Clemson safety Nolan Turner (24) during Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State last month in Glendale, Ariz. AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Nolan Turner made possibly the biggest play of December’s Fiesta Bowl, but his biggest fan at the game didn’t see it.

Turner’s mother, Joyce, couldn’t bear to watch. Ohio State was driving for the potential go-ahead score, and she was worried that Clemson was going to lose the College Football Playoff semifinal game. 

Joyce Turner, left, with Kevin Turner in 1997. Their son, Nolan Turner, plays safety for Clemson, which faces LSU for the college football national championship on Monday in New Orleans. Joyce (Labbe) Turner grew up in Auburn. Randy Baril photo

The Tigers didn’t lose, though, because Turner made a game-saving interception in the final minute to seal Clemson’s 29-23 victory. 

And while Joyce Turner didn’t see the play because she was praying, she had family nearly 3,000 miles away who saw the key play unfold on TV. 

Joyce (Labbe) Turner grew up in Auburn and graduated from Edward Little High School in 1986 before moving to Boston (where she was born) after college, then to a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. She still has family in Maine.

“Oh, everyone watched it, and they’re so proud,” Joyce said. “They’re just so excited for (Nolan).” 

During a Clemson football media day Monday, Nolan Turner said his phone has been “blowing up” since his interception.

“It was cool to hear from all the friends and family that reached out. I was really appreciative of all the kind words that was said,” he added. 

That includes his Maine family.

Clemson safety Nolan Turner (24) reels in the ball during the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State last month in Glendale, Ariz. AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

“Yeah, I keep up with my cousins and stuff, just through social media and over the phone. They’re excited to get to see … their cousin play out there, so it’s cool that I get to hear from them and them reach out,” Nolan said. 

Joyce said her family gets so excited to watch Nolan because it makes them think of Nolan’s late father, Kevin — the former NFL running back that Joyce was praying to while Nolan was saving Clemson’s season. 

“I knew the ball was going back to Nolan, and I just basically had my head in my lap praying to my (late) husband, that if he could — almost like, ‘If there’s anything you can do, Kev, this would be a wonderful time to do it,'” Joyce said. “And I was basically just praying to him, and then the play was made, so I missed it. I missed it while I was praying to his dad to help in any way that he could. It was the craziest thing.” 

The interception came on a pass by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields from the Tigers’ 23-yard line, the same spot from which Fields earlier in the fourth quarter threw a touchdown to Chris Olave that gave the Buckeyes the lead. Olave beat Turner on the play, but on Turner’s interception, Olave, Fields’ intended target, ran the wrong way. 

“You know, got the call, I read the formation, they were in a three-by-one set, and I was in cover-2, so get back there, read No. 1, get my eyes back inside,” Nolan said, “and I just kind of made a play on it quick and I saw … the receiver shut it down, I was kind of left out there in the middle of the field by myself.” 

Nolan said it was a big change in emotion for him, from getting beat by Fields and Olave to breaking their hearts.

Clemson safety Nolan Turner (24) celebrates with teammates during the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State last month in Glendale, Ariz. AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

The rebound was heartwarming for Joyce. 

“I’m always happy for him, but at that moment I was just very proud of him that he didn’t let (the earlier touchdown) get him down,” she said. 

Nolan said he tries to keep a “one-play mentality.” And he credits Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables with instilling in him and the other defensive players the idea that through failure comes confidence and growth. 

Another of Clemson’s coaches, head coach Dabo Swinney, has also taught Turner — perhaps even more off the field than on it.  

Swinney was a college teammate of Kevin Turner at Alabama, then later a business partner. Before he died of ALS in 2016, Turner had asked Swinney to consider Nolan for a scholarship, which Swinney granted a few months before Turner’s death in March. 

“By April, Nolan was up in Clemson with Dabo as his coach, mentor,” Joyce said. “And at that time there wasn’t anything I could have been more thankful for, knowing he was in good hands with Dabo, who is such an amazing man, person, coach, father, husband.”

In this Jan. 12, 1992 file photo, East’s Kevin Turner, of Alabama, dives over the top for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Japan Bowl, the American collegiate all-star football game, at the Tokyo Dome. A fullback at Alabama before playing eight years in the NFL for New England and Philadelphia, Kevin Turner was 46 when he died in 2016. He had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but after studying his brain researchers declared that it was actually CTE. AP file photo

Kevin and Joyce — who met while Joyce was working in Boston and Kevin was playing fullback for the New England Patriots (he also spent five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles) — had divorced before his death, but she speaks fondly of her late husband, especially when it came to discussing the parts of Kevin that she sees in Nolan. 

“Absolutely everything,” she said. “He’s like his dad made over. It’s like a clone. It’s very bizarre, but also very awesome. He looks just like him, he has the same demeanor. It’s unbelievable how much they are alike. And they were extremely close.” 

Joyce added that she likes to joke with Nolan and her other kids that they get some of their athleticism (namely, she said, their “great footwork,” speed and quickness) from her grandfather and their great-grandfather, Tony Labbe, who was a professional boxer and part of a well-known Lewiston family of boxers (his brother Paul Junior twice fought for the world welterweight title).

Nolan said he thinks a lot about his father and what it would be like for Kevin to see him play in college.

In this April 9, 2013, file photo, Kevin Turner, left, speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia. Researchers in Boston announced in November 2016 that Turner, who died from complications of ALS at the age of 46, had the most advanced stage of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) with motor neuron disease. AP file photo

“I think about that all the time. … I know he’s always watching. So I know where he is, and that gives me that peace, so I’m not too worried about it,” Nolan said. “But it’d be cool for him to be down here on earth to talk about and experience some of those moments together.” 

Nolan said some of his favorite memories with his dad don’t even take place on the football field. 

“Just going down to the lake, and him driving down the boat around, and slinging me around the inner-tube,” Nolan said.

Sometimes the lake was in Maine, where Joyce’s sister lives. There were also winter visits for the Alabama family (Joyce now lives in suburban Birmingham), during which Nolan learned to snowboard at Lost Valley. 

Nolan, who has lived his entire life in the South, called Maine winters “super cold.” 

“It’s a big change from the South. So it was always fun to get up there and get to visit with (family), and see them, because it’s so far away,” he said. “You know, we don’t get to go up there a whole lot anymore, but when we do, it’s always fun.” 

Maine, and the snow, aren’t in the cards for Nolan right now. Instead, it’s the possibility of a shower in the South. Or, more specifically, a downpour of confetti in New Orleans if Clemson can beat LSU on Monday (8 p.m., ESPN) for a second straight national championship. 

“The anticipation kills me. I’m just ready to get down there and play,” Nolan said. 

He called LSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow “as good as advertised,” and said facing the Tigers’ “super-explosive” offense is “a big challenge.” 

“You know, we’re ready for this national championship coming up in New Orleans, and the challenge we have in front of us. You know, hopefully it will take a couple more of those plays (like his interception),” he said.

Turner also had an interception in last year’s semifinal victory over Notre Dame, but not in the championship victory over his father’s alma mater, Alabama. 

It was in that game, however, that Joyce realized maybe there was something in praying to Kevin. 

“It wasn’t looking good, and I just looked up, it was an open stadium, and I started praying to Kev, I’m like, ‘Kevin, we need you here if you can help,’ and the game turned around,” Joyce said. “It’s worked so far. But I’m going to not miss a play (this time). If I’m praying to his dad, I’ll be looking on the field when I do it. I don’t want to miss another play.” 


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