his brother, Poland coach Spencer Emerson.

“His drive is really something rare,” he added. “He always told me, if you’re going to do something, be all in.”

Turcotte couldn’t go all-in on varsity football when he started high school. Freshmen didn’t start varsity at Lewiston at the time, so he dominated freshman football and stayed focused on his ultimate goal.

“He was so mature at such a young age,” said Lewiston athletic director Jason Fuller, who coached him as a freshman. “He knew football was going to open a window for him that a lot kids didn’t have.”

FLIP A SWITCH

The sophomore that Lewiston varsity coach Bill County unleashed his following year immediately stood out for not only his physical gifts but his passion for the game.

“He had a very special ability to play football, which I think is key,” County said. “He had this great combination of size and speed. He was literally a man among boys.”

Lewiston finished 2-6 that year, but it was clear Turcotte was going to lead the Blue Devils back to contention. By his junior year, the buzz surrounding him in Lewiston started to spread through the rest of the state

“He would just flip a switch,” Giroux said. “He’s one of the most down-to-earth and nicest guys in the world, but once he strapped it up, it was, like …”

Emerson and County recalled Turcotte flipping that switch during the 2007 Lobster Bowl, which he played in about six months after winning the Fitzpatrick Trophy.

“A kid from the West tackled him in front of our sideline and said something inappropriate about him winning the Fitzpatrick Trophy,” said County, who was coaching for the East during the game. “Jared looked at me and I just turned to, I think it was (Leavitt coach) Mike Hathaway who was calling the plays for us, and I said, ‘Feed him the ball. Jared’s angry right now.’ And he just went off after that.”

Muhammad Ali was one of Turcotte’s idols, and he admired how much the boxing great often beat his opponents psychologically as much as physically. Like his idol, Turcotte wanted to talk as good of a game as he played.

“I’m glad I was never mic’d up for a game,” he laughed as he recalled the Lobster Bowl performance.

“I was a different human being inside the 53 1/3-by-120 yards, a completely different person,” said Turcotte, who rushed for 130 of his game-high 186 yards in the second half and scored three touchdowns in a 47-27 East win. “When the whistle blew, I was nasty.”

Emerson believes football was a way for his brother to deal with the responsibilities he had taken on at a young age.

“I idolized him. I think football was kind of his way of showing me how to be a man,” Emerson said. “He had to grow up fast. I think he had a lot of stress on him. He wouldn’t admit it, but I think he got all of that stuff out through football. It was almost therapeutic for him.”

By his junior year, word of Turcotte’s talent had spread beyond Lewiston and he was invariably the Blue Devil with the bull’s eye when he took the field.

Three games into the 2005 season, he suffered his first significant injury. Playing against Skowhegan at Madison High School (Skowhegan’s field was under renovation), a tackler’s helmet buckled his left leg. He was diagnosed with a sprained MCL and believes he also suffered an undiagnosed meniscus tear.

“That was the first, excuse my French, but, ‘Holy (expletive), this could end at any second,'” Turcotte said.

Turcotte, of course, didn’t want it to end. Recruiting season was just around the corner, and the last thing he wanted was to scare off any potential college suitors because he couldn’t stay on the field.

He sat out one game (and got another week off due to Lewiston’s scheduled bye week), then returned, he believes prematurely, to help the Devils win three of their last four to finish 5-3. They missed the playoffs by one Crabtree point.

RAISING HIS GAME

Missing out on the postseason just added more fuel to a fire that was already well-stoked by the start of the active college recruiting season.

“Whatever that day was, I remember the phone blowing up, getting letters upon letters and that kind of stuff,” he said. “That’s a really cool feeling after you’ve set the goals that I set to play in the NFL, and knowing that the next step towards that goal was going to college and, hopefully, getting a scholarship.”

During the subsequent spring and summer, he could usually be found at Don Roux Field running gassers, 110s and other conditioning drills. He wanted to go to a Division I school where he could play tailback, but colleges don’t exactly view Maine as a hotbed for D-I tailbacks. Many he talked to considered him an outside linebacker, a position he also played at Lewiston, at the next level.

“He was definitely as good defensively,” Giroux said. “Some of the stuff he did on defense was just as impressive as when he had the ball in his hands.”

Tabbed by Sports Illustrated in the preseason as the state’s top player, he immediately justified the hype with a Walter Payton-like all-around performance in the season-opener at Bangor. He rushed for 159 yards on 28 carries, threw a 54-yard halfback option pass for a touchdown, and caught a 40-yard TD pass from Giroux.

The game still stings Turcotte, however, and many of his former teammates and coaches. Driving for the tying score with time running out, Turcotte was stopped just short of the goal line by a helmet-to-helmet hit on fourth-and-goal. Lewiston lost, 42-35, and ultimately lost home field advantage for a playoff matchup between the two teams.

“I still think I was in (the end zone),” Turcotte said. “That loss hurt.”

Led by Turcotte, who was fending off distractions from the media and recruiters throughout the fall, the Blue Devils lost only one more game during the regular season, to eventual state champion Lawrence.

“He made everyone better. He made everyone want to play better,” Giroux said. “I think that speaks volumes.”

Lewiston ended the regular season with a 30-14 win over Edward Little in the annual Battle of the Bridge. Turcotte, who is quick to point out he never lost to Lewiston’s rival, rushed for 326 yards and four touchdowns.

“He would just raise his game to another level against teams like Bangor and Edward Little,” County said. “I had some VHS tapes of those games and burned them to DVD just because I don’t want to lose them. He liked to rise to the occasion.”

The Blue Devils lost in Bangor again in the regional semifinals, 14-7. Turcotte finished the season with 1,813 yards and 17 touchdowns rushing. He also caught four TDs and scored two more on defense while recording over 100 solo tackles.

His performance earned him Gatorade Player of the Year and the Fitzpatrick Trophy as the state’s top player.

“I considered that award a team award,” he said. “I couldn’t have done anything I did my senior year in high school without the other 10 guys on the field. It meant more to me because of what it represented for the team and the community.”

UMAINE IT IS

After the season ended, his focus turned to his future beyond high school. The Division I offers to play on offense were not as plentiful as he hoped, but he had other prestigious options.

He made an unofficial visit to Dartmouth, but just two official visits, both to Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdvision) schools, Bucknell and Maine.

“I took my Maine visit first and then I went to Bucknell,”  Turcotte said. “As soon as I got off the plane in Manchester, New Hampshire, from Bucknell, I called Cos (Maine coach Jack Cosgrove) and committed.”

Turcotte would have to show Cosgrove he was committed to the program before earning any playing time. He was redshirted for a his freshman year, admittedly a blow to the ego for someone who was the best high school player in the state. But Turcotte quickly came around to his coach’s thinking.

“I was in over my head in terms of the talent I was facing day in and day out. So I welcomed the idea of redshirting as the season progressed,” he said.

Despite not playing, he prepared as if he was (he was on the travel squad for every road game) and practiced purposefully with those who were playing.

“As a kid from Maine, I always knew how the guys on the team would think of me just because I wasn’t from New York, Pennsylvania or New Jersey,” he said. “That was all the chip on my shoulder that I needed to go out and consistently try to prove to those guys I’m not just another kid from Maine who’s going to quit just because I’m not playing.”

On Aug. 30, 2008, Turcotte did have one of those “Want to get away?” moments in his Black Bears debut against the University of Iowa in its 70,000-seat home, Kinnick Stadium.

“I started, and I remember we were backed up on the goal-line, and I was the back-side tight end on a sprintout and I went the wrong way and … (Iowa got a) safety, all on me” he said.

Despite that miscue, he’d earned the trust of his coaches to remain in the starting lineup and to take on a variety of responsibilities as a fullback/H-back/tight end.

By midseason, injuries started to pile up in Maine’s backfield and Turcotte started to get the ball more and more. His breakout performance (11 carries, 82 yards) came in a 24-10 loss at powerhouse James Madison. Two weeks later, in a 27-10 win over nationally ranked Delaware, he scored his first touchdown on a 4-yard run.

“Up to that point, I was never expecting to get the ball,” he said. “But we had some injuries that week, and it was next man up.”

“It was just doing what was asked of you by the team,” he said.

One week after beating the Blue Hens, he rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries and caught five passes for 69 yards and Maine’s final touchdown in a wild 41-40 double-overtime win over Hofstra.

He remained the feature back as the Black Bears rolled off a six-game winning streak, which for Turcotte included a three-touchdown performance against Rhode Island.

Rising in the national rankings, Maine hosted rival New Hampshire in a season finale that many thought would double as a play-in game to the 16-team FCS playoff. UNH shut down Turcotte and won, 28-24, in the Orono snow, seemingly delivering a fatal blow to Maine’s postseason hopes.

However, the Black Bears ended up receiving an at-large berth.

“It was devastating,” Turcotte said. “I remember it like yesterday sitting in the locker room on selection Sunday. Going from being so down on Saturday, and then on Sunday to be so up, it was pretty cool.”

Making their first playoff appearance in six years, the 20th-ranked Black Bears got blown out at No. 4 Northern Iowa, 40-15. But with three more years of Turcotte, who had earned All-American honors as a redshirt freshman, anchoring the running game, there was reason to believe they wouldn’t have to wait long for their next one.

LOST SOPHOMORE SEASON

After racking up nearly 1,000 total yards in 2008, Turcotte was gearing up to take on even more of the load for his sophomore season. But following the final team workout of the summer, he started experiencing some lower-right abdominal pain.

“It was just a nagging type of pain. It wasn’t anything crazy. I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “I figured it would rectify itself over the next week of preseason and we could just be cautious. But it just didn’t turn out that way.”

Following initial consultations with Bangor-area physicians, Turcotte went to Central Maine Medical Center to see a general trauma surgeon, who quickly diagnosed a sports hernia.

Any hope of returning late in the season vanished when, while rehabbing for his first operation, he started feeling the same pain he’d experienced before, but this time on the lower left hand side. That required another operation.

Turcotte’s 2009 season was lost, and so was Maine’s. It had to go to overtime to beat Division II St. Cloud State on opening night, and ultimately finished with a 5-6 record.

“It was a season that was a letdown for me, a season that never happened,” he said. “There was so much hype, so much expectation.”

Turcotte had other expectations heading into the 2010 season, as he and his then girlfriend, Allysha Jones, also a UMaine student, learned they were going to have a baby, due that September. The couple married that July.

NEW PRIORITIES

He embraced becoming a husband and father. Then more good news arrived, as he was medically cleared for the start of preseason.

A 3-0 loss to Albany in the season-opener put a damper on the team’s expectations, as did a narrow 31-23 win over Monmouth in Week 2. But Turcotte was back to being the workhorse he was two years earlier, carrying the ball 29 times for 146 yards and three TDs in that win.

He’d heard that NFL scouts were monitoring him closely, but suddenly he had other priorities besides football.

“I was going through a lot of life changes then, for sure,” he said. “Up to then, football was the only reason why I was here. In my mind, God’s purpose for me was to play football. Our daughter was born during the season.”

Turcotte was sitting and talking with offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin, preparing for Maine’s game the next day against No. 3 William & Mary, when the phone rang. It was Allysha, who was about a week past her due date, informing him that she was going to Mercy Hospital in Portland, and would likely be induced into labor to avoid further pregnancy complications.

Turcotte raced down I-95 from Orono and got there in plenty of time for delivery. He watched Maine lose to William & Mary by a field goal on the television in his wife’s room on Saturday, then welcomed his daughter, Aiva, into the world on Sunday.

Meanwhile, his knee was starting to become a problem again. He was getting fluid drained constantly and injections to ease the pain. To save wear-and-tear on the knee, he was limited in practice.

“Getting married, having our first child, really put me in a spot where I’m thinking, ‘Why am I putting myself through this beating all of the time?'” he said. “Once you have other responsibilities that are greater than football, it really makes you — it made me, anyway, think about what I was doing.”

He returned to action the following week and rushed for 73 yards in a 16-13 overtime win over UNH and played in the next two games before the knee pain and missed practice time could no longer be managed. He had surgery to repair a torn meniscus and was sidelined the final four games of Maine’s 4-7 season.

Turcotte believed that he had reached a crossroads, and saw the choices before him as continuing to pursue his NFL dream or being the father to his children that he never had.

“At that point it was … if I play all my cards right, stay as healthy as I possibly can, I can make life-altering money in the the next few years. But at the sacrifice of what? I made the conscious decision to say, ‘I’m going to focus on my family right now,” he said.

“Obviously, I come from a single-parent household. We had my grandfather, but my mom never had any other man in the house to help with anything,” he added. “I think that had a lot to do with my decision to stop playing and focus on my family, because having that void of not having a father in the house was something that I was never going to allow my kids to even come close to having to experience.”

In January of 2011, he met with Cosgrove to tell him he had decided to give up football. He doesn’t regret putting his family first, but still wonders if he could have found a balance.

“I knew as hard as it was for me to stop playing football, that is the only thing that I would have stopped playing football for,” he said. “But I don’t know if I’d had some different counsel or had talked to more people about what I was going through if I wouldn’t have tried to do both. I still have that question.”

“I think where the problem lies is finding identity in what you’re doing and replacing that sense of who you are with what you do,” he said. “It’s hard. You have to be very conscious to not allow that to happen. You have to proactively resist that.”

“I don’t know still if I’ve made up my mind. I don’t know if I could go back if I’d make the same decision. It was hard. It took me a long time to watch a game of football without just breaking down,” he said. “It’s not like I had an acute career-ending injury and was told I can’t ever play again.”

He finished his degree work in kinesiology/exercise science in a little more than a year after he quit football while also working to support his new family. After he graduated, a friend from UMaine helped him get work in the medical device industry, which he continues to do today, the last five years as a sales representative for Indiana-based Zimmer Biomet.

Now 29, Turcotte’s knees still pop and his fingers are crooked from his football career. He and Allysha live in Litchfield with Aiva and their three sons, ranging in age from 18 months to five years old.

He is now one of the millions of parents struggling with the idea of letting his children play the game he loves, mainly because of the recent discoveries linking it with head trauma.

“I don’t know. Youth football, no, I don’t think I’ll allow them to play youth football,” he said. “I mean, if my mom had told me I couldn’t play football, I would have looked at her like she had five heads. I would be the biggest hypocrite if my sons or daughter want to strap it up and play football. But I kind of dread the thought of them saying, ‘Hey, Dad, I think I want to play football.'”

He sees his mission as a father to help his kids grow and develop unencumbered by expectations at a young age.

“I want my kids to be able to think freely. I don’t want them to think they have to color between the lines in their own thinking,” he said. “I want them to follow what they feel is right. My daughter does dance now and my son, I think, is going to start going to dance class with her soon.

“I want them to discover their own talents and what they’re good at, and maybe I’ll suggest they try things,” he said. “And if they don’t like it, try something else.”

Jared Turcotte portrait in Kennedy Park on September 14, 2018. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Former Lewiston High School star and University of Maine pre-season All-American, Jared Turcotte poses for a photo during pre-season media day in 2010. (Sun Journal file photo)

Edward Little forward Troy Barnies (15) and Lewiston High forward Jared Turcotte (21) battle over the ball during a 2005 game at LHS. (Sun Journal file photo)

Lewiston’s Jared Turcotte #21 gets past the Bangor defense during a 2005 game against Bangor. (Sun Journal file photo)

Oxford Hills linebacker Andrew Hart, top right, helps bring down Lewiston ruuning back Jared Turcotte during a 2006 football game where he scored 4 touchdowns.

Lewiston High School football player Jared Turcotte poses for a photo for the 2006 Sun Journal Fall Sports Tab cover.

Jared Turcotte portrait in Kennedy Park on September 14, 2018. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Jared Turcotte portrait in Kennedy Park on September 14, 2018. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Jared Turcotte carries the ball for the University of Maine during a game against Rhode Island in 2008.

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