Last week I was able to speak to Randee Drew about the 2003 team and his Huskie career. And, with his help, I was also able to sit down with one of his former teammates, and Huskie legend, Michael “The Burner” Turner.
Michael Turner, like Drew, was a huge part of the reason I fell in love with the Northern Illinois Huskies. Hell, this image from his 2003 Heisman campaign is STILL the screensaver on my Xbox 360. And, that Heisman campaign website is still active if anyone wants to take a stroll down memory lane!
Turner, a running back for the Huskies from 2000-2003, was originally the backup behind the now-Head Coach of NIU, Thomas Hammock. He took over starting duties in 2002 and had back-to-back seasons of 1,600+ yards, including 1,915 yards his junior year. He finished his Huskie career with 4,941 yards (most all-time when he left, now second to Garrett Wolfe’s 5,164), 43 touchdowns, and 6,038 all-purpose yards.
In 2004 he was drafted by then San Diego Chargers in the fifth round, where he backed up LaDainian Tomlinson. He moved to the Atlanta Falcons in 2008, where his career really took off. Turner was one of the most productive Huskies to ever play in the NFL. He finished his professional career with 7,338 yards and 66 touchdowns, was a two-time Pro-Bowler (2008 and 2010), and was named to the 2008 All-Pro team.
In 2015 he was elected to the NIU Hall of Fame and was named by the school as the Third Greatest Huskie ever. Turner was enshrined to the MAC Hall of Fame a few years later, in 2018.
He was nice enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his playing days and time at NIU.
Hustle Belt: The 2002 and 2003 teams you headlined were some of the best in NIU history. Behind your 3,563 yards and 33 TDs in those two seasons, NIU beat teams like #14 Maryland, #19 Alabama, Wake Forest, and Iowa State and were ranked as high as 12th in the nation. What were your favorite moments from those years?
Michael Turner: The feeling that all the hard work you put in, and the vision that Joe Novak preached to us, came to fruition. The pride in that will remain with me forever and I’m pretty sure the guys from the late 90’s and early 2000’s feel the same way.
HB: You had 21 100-yard games and SEVEN(!) 200-yard games, including games of 281 and 282 yards. Was there a game or performance that stood out most to you in your Huskie career?
MT: Having 52 carries in the last game of the season as a true freshman. Below zero weather. I don’t think a true freshman will ever have 52 carries again. Boy, was I hurting the following week after that.
HB: You left NIU as career leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and all-purpose yards. Was there a record that meant most to you upon leaving? And is there something you wish you had been able to accomplish but weren’t able to?
MT: I loved all the records the same. I was fortunate enough to even get those records to begin with because technically I wasn’t the starting running back until my senior year. Never been in a MAC championship game, which I would of loved to have the opportunity to play in...along side a bowl game that followed. You know we had to be MAC Champs to be guaranteed a bowl birth. Times were hard back then.
HB: Are you still close with the NIU program? And what do you think of your former teammate Thomas Hammock taking the reigns?
MT: Yes I’m still pretty close to the program. I’ve been invited to several football games and I even spoke to some supporters before the game against South Florida a couple years ago. [Athletic Director Sean] Frazier is doing a great job there and bringing back Thomas Hammock to lead the Huskie charge is a great move, and great look, for the program. He always had the leadership abilities to be a great head coach. It’s 20 years I’ve known Thomas. Time certainly flies.
HB: Your nickname, Turner The Burner, led to places in DeKalb having a hot sauce with your image on it. Did you ever try the sauce? And, if so, do still have any of the bottles?
MT: Yes of course I tasted the sauce haha. Wasn’t super hot to me. I still have a couple bottles today and they are precious memorabilia to me. I thank the guys for that campaign and all the effort they put into it.
HB: There’s a bit of internal debate here about Toledo and NIU being rivals. Something I always like to ask Huskie players is do you feel the Rockets are a rival of NIU? And, if so, should it be a trophy game?
MT: I’ve never been a part of a trophy game so I don’t have a true feeling about that. I remember first coming to NIU and Western Michigan was the team to beat in the West. That evolved in to Toledo and I was never on one of the teams that beat them. But, if both universities feel the need to get a trophy involved, I feel NIU is the superior program today and we will definitely have it in our house more than the Rockets.
HB: Drafted in the 5th round in 2004, you spent four seasons as San Diego Charger before joining the Atlanta Falcons. What was the biggest change/challenge you remember transitioning from NIU to the NFL?
MT: My biggest challenge was really just being patient until we got pads on. Everybody looks good in shorts in May and June. I didn’t have major hype coming out of NIU so everybody in the locker room looked at me like “who is this guy that we drafted in the 5th round”. Especially with the Chargers already having LaDainian Tomlinson. The speed of the game was challenging too. I was using muscles that I didn’t even know I had...A LOT of sore days getting adjusted to that. I remember NFL workouts not nearly being as hard as what Novak put us through. I remember that first training camp with Marty Schottenheimer was real tough though. The Chargers were still trying to turn that program around and he really put a challenge on us. I’m glad I had him as a NFL coach.
HB: In 2008, your first season in Atlanta, you shredded defense en route to a career-high 1,699 yards, 17 TDs, and a second place finish in the MVP voting. What stands out most to you from that season?
MT: The first game. I told my family and friends when the schedule came out that I was going to have 200 yards the first game. They laughed at me. Also during training camp I remember the offensive line coach, Paul Boudreau, came up to me and was talking about me having 150 on the ground. I told him I will have that in the first half. I never checked if I had it in the first half but my point was that we will have a hell of a game on the ground right out the gate. And I ended up with a single-game record for the Falcons that still holds to this day [Most Rushing Yards in a Single Game, 220]. I had no idea going into the game what the record was. I just saw my name on the Jumbotron as I was coming off the field during the 4th quarter for the final time of that game and I asked Kevin Winston, our player development rep at the time, “did I break a record or something?” and he told me “hell yeah”!
HB: You finished your NFL career with 7,338 rushing yards, 66 TDs, two Pro-Bowl selections, and one All-Pro Team. Is there a favorite memory you have of your time in the NFL?
MT: I feel the same way about the Falcons that I do with NIU. Seeing the Falcons turn in winning season after winning season and building a tradition where fans can get excited and really have some hope for playoff berths and everything that comes with it fills me up with some pride because I know where the foundation was laid.
HB: Your final NFL season was the 2012 year. What have you been doing in the years since retiring?
MT: I do media work for the Falcons now. I’m a in-game host for them and I break down highlights of the game at halftime. I also give my keys to a Falcons victory before home games. I might do some scores around the league, depending on if it’s anything worth highlighting for the Falcons. It’s been pretty fun being on this side of the football business and not having to worry about recovering the next day from being on the grid iron. Even though I miss it at times.
Thank you again to Michael for taking the time to answer these questions. And, if you’re like me and want to see The Burner in action again, here a just a few of his highlight reels: