Pioneer football teams strived for 29 years to have a winning season. Squad 52 with Matt Turner as head coach accomplished that feat in the sixth game of his second season as head coach.
Passion, courage, intelligence, and love are characteristics that have made Matt Turner an excellent football coach. Turner has worked diligently to turn the 60 to 70 football players on the high school team into members of his family.
His story is not a Hallmark movie, but it is a story of a family being dedicated to one another. It all started how a family is supposed to start, with his parents.
Matt Turner’s father, Steve Turner, was an auto diesel mechanic at General Shale long before he started his own auto repair business. He had a passion for building and racing drag cars.
Larry DeLong, a close personal friend of Steve Turner, reflected, “Steve had two priorities. Family was No. 1 and racing was No. 2. Matt is a mirror of his dad. I knew when they hired him to be head coach that they would get 100% of him.”
Young Matt Turner shadowed his dad at work and in his garage. Matt learned at a very early age how to take an engine apart and put it back together. He also grew up learning how to drive drag racing cars.
Matt did not play youth football. Instead he was learning karate with Gary Steele. He earned a black belt at 9 years old. You always finished what you started in the Turner household. Getting a black belt was simply finishing what Matt had started.
A 9-year-old Matt would see lights from the bypass on the way home from karate and he would ask his parents what the lights were. His parents told him they were lights for the football field.
Nothing was conventional for Matt as he was growing up. When he was just a year old, his mother Linda was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and given six months to live. After his parents received the MS diagnosis, they found someone to take care of Matt and his older sister, Mindy. They left town and drove their MG to Myrtle Beach. It was the last time his mom ever walked on a beach. Steve and Linda filled the floorboard up with sand so Matt’s mom could feel the sand beneath her feet on the drive home.
Matt never remembers his mom walking. He only remembers her being in a wheelchair. She did not die six months later. She vowed to raise her children and she did. Linda Turner did not pass away until 2007, 27 years after being told she had six months to live.
Matt grew up helping take care of his mother. He would do all the things someone would do for a woman confined to a wheelchair. His mom taught Matt how to cook from her wheelchair. Matt was not just earning a black belt at 9 years old, he was also helping bathe and change his mom, in addition to helping cook meals.
Football did not enter the picture until Matt went to the middle school in seventh grade. Matt wanted to start playing football, and he asked the head coach, Stan Jacobs, if he could go out for the team. Jacobs asked him where he had been. Matt said he just learned there was a football team.
There was one problem. Matt knew his dad worked from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and he went home each day to take care of his wife. Matt had to get home after practice. The seventh-grader developed a plan. Matt asked his parents if he could get his driver’s permit and drive the MG to school. His parents told Matt if he could get the driver’s permit, he could play football. Somehow, a seventh-grade Matt Turner got his driver’s permit and he started playing football.
Coach Stan Jacobs remembers it well. Jacobs said, “He drove a two-seater MG to school to play football. Matt was determined to play. He did not have the size he has now, and he had shoulder-length blond hair. He did not back down to anyone. He was dedicated and always had a smile on his face.”
Matt remembers his dad’s reaction when he started playing varsity football his sophomore year. Matt recalled, “I remember how my dad’s chest would puff out and how proud my dad was that I was a Pioneer football player. I remember looking up and seeing him and my mom in the stands. I felt great seeing my mom up there. I think the football games gave her something to look forward to.”
His parents’ dedication of going to his games continued when he was playing football at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. They would go to his home and away games. Again, Matt believed it was very therapeutic for his mom to have something to look forward to and see him play.
Matt and his sister were the first ones in their family to go to college. His parents were the first in their families to graduate from high school. Steve Turner would hear his son say that he wanted to be an auto-diesel mechanic like his dad. Steve would tell his son, “That’s fine, but first you go to college and get that education.”
Getting that education changed Matt’s life. As Matt often says, “I learned how and what it takes to win football games at UTC.”
Something else happened when Matt got his education. He met his future wife, Autumn Long Turner. Autumn was a lot like Matt. She walked onto the soccer team and Matt walked onto the football team. Like Matt, she earned a scholarship. They both majored in special education. Their romantic saga did not start until their senior year, but they knew each other much earlier.
Autumn remembers the early days at college, “Everyone knew who Matt Turner was at UTC. I don’t remember when I first met him, but I felt like I had always known him. We saw each other in class. I did not know he was dating someone from his hometown. I would go to soccer practice every day talking about Matt Turner. I thought he was too good of a catch, and I tried to set him up with girls on the soccer team.”
Ironically, Autumn dated a football player for a few years who played right next to Matt on the line. Eventually that changed their senior year. Autumn was from a small town outside Chattanooga, Apison. After they started dating, Matt brought both Autumn and her mother a rose during his first visit to meet Autumn’s family.
Autumn said, “We knew after dating for a couple of weeks we had something special. Before we were engaged, Matt told me in his kitchen that he was moving back to Rock Island. I knew Matt had an obligation to his parents.”
When Matt proposed several months later, he had a ring made by Shawn Stinson that had diamonds from his and Autumn’s mom’s rings. It was another sign of how much family means to Matt. Autumn remembers Matt’s dad telling her one day while he was working on a car in his garage that Matt wanted kids. She recalls Steve Turner saying, “You know Matt wants 10 kids, right?”
Matt and Autumn tried many ways to have kids. Nothing worked.
Autumn said, “It took many years for me to understand why God did not let us have kids. Matt and I have something special and I would not trade it for anything. I see Matt with his boys, and I think maybe that is God’s reason. Matt is having an impact on 60 to 70 boys and a girl. That is where Matt needs to be. Although I do not have the same relationship with them that Matt does, they mean just as much to me.”
Autumn continued, “Matt’s dream was to come back and become the coach of the Pioneers. Every program he has been a part of, Matt has had success. He was successful as a position coach, whatever he coaches. He has a knack for motivating kids. That is where his greatest impact is.”
Many members of this year’s Pioneer football team describe the team as being a family. That is not by accident. Larry DeLong repeatedly emphasized how family was Steve Turner’s No. 1 priority and that Matt is a complete reflection of his dad. DeLong explained it this way, “If you knew Steve Turner and didn’t know Matthew, you knew Matthew, and if you didn’t know Steve and knew Matthew Turner, you knew Steve.”
When he graduated from college, Matt returned to Rock Island to help take care of his mom, to give his dad a break. Several years after Matt’s mom passed away in 2007, Steve Turner became ill with cancer. When Steve became incapacitated, Matt was there to take care of his dad, just as Matt had taken care of his mom.
Autumn said, “Matt is always giving 100%. He loves me more than I deserve. He was always that way with his family. He was devoted to his mom and dad. He is doing the same thing with this team. He is passionate about it and he loves these kids. That goes back to why we didn’t have kids. There was another purpose.”
Matt can take an engine apart and put it back together. He cared for a mother in a wheelchair who could not take care of herself. He helped his dad in the garage growing up, and he was there to take care of his dad as he was dying from cancer.
Matt took the Pioneer football team apart, and he put it back together. He talked to the team about burning ships, to not turn back, and to give 100%. He wanted to change the culture. He wanted to see people as proud of the Pioneer football team as his dad was about Matt being a football player.
Matt recognized he did not know everything about coaching a team on a nearly three-decade losing streak. He brought in Rick Stewart to install a new system. He persuaded kids playing other sports to join the team. He instilled a desire for everyone to play for each other. An individual, selfish attitude was no longer acceptable.
Autumn said, “Matt is better than what I imagined a husband can be. He is the best husband he can be. He is the best coach he can be.”
Matt’s best has been good enough to break a 29-year streak of losing seasons. Matt has turned his team into his family. He has treated the team the same way he learned to treat his family. It may be messy at times, but Matt is authentic, genuine.
Wherever Matt Turner goes, there he is, and if anyone knew his dad, they would say, there goes Steve Turner too.