Until the 1990s, the Cleveland Browns consistently posted winning records and appeared in the playoffs.
However, the 90’s marked the beginning of a decline for the franchise that, unfortunately, has not ended.
To date, the Browns have only made the playoffs twice since 1990 (1994, 2002).
Cleveland’s seemingly endless walk through purgatory has not been without its bright spots.
Quite a few All-Pros and Pro Bowlers have graced the rosters of the team in the past three decades.
Nevertheless, their talent has been undercut by far less equitable talent on those same rosters.
This has meant numerous seasons with double digit losses and unenviable coaching, management, and personnel turnover.
One of the bright spots on the Browns early 90s teams was safety Eric Turner.
Eric Turner pic.twitter.com/5Y2qXxxbE5
— XAV. #D4L (Dawg4Life) (@DirtDawg80) March 29, 2020
Though he only experienced one winning season in Cleveland, Turner made a significant impact.
After being drafted out of UCLA in 1991, he quickly became one of the best safeties in the NFL.
His presence in the defensive backfield made more than a few receivers wary.
Turner continued to shine even after the Browns left for Baltimore as he roamed the secondary for both the Ravens and, later, the Raiders.
Then, suddenly, his life was cut short by a deadly disease that left the football world reeling.
This is the story of the life, career, and unforeseen death of Eric Turner.
Growing up in Cali
Eric Ray Turner was born on September 20, 1968 in Ventura, California.
His father was a pastor and eventually left the family by the time Turner was four.
Turner’s mother raised three young boys and worked as an accounting clerk to make ends meet.
Eventually, Turner’s mother remarried and his step-father became a valued part of his life.
“We’re very close,” Turner said in a 1994 interview, “like the five fingers on a hand.”
While attending Ventura High School, Turner displayed the skills he would show the world as a pro years later.
During his time in high school, Turner was named All-American, All-State, All-California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), All-County, and All-League in football.
In addition to his pigskin accolades, Turner was also All-CIF in track and All-League in basketball.
As he neared the end of his senior year, Turner had numerous college opportunities to choose from.
Wanting to stay near home, he picked UCLA as his college destination.
Turner Shines as a Bruin
Choosing UCLA was practically a no-brainer for Turner.
Not only was he close to home so his family could watch him play on Saturdays, but he was also joining a program known for its safety development.
Before Turner arrived on campus, the Bruins had already produced Kenny Easley, who went on to star for the Seattle Seahawks.
Don Rogers, who would later play for the Browns, (and pass away himself at the peak of his career) arrived at UCLA after Easley. Rogers, then, begat James Washington, who would go on to play for three NFL teams as well as win two Super Bowls.
After redshirting his first season at UCLA, Turner began his own march toward Bruin immortality.
In 1987, Turner, nicknamed E-Rock by his teammates, was primarily a reserve, but still posted 48 tackles and three picks, including one returned for a touchdown.
After the season, he was named a First-Team Freshman All-American by Football News.
1988 saw Turner make the starting roster on his way to 87 tackles, three INTs and being named to the First-Team Sophomore All-American list by Football News.
The Bruins went 10-2 that year and defeated Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl 17-3.
In 1989, Turner racked up 141 tackles, three more picks and earned honorable mention All-American honors.
As a senior in 1990, Turner was chosen as the Bruins Most Valuable Player after leading the team with 93 tackles and five INTs.
He solidified his First-Team All-American nod during the season when he made a late interception that led to a UCLA game winning field goal against number two ranked Washington.
Turner’s fine career in Los Angeles led to waves of pro scouts watching his every move.
29 days till College Football…
#29 Eric Turner- S UCLA (87-90)
— Lane (@lanedorr24) July 26, 2019
By the time the 1991 NFL Draft arrived, he was at the top of most team’s lists.
Turner didn’t have to wait long after the draft started.
With the number two pick, the Browns scooped up Turner, making him the highest ever selection for a defensive back in the modern era of football.
With pick 2 in the 1991 NFL Draft, the #Browns selected Eric Turner, FS, UCLA.
He posted an elite #RAS with good size, great speed, elite explosiveness, at the FS position.
He went to two career pro bowls. pic.twitter.com/MWfyzBc6KL
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 23, 2019
Turner Leads Saban’s Defense
After being drafted, Turner signed a four-year deal with the Browns for $6 million including a $3.15 million signing bonus.
With that cash, he bought his mother her dream home in California.
Then, Turner got to work learning Defensive Coordinator Nick Saban’s defensive schemes.
Eric Turner, Safety for the Cleveland Browns for 5 years from 91-95. He was Pro Bowl and All-Pro in 94, fourth year in the league, and would play 4 years after his time with Browns. Turner died suddenly May 29th, 2000 at the age of 31. #Browns #Raiders https://t.co/1xGLIQx7xo pic.twitter.com/PyHAt0NIt4
— Hopeful Browns Fan (@BrownsTownBrad) September 30, 2018
During his rookie year, Turner started seven games and turned in a solid performance with 84 tackles and two picks including one for a touchdown.
@Browns Eric Turner Rookie Year 1991 #BrownsCamp Look At That Infectious Smile pic.twitter.com/F6xKKzy8eU
— Jim Babos (@CLE_bos_23) September 30, 2016
Unfortunately, new head coach Bill Belichick and the Browns were in full blown rebuilding mode and the team ended the year 6-10.
In 1992, Turner started 15 games and increased his tackle total to 119 to go along with one interception.
Cleveland was still mired in mediocrity and hit the finish line at 7-9.
The team posted the same record in 1993, but by then, the world knew who Eric Turner was.
Nearly every time a Browns highlight was shown, there was Turner putting the wood to some poor sap.
You didn’t bring that weak stuff across the middle with Eric Turner. #Browns vs Steelers pic.twitter.com/QTKLOMr0m5
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) November 14, 2019
He was adept at timing a pass just right and interrupting what looked to be a certain reception.
He was a sure tackler as well.
In ‘93, his tackle total for the season ballooned to 159, which turned out to be the highest total of his career.
Turner and the Browns Taste the Playoffs
In 1994, Belichick and Saban finally got the right roster chemistry and the Browns were rolling.
The team finished 11-5 that year and Turner led the league with nine picks.
He was voted to his first Pro Bowl and was named a First-Team All-Pro.
He was a human highlight reel on the field and was flashy off it.
However, his teammates were quick to point out who Turner really was.
“He’s got that Hollywood mentality,” said Browns defensive end Rob Burnett during a 1994 interview. “But that’s just an act. Eric is the kind of guy kids can look up to. If you look beyond the shades and the gold chains and all that stuff, Eric is a very religious guy who takes his job and his life very seriously.”
Even the notoriously tight-lipped Saban had praise for Turner’s play, especially in 1994.
“I think the biggest difference between Eric now and earlier in his career is that he’s not only a big hitter now, but he’s an efficient, effective tackler who makes very few misses,” said Saban in 1994. “He’s making big plays without taking risks. It’s hard for me to imagine any safety in the league playing better than he is.”
During a Week 3 game against Arizona, Turner took one of his interceptions 93 yards to the house for a touchdown.
In a Week 15 matchup against the mighty Cowboys, Turner tackled Dallas tight end Jay Novacek at the one-yard line to preserve a 19-14 upset.
After the Saturday 12/10/94 game against the @dallascowboys, that ended with a goal line denial of Jay Novacek by Eric Turner, I bought this Vinny Testaverde jersey. #Browns pic.twitter.com/1TxsTMUGRZ
— Ed_in_Columbus (@ed_in_columbus) April 4, 2019
That season, Saban’s defense was ranked number one in the NFL.
The team rode that success to their first playoff appearance since after the 1989 season.
I loved this Coke promotion as a kid. Plus Eric Turner was such a beast. #Browns #Halloween #MonstersoftheGridIron pic.twitter.com/SnNt5iXeRP
— Rob-Stone (@RobStone_) October 2, 2019
In the Wild Card round against the Patriots, Cleveland intercepted quarterback Drew Bledsoe three times.
One of those picks came courtesy of Turner with seven minutes remaining in the game.
25 years ago today the Browns recorded their most recent playoff win with a 20-13 defeat of the Patriots. Hats off to coach Belichick and the late Eric Turner at safety for shutting down Drew Bledsoe’s high powered attack. FYI, Tom Brady was a senior in high school. #Browns pic.twitter.com/fu5Wcv0TAH
— Johnstone (@JStoneTrivia86) January 1, 2020
Turner returned the ball 28 yards to the New England 36 and the turnover eventually resulted in a field goal.
The Browns went on to win the game 20-13 and advanced to face division foe Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, even with Turner picking off another playoff pass, the Steelers ended Cleveland’s run a week later with a commanding 29-9 victory.
Turner Becomes a Raven
In 1995, the Browns came crashing back to earth.
The team struggled to retain the success they had the previous season and could only muster a 5-11 record.
Turner only played in eight games that year due to cracked vertebrae.
Cleveland felt Turner’s pain and suffered greatly without him during the season.
The Browns woes on the field also fed perfectly into owner Art Modell’s threats to relocate the team to Baltimore.
With the city of Cleveland not meeting his demands to upgrade their existing stadium (or build a new one), Modell pulled up stakes after the ‘95 season.
Out the door went the Browns, Turner, and the hopes and dreams of the Cleveland faithful.
Although the new Baltimore Ravens did not fare well on the field in 1996, Turner continued to shine.
That year he posted 81 tackles and five interceptions, good enough to put him in his second Pro Bowl.
Ravens have been represented in every Pro Bowl since 1996 (pic of Vinny & Eric Turner). But not THIS year (w reason). pic.twitter.com/cTi6lzx6
— Mark Viviano (@MarkWJZ) January 28, 2013
Unfortunately, his success was lost on the general public due to Baltimore’s porous defense, which allowed 441 points that year.
After the season, the Ravens decided to shed some large salaries and try to rebuild their roster.
One of those cumbersome salaries was Turner, who had the largest contract numbers for a safety in the NFL at that time.
Six years after joining the Browns/Ravens, Turner was cut loose. It didn’t take long for him to find a new home, however.
Back to Cali
Soon after his release from Baltimore, Turner headed west to join the Oakland Raiders.
The move brought a return to his home state and the opportunity to be closer to his family.
He was also closer to his son, Eric Jr. who lived in Ventura.
Turner, who was not married to Eric Jr.’s mother, had only been able to consistently see his son during the off seasons while he was with the Browns.
As a Raider for three seasons, Turner had moderate success.
His best season was 1997 when he totaled 108 tackles and two interceptions.
In 1998 and 1999, Turner hauled in three picks each season, but his tackle totals dropped significantly (38 and 50, respectively).
Once the 1999 season ended, Turner returned home to Southern California.
Only a few months later, he denied reports that he was fighting a serious illness.
However, it was hard to hide the fact that he had lost a significant amount of weight in a short period of time.
Little did anyone know that his weight loss stemmed from a fateful disease that would soon claim his life.
Turner Dies at the Age of 31
On May 28, 2000, a press release was issued that Turner had succumbed to abdominal cancer.
The reaction among Turner’s Raiders teammates, the NFL, and football universe in general was shock and sadness.
A birthday memoriam for #Raiders S Eric Turner, September 20, 1968 – May 28, 2000. 🏴☠️🏈🙏🏻🎂 pic.twitter.com/xIXIXtmIK5
— AFL GODFATHER (@NFLMAVERICK) September 20, 2019
Then Oakland coach Jon Gruden (since rehired by the franchise) said Turner was, “a great guy who will be sorely missed by a lot of people.”
Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman also expressed his condolences.
”He was compassionate and a class act. It was truly a pleasure to have known Eric and I will miss him.”
The shock of Turner’s loss came from the fact that, just a few weeks prior to his death, Turner denied being seriously ill.
However, between the end of the 1999 season and his death, Turner had lost 70 pounds.
This was significant as Turner only weighed about 215 pounds to begin with.
In an interview with the New York Times in 2000, Dr. Martin Oster of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center said the type of cancer Turner had is a vicious disease that spreads quickly.
Dr. Oster further explained that, once the cancer begins to spread, it will quickly kill the infected person.
Even timely medical examinations that would have been administered by the Raiders and the NFL would most likely not have found the cancer.
”This type of cancer might begin without any specific symptoms,” Oster said. ”The patient may have vague symptoms, like stomach pain or weight loss. In a healthy young person, those symptoms do not alarm. So the cancer advances.”
Turner’s teammates and friends wondered how an athlete in peak physical condition could not have fought the disease and prevailed.
However, Dr. Oster explained why being in good physical condition does not prevent death in the type of cancer Turner had.
”Being in good shape and taking care of yourself never hurts, no question,” Oster said. ”But over all, I’m afraid, it means very little. It doesn’t help you fight the cancer. Why you get the cancer is a function of genetics and what you eat.”
Despite their sorrow, Turner continued to aid his former teammate even with his passing.
When the details of Turner’s death were explained, several NFL players sought out their own doctors for thorough physical examinations.
These same players encouraged their brethren to make sure they visited their doctors, if nothing else than to put their minds at ease.
Turner has since been remembered fondly.
Several former teammates and team staff members recall his friendliness and unselfish play on the field.
Although he was taken too soon, Turner will always be remembered as a larger than life figure who gave everything he had to the game of football.
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