Gordon Monson: Utah State's Robert Turbin overcomes turmoil to succeed
Pain is a friend of Robert Turbin. A brother, a mother, and two sisters, too.
None of that pain is related to the ligament tear in the running back's right knee that required surgery and cost him a season at Utah State on his continuing ascent toward the NFL. That was a mere injury.
Pain is something else.
It's a family tie.
It's an absentee mother who was, as Turbin says it, "addicted to drugs before I was born."
It's a brother in the same desperate circumstances, wearing down a path in and out of jail.
It's a disabled sister, Tiffany, paralyzed from the neck down by a malady suffered from birth that Turbin can't even name, a sister who is bound to a wheelchair, who cannot speak, who can only "make the sounds of a baby" and conjure noises as a means of communicating. Pain is hearing Tiffany cry and having no clue what is wrong. Is she hungry? Is she thirsty? Is she cold? Is she hot? Is she hurt? Is she sad? Is she afraid?
"Sometimes, I didn't know what to do," Turbin says. "I'd have to figure that out."
As a youngster, Turbin's room in his father's house in Fremont, Calif., was next to Tiffany's, and he'd hear her weep in the dark of night and wonder what she was feeling, what he could do to make her feel better, what he could do to make her stop.
Maybe she needed a pillow. Maybe she had a bad dream. Maybe, he guessed, her head itched and she needed it scratched. Turbin used to provide that simple relief, along with bathing her, feeding her, playing music for her, helping her however he could.
And, sometimes, he would give up and get mad.
"It was frustrating," he says. "You'd do everything you possibly could and she'd still be crying."
Although he says he too often was immature and selfish, a sense of perspective and responsibility started dawning on the young Turbin. He wanted comfort and attention, too, but necessity demanded that Tiffany receive the lion's share.
"It helped me grow up quick," he says. "You learned to help other people who needed it."
Turbin's father, Ronald, was an assistant pastor at All Nations Church in neighboring Oakland, in addition to his full-time work as a truck mechanic. Despite the troubles around him and his family, Ronald insisted that Turbin regularly attend church. Turbin played the drums in the church band, which consisted of him and his dad on the organ, accompanying the church choir.
"I grew up in church," he says. "I was there a lot."
Worship was a counterpunch to the pain, and Ronald Turbin knew that.
The senior Turbin donated much of his time to his congregation, and it was that same attitude of service that guided him through the land mines of life. The junior Turbin watched his father and learned, even if it was begrudgingly.
"He got up at 4:30 in the morning and worked hard to make a living for all of us," Turbin says. "He set the best example for me. When Tiffany was born the way she was, doctors told my dad she would be hard to take care of. She wasn't supposed to live past the age of 5. My dad's response was: 'I don't care what you guys say, I'm taking care of her.' Now, she's 29.
"When something needed to get done, he'd get it done. He always helped everyone. I told him, 'You can't be the savior of everybody. You've got to stop.' But he never did. And that rubbed off on me."
Amid the good living was the inescapable heartbreak of the human condition. There was one more blast of pain in those formative years for Turbin.
Another sister, Trina, who was a gifted athlete, a high school basketball player, was struck with multiple sclerosis in her late teens and died at 21. That blew Turbin away, but, again, his father led out by keeping hope alive.
Turbin eventually found his in sports. At first, he wanted to be Michael Jordan, but discovered in short order that Walter Payton's game was his calling: "It came naturally," he says. "I always had speed. I could juke people. I could break tackles. I could run."
It was as though the physical limitations placed upon his siblings were balanced out by their younger brother's physical prowess. He starred at Irvington High School in Fremont, and garnered the attention of numerous college programs. Most of them wanted him to play safety. One, Utah State, saw him the way he saw himself as a running back.
Probably via the comprehensive influence of his ever-charitable father, Turbin judged USU to be "the kind of team I wanted to be on to help them turn the page, to help them become a winning team."
As a redshirt junior, that's a work in progress for the 5-foot-10, 222-pound man who's fought back from the aforementioned knee surgery to become the best runner in the state, and a strong pro prospect.
"I just play," he says. "Over the course of my life, I've learned to be humble and thankful for the things I have, to appreciate what I've got while I've got it. And to remember my family and be grateful."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone.