SAN JOSE, Calif. — Kevin Turner was a “hero” to Dabo Swinney.
When the Clemson coach was a walk-on wide receiver at Alabama, the older star fullback repeatedly told Swinney he was good enough to see the field. When the Clemson coach was a former football assistant working in real estate, Turner was at the desk beside him, telling Swinney he still had a future in the sport he loved.
So when Swinney called with the unexpected news he was offering Turner’s son, Nolan, a scholarship, it ranked among his most rewarding moments as Clemson coach.
They both knew it would be one of their final phone calls.
“That was a pretty cool moment, and he was just so proud,” Swinney said. “I could almost see the tears … of joy, knowing that Nolan was going to have this opportunity and he was going to be around people that were going to love him, and people that would be family to him.”
Turner smiled, but couldn’t speak. He couldn’t walk. It had been nearly six years since he had been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). After Turner’s death in 2016, at the age of 46, it was discovered the former NFL fullback suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
“We cherished every day together,” Nolan said Saturday. “Our time was limited. It was tough, watching his battle … but he just appreciated the time they had and kept fighting without worrying about his last day or the outcome.
“I think about him all the time, especially wearing that No 24. I think I represent him.”
Nolan always wanted to play at Alabama, sharing the same field and jersey as his father. The defensive back was thrilled to be offered a spot with the Crimson Tide as a preferred walk-on.
No other power program offered more. Then, Swinney showed up at Nolan’s Alabama high school.
“It was a surprise. I was in shock,” Nolan said. “It was a big change of plans that day. I didn’t even really know where Clemson was. I’d never been there before.”
Swinney, who previously offered Nolan a walk-on role, didn’t see it as a favor, even if others did. The coach who once worked his way up to a starting spot on a national title team saw the same potential in his friend’s son.
As a sophomore, Nolan earned a promotion from special teams, and recorded 40 tackles this season, with two pass breakups. His finest moment came in the semifinal win over Notre Dame, when Nolan recorded his first career interception.
“I’m just really, really proud of him, and he’s a great example to his teammates, and he’s a great example to us as coaches and a great reminder that you’ve got to trust your instincts,” Swinney said. “You can’t get distracted because maybe a guy has got a million offers but you don’t see it, or you see it and he’s got no offers. You’ve got to be convicted in what you believe.
“He’s got the DNA. I know what he’s made of.”
Nolan describes Swinney as a father figure.
“He’s such a great mentor, and someone to look up to,” Nolan said. “He dreams so big, and he teaches us so much. The power of how you think, setting your goals high and how you work for it is what matters. He’s someone to look up to.”
It’s what his father wanted.
“I’m not scared of dying,” Kevin texted Swinney at the tail end of his sickness, “but not being there for my kid terrifies me.”
Sometimes, it still feels like Kevin is here.
“Every time I look at [Nolan], to be honest with you, I feel like I’m back in 1989 because he looks exactly like KT,” Swinney said. “I know KT is just having a big ol’ time up there in heaven. I know he’s just as proud as he can be.
“We’ve had our arms around Nolan, kind of through his walk, and man, he has just blossomed and he’s growing into a great man, and he’s already a great football player. It’s just amazing how it’s all come together.”
Kevin isn’t here, but his son expects him at the national championship, rooting against his alma mater.
“I’ll talk to him a little bit [before the game],” Nolan said. “I wish he could be here with us to see it all, but I know he has the best seat in the house.”