Four-time NFL champion Keena Turner had fulfilled all of his dreams but one, at least until two weeks ago on May 15 when he walked across a stage to accept his college degree from the school where he was a two-time All-Big Ten player four decades ago.
“Here’s the stadium I played in, and it had all those kind of emotions and memories,” Turner pointed out to ESPN’S Nick Wagoner as they walked the campus of Purdue University.
Forty-one years prior Turner was a student at the university when he opted to join the league and live out his pro football dreams. He was a 1980 second-round NFL draft pick with just a few credits left to fulfill his bachelor’s degree when he went pro. For a decade from 1980 to 1990, Turner was a standout linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers, being selected to the Pro Bowl in 1984 and bringing home four Super Bowl rings over his 11 seasons with the 49ers.
While having a successful football career was a top priority for Turner, he never forgot the importance of obtaining an education. So he took advantage of a partnership between the 49ers and the University of San Francisco that allowed him to obtain his diploma.
“I did fulfill that promise to mom,” said Turner of his graduating from USF at the culmination of his professional football career. Yet, his uncompleted studies at Purdue still hovered over him. And the push he would need to return to college would come from someone near and dear to his heart: his daughter Ella.
Ella had her sights on attending school outside of her home state of California, a decision Turner said he and his wife Linda fully supported. So what happened next came as a surprise.
“When I got into Purdue, I was so excited to have that connection with my dad,” said Ella, the middle child of three, to NBC Sports. Turner and Linda also share eldest daughter Sheena, who attended the University of Southern California, and son Miles, who plays basketball for the University of Portland.
Ella’s decision to enroll at Purdue left her father with only one choice, to re-enroll at the university in West Lafayette, Indiana, he’d left decades earlier and finish what he’d started. “Me choosing to go to Purdue sparked that back up,” she said. “When it was presented to us that he could potentially walk with me, he asked me right away if it was OK with me. He didn’t want to take anything away from me on my special day.”
And he didn’t. Instead, walking together only amplified the celebratory moment for both. Turner, who’d been a stickler for following the rules for as long as he can remember, even left his polytechnic group to ensure he could walk the stage with his daughter.
“I’m just enjoying watching her interacting with her friends and being part of this moment,” Turner recalled. “I kept losing the piece where I was graduating or getting my diploma, too. It was just really, really cool.”
His daughter echoed similar sentiments about the milestone she and her father helped each other reach.
“It was really an awesome moment. I’m just really proud of him for coming back and finishing. It was just really cool we got to experience it together.”