|AP Photo DN108, DN106, DN105, DN107|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 31 August 2007 11:31|
Hands that once caught passes from Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath are fiddling with an empty package of sweetener. He's rolled the paper long ways and twisted it tight, the size of a toothpick. He flicks one end, sending a pink swirl across the table.
``I only do that when I'm nervous,'' he says.
Turner's pulse always quickens before a mail check. His heart is really thumping now, because he's been told a registered letter will arrive any day.
His coffee and patience gone, Turner climbs into his silver pickup and makes the half-mile drive. Walking to his mailbox, he laughs and says, ``OK, we need music,'' offering a ``dunna, dunna, DUN-DUN'' straight from an NFL Films soundtrack.
Turner's case is worthy of such buildup.
Technically, Robert ``Bake'' Turner vs. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan, and NFL Retirement Board, is about pension. He's trying to recoup roughly $250 a month he believes he's been stiffed since turning 62 five years ago.
But the money is secondary. Like fellow retirees who took their gripes about disability to Congress in July, Turner wants to expose the players association as ``rotten, cheating, scheming, you-know-whats who would do anything to deprive retired players of anything.''
Way out in West Texas, Turner couldn't find an attorney to take the case. So he's doing what the court calls pro se - and what his friends call crazy.
He's doing it by himself.
After all, Turner can fix just about anything and is great at building things, like his log cabin-style house. He's also good with a guitar, still strumming and singing like he did for Johnny Carson in those glorious days after the Jets delivered on Namath's guarantee and won Super Bowl III.
Over the six months he prepped for the trial, Turner hardly slept. He lost weight and his brown hair grayed. The few times he performed friends noticed he played only sad songs.
Today, he'll find out whether it was worth it. The key goes into box 277, and his pulse quickens again.
Turner was born in 1940, after two brothers and before three sisters. His mom called him Bobby, but everyone else called him Bacon because of his fondness for it. The nickname got shortened to Bake and, eventually, even his mom used it.
Dad worked for the state highway department, then drove a truck for Gulf Oil. Of the six kids, Bake enjoyed riding shotgun in the rig the most, partly to avoid whippings from his big brothers but also to soak up advice - like dad's warning not to let anyone cheat you.
``We didn't have a lot of money,'' he said, ``but we were a happy family.''
M. He instead took a full ride to Texas Tech.
The Baltimore Colts chose him in the 12th round of the 1962 draft as a defensive back. Some good punt returns helped him make the team, then coach Weeb Ewbank put him at flanker. Turner stuck by making a good first impression on Unitas.
``John threw me a fly pattern along the sideline, and Lenny Lyles was covering me. He was right by my shoulder, watching me, and this ball comes flying. I said, 'Aw, shoot!' and stopped running, and so did he. Then I restarted and went into the end zone,'' Turner said. ``Best move I ever made!''
Ewbank went to the Jets a year later and took Turner with him. Turner made All-AFL that season.
Namath arrived in '65. And on Jan. 12, 1969, the Jets toppled the mighty Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl, pulling off a huge upset just like their quarterback said they would.
The city that never sleeps celebrated with a ticker-tape parade.
``Confetti on our heads - man, that felt good,'' Turner said. ``I thought I was Charles Lindbergh.''
All sorts of doors opened for players, especially the backup receiver with the good voice.
Turner cut several records, including ``Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone'' a year before Charley Pride turned it into a hit. He was the voice on one of Miller beer's ``If you've got the time ...'' jingles and the lead singer of ``The Four Jets'' in a commercial for Score hair cream. He became a regular at celebrity golf tournaments and, even now, gets autograph requests in the mail every week.
No wonder he never takes off his Super Bowl ring.
Turner's goal of lasting 10 years in the NFL ended in Patriots training camp in 1971.
Thrown into the real world, he got ``every license known to man,'' selling real estate, annuities, insurance, etc. Then he wanted to buy a rent house but needed more cash. So he tapped into his NFL pension in 1987, at age 46.
Of the five early retirement options, Turner picked ``Social Security adjustment,'' the one with the highest monthly payment. The way he understood it, he'd get $422 a month until he started collecting Social Security. Then his pension payments would drop by however much he got from the government.
However, the paper Turner signed showed an expected Social Security benefit that exceeded his pension. Since no adjustment would be needed, the document said that once he turned 62 the plan would pay him only $50 per month.
There was no mention of what would happen if his pension went up.
Yet up it went, all the way to $1,170 per month, thanks mostly to TV contracts that doubled, then doubled again.
Knowing he was about to collect $770 a month from Social Security, Turner figured his pension would be adjusted to cover the $400 difference.
His benefit plummeted to $139. That was the $50 the plan expected to pay him, only bigger because of those TV-infused raises.
Like his dad taught him, Turner wasn't about to let this go.
The difference in Turner's monthly checks boiled down to a then-vs.-now interpretation of this option.
Turner looked at ``now,'' citing all sorts of documents saying he was due the same before and after age 62. Doing things Turner's way would have meant about $16,000 for him so far; he'd have to live past 100 to crack $100,000. But plan administrators said Turner locked himself into the smaller amount back ``then,'' the day he took early retirement. Besides, their budget would be thrown if they had to recalculate what they owed everyone who took that option.
Actually, it was only about 350 players, because the league overhauled the plan in 1993 and punted the Social Security adjustment option. League folks denounced it as a horrible choice because of the pittance players were left with once Social Security kicked in.
Turner started with phone calls, then letters. He dealt with the NFL's actuaries and attorneys. All that did was get his pulse going.
``They're really crooked people,'' he said. ``They have a different agenda. They want another home in Florida, another Mercedes. They don't want to pay the retired guys.''
All this was happening in 2002, long before other old-timers made similar accusations.
The backlash against the NFLPA gained momentum with Harry Carson speaking out during his 2006 Hall of Fame induction, then Mike Ditka and others raising a ruckus before the most recent Super Bowl. In July, Congress held hearings to see what was going on.
Soon after, commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA boss Gene Upshaw met with a group of retired players and announced the creation of a $7 million medical fund as part of a bigger effort to help retirees. Goodell said he'd like to hear from ``other retired players for additional guidance as we continue to meet and pursue these important issues.''
In most of the hard-luck stories, pension is mentioned, but disability is the focus. That's where Turner is different - luckier.
At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, he's close to his playing weight. He has some aches and pains, like any 67-year-old, but he's probably better off than most guys who played nine years in the NFL.
``At alumni events, I'm probably the healthiest one there,'' he said.
So why all the fuss?
Basics, really, from his dad's warning about cheaters to the outrage everyone of his generation feels about getting squeezed by a league they helped turn into the powerhouse it is today. Turner was even there for many landmark moments: The retirement plan started his rookie year, the first Super Bowl came in the middle of his career, and his final season was the first played under the headings of AFC and NFC.
``They just don't give a damn about retired players,'' Turner said. ``They don't want to share their money.''
For further proof this is a moral stand, Turner points to the lawsuit he filed in February 2006. It asks for no damages beyond the money he thinks he's owed and his expenses.
``I'm not greedy,'' he said. ``I just want this fixed.''
Before all this happened, Turner had never been sued, never even been in a federal courthouse.
At the initial hearing, U.S. District Judge Robert Junell, a Tech alum, warned NFL attorneys that he'd followed Turner's career. A trial was set for May 23, 2007.
On the big day, Turner's inexperience and nervousness showed right away. When the judge asked ``Who is here for the plaintiff?'' Turner didn't know what to do.
Over the next hour and a half, the guitar-playing, house-building, former-pass-catcher was much smoother.
He wasn't perfect, but he was good enough to earn the judge's respect.
``Mr. Turner, after your successful football career you should have gone to law school,'' Junell said. ``You have done a very admirable job, and I appreciate you bringing this to our attention.''
Junell said he hoped to have a verdict as soon as 30 days. At the latest, by Aug. 17.
The wait was tough, but Turner made the most of it.
He realized how much free time he suddenly had and loved the way his mind was still buzzing. So he challenged himself to do things he'd always wanted but had put off - like oil painting and getting serious about finishing his college degree.
``Since the trial, I've started noticing things that I was more aware of. I feel smarter. I can comprehend stuff quicker. I just exercised the hell out of my brain,'' he said, laughing.
``I'm so glad I didn't get an attorney.''
On Aug. 16, Turner is handed the 10-page verdict. He doesn't know where to look first.
The answer he's waited 85 days to learn is buried in the final sentence on page nine.
``Based upon the evidence presented at trial, the Court holds that the Board's interpretation of the plan is consistent with a fair reading thereof,'' Junell wrote.
It gets worse. Turner also has to pay their legal fees.
``I can't believe he did this,'' he moans every few minutes.
Turner spends four hours analyzing the verdict. He gets really hot about Junell's decision being partly based on the plan's budget being blown if forced to use Turner's terms.
``So what?'' he says. They certainly can afford it, more than he can handle the bill he's going to get.
He doesn't even want to think about how big it will be, or how he'll come up with that kind of money. Instead, he covers the kitchen table with documents, searching for something around which to build an appeal.
One thing is certain: Nothing in the verdict changes his stance.
``They're trying to cheat us,'' he said. ``And I don't like cheaters.''
He also has no regrets about having cashed in when he did. Despite all the problems, it was the right thing at the time.
Turner has another week to tell the court whether he's going to fight another round.
So far, all he's decided is that he can't go on without help - from attorneys, fellow retirees, anyone.
``I kind of like this,'' Turner says. ``I don't like the ruling. I like the challenge.''
There goes his pulse again.