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Sports Saturday

Keena Turner still missing prep in his step

Former Chicago Vocational star won four Super Bowls with the 49ers, but he isn’t over two city-title losses

Keena Turner during his high school days at Chicago Vocational.
Keena Turner during his high school days at Chicago Vocational.
Sun-Times File Photo

Keena Turner has earned four Super Bowl rings. He counts Hall of Famers — and former 49ers teammates — Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott among his closest friends. He was a defensive star at Purdue.

But there’s a football disappointment that haunts the former Chicago Vocational star to this day.

Turner’s lingering pain speaks volumes about what the Chicago Prep Bowl used to mean in this town.

“I can’t lie, it still hurts,” Turner said of two Prep Bowl losses more than four decades ago. “It would have been nice to have won at least one of those games.”

During a recent conversation with the Sun-Times, Turner, 61, relayed fond memories of his high school football days, along with a great respect for the school’s coach, who would become his mentor.

Back in the day, the city’s biggest high school football game was the Prep Bowl at Soldier Field between the best Public League team and the best Catholic League team. The winner earned the title of city champion and bragging rights for a year. It was the “Super Bowl” of Chicago high school football.

Turner played in back-to-back bowls for Vocational, falling short both times.

On May 2, 2019, Turner was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. His presenters were Montana, Lott and former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Not bad for a kid who didn’t have football on his mind entering high school.

Turner, now a vice president and senior advisor to 49ers general manager John Lynch, spoke frankly and often with emotion about his phenomenal ride from growing up in Englewood to winning four Super Bowls.

And while the former linebacker, who spent his entire NFL career with the 49ers, might regret those Prep Bowl losses, he spoke nostalgically about his football days at Vocational — that is, after speaking candidly about those defeats.

“Because of those Prep Bowl losses,” he said, “I view the two Public League titles we won as bittersweet.”

Before Turner made it to those bowl games, the nearly 6-3 kid first had to get football on the brain.

“I didn’t have an ambition to play football when I started at Vocational,” Turner said. “The truth is, I didn’t want to go to the local school because stuff [gang activity] was beginning to pop off, and I didn’t want to get caught up in it. CVS was far enough away from my neighborhood.”

Once at Vocational, it was hard for Turner not to have football on the brain. It wasn’t because of the school’s rich football history or the team’s peppy coach with a tenacious drive to win but rather the ever-present aura of the school’s most famous football player: Richard Marvin Butkus.

Entering Vocational’s main hall, students — before encountering faculty or the principal — were greeted with a prominent photo of former Vocational star and Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus. Did seeing that daily have an effect on Turner?

“It was awe-inspiring,” he said.

Turner might have been inspired by the football star’s image, but it wasn’t until he was on the team that he would begin to imbibe Butkus’ legacy.

“Once it sunk in I was practicing and playing on the same fields Butkus had, along with being mentored by the same coach, I realized how unique an experience it was,” he said. “It truly was something special.”

Butkus might have been an inspiration, but it would be late Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame coach Bernie O’Brien who helped advance Turner’s football career, his zest for winning trickling down to his team.

“O’Brien was your typical scrappy Irish coach — a little man with a drive to win who inspired his players to want to win,” Turner said. “And, keep in mind, O’Brien went from coaching predominantly white teams to an all-black team and remained the same. He was all about football, not the color of his players’ skin. That said a lot about not only his love and integrity for the game but his character as a coach.”

Suited up in Vocational blue and gold, Turner played on O’Brien’s last two Public League-champion teams. After the 1975 game, O’Brien praised his star player after his team, co-captained by Turner, beat Lane Tech to claim the city title for the second consecutive year.

“I predict major-college stardom for Turner. Mark my words,” O’Brien said in a Sun-Times article dated Nov. 26, 1975, after Turner’s performance in the game.

Turner might have had a bright college future, but Vocational’s formidable No. 87 first had to help his team get past Catholic contender Brother Rice to claim the city title.

But Vocational, which had lost the 1974 title game to St. Laurence 34-0, lost to Brother Rice 26-0. O’Brien, who had teased the press about retiring, announced his departure after the game. Turner would play on O’Brien’s last Vocational squad.

“O’Brien was a tremendous person, an honorable man, doing what he did for all the right reasons,” Turner said. “He really cared about his players.”

With high school over, Turner headed to Purdue on a full scholarship. That’s where the idea of a pro career began to take shape.

“I still wasn’t really thinking about a professional football career when I started at Purdue, but it began to look like it might be a possibility,” he said.

Under the direction of College Football Hall of Fame coach Jim Young, Turner, who was moved from tight end to linebacker, would add victories in the 1978 Peach Bowl and 1979 Bluebonnet Bowl to his career highlights.

With his college days winding down, big No. 85, whose long arms could swat balls away from the hands of receivers as well as recover fumbles, was finally beginning to think a professional career might be in his future.

After being selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 1980 NFL Draft, Turner earned his first three Super Bowl rings (XVI; XIX and XXIII) under Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.

Turner famously played his first NFC Championship Game with chickenpox and was still reeling from its effects in his maiden Super Bowl outing on Jan. 24, 1982.

“It was horrible,” he recalled. “I had the chickenpox really bad, like all over me. For the conference game, I was so weak, the team just about had to carry me onto the field.”

Turner, in his second pro season, had no intention of missing the Super Bowl, and he wasn’t about to let chickenpox stop him.

“For the Super Bowl, I was still dealing with the weakness,” he said, “but I played.”

Turner never considered missing the game.

“Come on, it was the Super Bowl,” he said in an animated tone. “I figured it would be the only chance I would get to play in one.”

When asked about playing for Hall of Fame coach Walsh, another spirited Irishman with a passion for winning, Turner had nothing but praise for the late football icon.

“It was an incredible experience. I learned a lot,” Turner said. “Beyond being a coach, Bill was a mentor, a friend and someone I always looked to for advice, not just for football, but in life experiences, as well.”

Like with O’Brien’s Cavaliers, Turner would play on Walsh’s last 49ers team, with Walsh retiring from the NFL after the victory.

During his career, Turner played at Soldier Field maybe “three times,” he said, most notably the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 8, 1989, in a 20-below wind chill. The Niners quashed the Bears’ hopes for a second Super Bowl bid with a 28-3 victory. They went on to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.

Turner shared his thoughts about stepping back onto Soldier Field’s grounds, where he had suffered those Prep Bowl losses on cold November days.

“I took a moment on the field to absorb it all,” said Turner, recalling how special those high school games had been, “the big marching band, majorettes, cheerleaders. Even the mayor attended.

“I remember having my picture taken with Mayor [Richard J.] Daley. [The Prep Bowl] was a real big deal back then.”

Turner would be one of the Fab 5 (Montana, Lott, Mike Wilson and Eric Wright are the others) who played on all four of the 49ers’ Super Bowl teams of the 1980s. He earned his final ring in Super Bowl XXIV, a 55-10 victory against the Broncos.

Turner retired from professional football after the 1990 season, but he never strayed far from the sport. Walsh, who had returned to Stanford, his alma mater, as head coach, brought on Turner to be linebackers coach. Turner also did NFL color commentary for CBS in 1990 and “Monday Night Football” from 1992 to ’94. Turner also had a role in the Michael Douglas and Sean Penn thriller, “The Game,” as Officer Hicks in 1997.

In 1998, Turner returned to the 49ers, with whom he has worked his way up from the public-relations department to vice president of public affairs. He had several other titles before moving into his current position of vice president/senior advisor to the general manager in 2018.

In 2016, Turner’s Vocational legacy came full circle. He was canonized as one of the inductees in the school’s reconfigured Hall of Fame. Turner’s photo hangs in the same area as Butkus’ in the entrance of the school’s Hall of Fame hallway.

“I’m humbled, blessed and very fortunate to have been in God’s favor,” he said.