The Ugly End of an All-Pro Career, the Uglier Start of a Life After Football

Editor’s Note: This story includes references to suicide and suicidal thoughts. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. Current and former NFL players, coaches, team and league staff and their family members can call NFL Life Line at 1-800-506-0078.

Kyle Turley pulled his truck into a convenience store parking lot and sat there, music blaring. He was raging again. His wife, Stacy, and two young kids were at home. It had been a few years since the unceremonious end to his football career, and Turley was at a loss for how to control his explosive tantrums. Now he was thinking about the gun in his glove compartment; it was appealing, so much so that fear began to intermingle with his anger. Before he could do anything rash, he called the NFL suicide hotline that he’d helped put in place in the wake of Junior Seau’s death. As Turley puts it now, he’d “look like a dumbass” if he died by suicide after pushing the NFL for a hotline.

He dialed the number. No answer. Sitting through ring after ring, Turley felt his directionless rage transform into a more purposeful anger. How could a suicide hotline call go ignored?

He ended the call and immediately dialed the number again. He was no longer seeking help, but someone to yell at. Finally, someone picked up, a young man with a laidback disposition who soon admitted that he had no idea what he was doing.

Fuming, Turley hung up and tried again. On the third call, he got a woman, who, thankfully, seemed to have a clue. They spent the next 20 minutes talking about Turley’s struggles and all the medications he was taking.

It was a fruitful conversation, though the first call—the one that was life or death—had been that one nobody answered. That disgrace channeled Turley’s rage, presenting him with a fight to take it on. “It was like, what?! I gotta fix this s---,” says Turley. He needed to fix the NFL’s broken suicide hotline specifically, but he needed to do something for struggling former players, like him, in general. “It became not about me anymore.” He pulled out of the parking lot and went home.

- Simon Bruty
Simon Bruty

In the spring of 2001, Stacy Harris was visiting a friend in New Orleans; they spent the evening at The Cat’s Meow, a bar on Bourbon Street. A young guy approached and asked if Stacy wanted to meet Kyle Turley. She was nonplussed as the guy, pointing to the Hulkish blond across the room, explained that Turley was an All-Pro lineman for the Saints. Stacy had recently sworn off men, and a 310-pound NFL player seemed about as “man-ish” as they come. Not to mention, she was under the impression that Turley had sent this guy over on his behalf. Pathetic.

Yet, Stacy and her friend found themselves chatting with Turley’s group later that night. Stacy soon came to realize that the young guy had not been dispatched by Turley; she suspected the guy was actually just showing off for Stacy’s friend and the Turley offer was a ruse. (That young guy, by the way, was a first-year operations assistant with the Saints’ front office: Ryan Pace, now the Chicago Bears GM.)

It was hot and humid in the bar. Stacy, wanting to put her hair up, said to the group that if anyone had a rubber band, she “would love them forever.” From his pocket Turley produced one, which had been serving as his money clip.

“I hate that I threw it away,” Stacy says now. “I still remember tossing it in the trash back at the hotel that night.”

At the end of the night, Stacy’s friend gave Kyle Stacy’s number. Kyle asked Stacy if he could call. Playing it cool, Stacy feigned indifference. But Turley said he wouldn’t call unless she explicitly gave permission. “Fine, I’ll hold my breath,” she said.

Later that night, Stacy’s phone buzzed with a 504 area code. She assumed it was her friend calling to tell her she got home safely. But when she answered:

“You weren’t supposed to pick up,” said an annoyed male voice. “I was going to leave a message about how it wasn’t good to hold your breath for too long.”

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Stacy lived in Atlanta, and for the next month the couple’s relationship was limited to phone calls. Eventually she visited Kyle at his home in Southern California. They spent the weekend at Disneyland, a Slayer concert and a party for a clothing line Turley was promoting (which Stacy found “awkward” but unique). “We hit it off. We had a great time,” Stacy says. “It was very easy, very comfortable. Similar senses of humor, everything kind of matched.”

The long-distance relationship continued for the next year. Stacy attended Saints games whenever possible. But she had reservations about Kyle’s history: early in his career he’d been in a poisonous marriage that ended in an ugly divorce. “[My first wife and I] were both pretty volatile people when it came to conflict,” Kyle says now. “She filed divorce papers, then she wanted to come back. I told her she had to sign a prenup. She didn’t want to do that. I did everything I could to screw her out of as much money as I could because she had taken as much money as she could. Looking back, I was a money ticket for her, but really we were just two personalities that hotly conflicted.”

The couple had a daughter, who was not quite six months when they divorced. Kyle valued his visitation rights, but when his daughter was eight years old his ex-wife cut ties completely. He hasn’t heard from them since.

“I tried to respect what happened to him, because he got so screwed and taken,” Stacy says. “But at the same time, it was a really hard situation [for me] to come into. We’re pretty young, and gosh, I wouldn’t be his first wife? That’s weird.”

Still, in the second year of her’s and Kyle’s relationship, she moved to New Orleans. Stacy had lived in Southern Illinois as a kid, West Tennessee as a teen went to college at Ole Miss. In all these places, she was near the Mississippi River—and it was there one night where Kyle proposed. With a flair for the dramatic, he popped the question by taking her promise band and heaving it, like a Jets helmet he’d found in a scrum, into the river. He replaced the band with a ring.

- Simon Bruty
Simon Bruty

Around this time, Turley, nearing the end of his rookie contract, had been a negotiating a long-term deal with the Saints. But when GM Randy Mueller was fired and Mickey Loomis took over, things changed—Loomis and head coach Jim Haslett put Turley on the trading block. Just days after he and Stacy were married, he was dealt to St. Louis for a second-round pick. As part of the trade, he received a new five-year, $26 million deal, with $12 million guaranteed. The money was helpful—much of his first contract’s earnings had been spent on lawyers and private investigators from his first marriage.

A rival of the Rams while with the Saints, Turley had been leery of their head coach, Mike Martz. The magnitude of the trade left him encouraged for their relationship, but he later came to believe that it was actually Rams GM Jay Zygmunt who pushed for his acquisition.

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Martz’s system demanded a lot of offensive tackles. Turley played well that first year, 2003, but in Week 7 against Green Bay, he was knocked out with a concussion. The FOX announcers remarked that even the smelling salts weren’t waking him. Stacy says she had been instructed to take Kyle home after the game. In the tunnel she came across Packers defensive end Joe Johnson, who played with Turley in New Orleans. “Stacy, KT is really f---ed up,” Johnson said. “Take him to a hospital!” Panicked, Stacy found a stadium police officer to drive them, sirens on.

A scan revealed dark masses on Turley’s brain. Doctors shrugged. That’s just what you get with football players. Two days later Turley was back at practice. To make sure he was O.K., the Rams had him sustain bull rushes from defensive end Leonard Little. “Just to see if I could stay conscious,” Turley says. “That was the test back then.” He didn’t miss a game.

Stacy would come to look back on her husband’s brain scan through a very different light, but at the time, she was more worried about the rest of his body. Besides football’s usual wear and tear, he had a back problem that sent pain down his leg. Turley was prescribed a litany of medications—painkillers, muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories, sleep aides, etc.—and finished out the season. St. Louis went 12-4 but lost to Carolina in the divisional round.

Two weeks later Kyle was off most of the medications. One day Stacy heard him shouting from the bathroom, panicking at the site of his atrophied right buttocks, hanging down by his hamstring like a deflated balloon. He had back surgery, and suddenly his mission shifted from chasing Pro Bowls to just getting healthy. It became a grueling journey, with a few ups but mostly debilitating downs. He was with his teammates often in 2004 but never got on the field. His rehab remained arduous. When asked about Turley at a press conference, Martz said he didn’t know if Turley even wanted to play football. Kyle and Stacy were furious.

Soon after, Turley met with Martz. Turley claims the head coach accused him of coming to St. Louis to take the money and run. Turley became volatile, said his piece and stormed out. Before he got home, Stacy got a call from her dad. “What did Kyle do?!” he asked.

That’s how she learned her husband’s name was ticking across the bottom of ESPN screens, with a report saying he had threatened his head coach’s life. (Kyle and Stacy refute this, saying that Turley had immediately told Zygmunt of their argument. They believe the only way the story could have gotten out so quickly was by Martz taking it to the media himself.)

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Martz remembers it differently. “I never accused him of taking the money and running,” he said when reached by phone. Martz said he and Zygmunt were not communicating well. “There was a certain dishonesty that was in the front office that I had to deal with for a number of years,” As Martz tells it, “Kyle did a great job for us and then he got injured. After that, he just disappeared. I couldn’t get any information when he was coming back. Couldn’t find him anywhere. Couldn’t reach him. When I asked Jay [Zygmunt] about it, he said he didn’t know either. The obvious part to that is Jay knew exactly what was going on [with Kyle]. I just couldn’t know.

“Kyle was upset with me because he assumed I knew what was going on with him and I didn’t. He accused me of not caring, all those things. I’m looking at him thinking, ‘What is this all about?’ I just let him vent, which everybody in the whole building heard.”

That was the last time Martz ever saw Turley. Even after the ugly episode, Turley was jolted when then Rams cut him after the 2004 season. He’d been working so hard to get healthy. As an NFLPA rep, having negotiated on various league matters, he’d grown to suspect that the NFL was strictly a cutthroat business, that players were just commodities. Now that was confirmed. The realization did not strike Turley lightly; he is a deep, passionate thinker. Battered and disillusioned, he was 29 and already facing a post-football life.

Sure enough, Turley went unsigned in 2005. After rehabbing in Arizona, he and Stacy moved into a little house in West Hollywood. Kyle filled his time with rehab, workouts and surfing. That routine shrunk him to 260 pounds, and when he reentered the league with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006, it was as a No. 3 tight end. However, injuries to teammates, and the unexpected retirement of Hall of Famer Willie Roaf, forced Turley into the lineup at offensive tackle. He started seven games in 2006 and five in ’07, some while still at 260 pounds. It was simply too little weight for the position. He battled a new shoulder injury, and the rest of his damaged body worsened significantly. “It was pitiful,” says Stacy.

Kyle and Stacy, in the summer of 2003. - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kyle and Stacy, in the summer of 2003. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Looking back, it was that year in L.A. when Turley’s personality started to shift. “He was always a very compassionate, kind person,” Stacy says. “He started getting very cold, very withdrawn.”

As Stacy explains it, Kyle thrives when there’s a clear mission in front of him, preferably one that provides structure and hard battles. After the 2007 season, he left football for good. With no mission, outlandish pain and what some doctors believe to be evident brain damage, he became an emotional cesspool prone to rage. His tantrums were unpredictable and terrifying. More and more, Stacy privately questioned their marriage. “Some days,” she says, “I don’t know how I stayed with him, I don’t know why. But he is truly my best friend. Still, it came very close to ending. Very, very close.”

To combat his physical and emotional unwellness, Turley took an array of medications that was even heartier than what he consumed during his playing days, which is saying something. In the NFL, “pain pills were just being handed out, it was almost encouraged,” he says. “If you won an away game, you’d get on the plane with two beers in your back pocket, or in the seat in front of you, and team officials would walk down the aisles handing out Vicodins and muscle relaxers. If you’re a player, you have an ailment or a problem, you’re just looking for an answer. There was always someone to say, ‘Try this.’” Template in place, Kyle increased his prescription drug use in retirement.

The medications could curtail his symptoms—sometimes. But often, what initially appeared to fix the problem later proved to exacerbate it, especially regarding his emotional instability.

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In 2008, Stacy got pregnant. This brought a welcome shift in focus: “Kyle was frantically searching for his identity,” she says. “I was over it. I didn’t get it.” Sights set on their coming baby, Stacy quickly developed a relieving naivety about her husband’s struggles. Nearly two years to the day after the birth of their son, Dean, they welcomed a daughter, Rebecca. They moved to Nashville, where they had bought a house after the 2006 season.

Stacy, once exhausted with worry about Kyle, kept her head in the sand. Some of his new medications were indeed preventing the outbursts. It didn’t matter that it made Kyle a “zombie,” as Stacy says, or, as her dad puts it, a “gray” aura. Her husband was now a quiet, brooding shell of himself, his outward rage concentrated inside, creating the illusion of peace. But by then, days with no tantrums were considered victories. In late-night phone calls, Stacy’s mom would ask if Kyle was really O.K. Stacy didn’t know and, honestly, didn’t want to know.

A few weeks after that drive to the convenience store parking lot, he told Stacy how there were calls going unanswered to the NFL’s suicide hotline. Wait, thought Stacy, how did he know that?

“Oh, because I called it,” he told her.

Turley had been instrumental in creating NFL Life Line, a counseling service for former NFL players, staff and their family members, in the wake of Seau’s death. Now, he was enthusiastically describing his next mission to Stacy: fix the hotline. Stacy perked up as Turley went to work; having a purpose made him more like the man he was when they first met.

Improving the hotline wasn’t a long-term project, but coincidentally, the conversation he had in the parking lot that night led to another purpose. Turley says that the woman he spoke with on the third call proposed using marijuana. He was familiar with the product—during his divorce, a Saints teammate had pulled him aside and made a similar suggestion.

Turley had grown up with friends who used pot, but as a Mormon—he says his great, great grandfather was a bodyguard for Joseph Smith—he had always abstained. (Ironically, the man who has always needed a mission in his life was told by his church not to take one. His two brothers took Mormon missions, but his church’s patriarch said Turley’s mission was no mission, which allowed Kyle to immediately begin his career at San Diego State. For his first two years in New Orleans, Turley led classroom discussions at the Mormon church before practice; today he occasionally attends services.) Turley told his Saints teammate that he didn’t want to use marijuana because he was worried the league’s drug-testing program might catch him. That’s when he learned the drug tests were only random for performance enhancers. With recreational drugs, the league tests once a year, around training camp, so a player need only be clean then. Turley went to the teammate’s house and smoked for the first time.

Over the years, Turley took different forms of cannabis, often with soothing results. Stacy didn’t mind; though not a big user herself, she’d tried it before and was glad when it helped her husband. She did have some concerns about Kyle having to obtain the product illicitly, and she knew that failing a test would disrupt his career. “You get stuck in these ridiculous testing programs forever,” she says. In New Orleans, “we saw what happened with Ricky [Williams].”

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Cannabis would come from friends or from a guy who knows a guy. Prescription drugs were legal and came from team doctors, and so for the longest time, prescription drugs still took precedent. But deep down, Turley suspected they were just masking his problems, if not worsening them.

In 2014, Stacy had an opportunity to visit a friend in Europe and take Rebecca along. By then her husband had contemplated suicide at least two other times: at their home in Nashville, where he considered jumping from the third story of their house, and the night before his induction into the San Diego State sports Hall of Fame, where he considered jumping from a 15-story fire escape balcony. Kyle happened to have a joint with him that night; he says that after smoking it, suicide seemed like an idiotic notion.

Somewhat uneasy about Dean staying home with just Kyle, Stacy went to Europe, reasoning that her dad, living close by, could check up on them if needed. It wasn’t like Kyle was a bad father—quite the opposite, in fact. He was highly involved and immensely loving. He didn’t deny the lunacy of his outbursts, and he even took measures to work around them. For example, he made a conscious decision to stop taking his kids to McDonalds because there would be times he’d get mad at other kids in the indoor playground and go off on their parents.

Still, Stacy’s concerns about leaving Dean behind with Kyle proved valid. On her calls from Europe, Kyle would start out pleasant but then inexplicably fly off the handle. “And there I was, halfway around the world,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything.”

When Stacy got home, she found an explanation for her husband’s erratic behavior: He had quit his pharmaceutical regimen cold turkey. He had attempted reductions before, but they’d never stick. In what was a short-term curse but a long-term blessing, Turley’s body often rejected medication—he simply couldn’t take too much of something without getting sick, and so he never got hooked on outrageous dosages like so many teammates. Still, the quantity of different drugs was extraordinary, and quitting them all at once was taxing. Plus, any symptoms they had been curtailing initially came rushing back.

“It was horrific,” Turley says. “I don’t know what it’s like to come off of heroin or anything like that. But I got the sweats. I got the shakes. Vertigo. Depression like crazy. Suicidal tendencies. Homicidal tendencies. Everything that was under the surface over those years was raging. Pharmaceuticals had just caged the symptoms.”

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This wasn’t unexpected; it had happened when Turley had tried—unsuccessfully—to wean himself off in the past. The cold-turkey withdrawals lasted several more weeks, but Turley now had what his life has always needed, a mission: cannabis. He would treat himself only with cannabis and become an expert on its benefits.

Deciding that a change in scenery would also help, Stacy and Kyle moved from Nashville to Southern California. Stacy had her reservations. Yes, their last visit there had been wonderful, but it was during Christmas time, when things are inherently wonderful. They’d loved Nashville, where Stacy’s family lived nearby. Her mother, with whom she was very close, had suffered a severe stroke and would succumb to its effects two years later. “Kyle didn’t give me any support there,” Stacy says. “He wasn’t himself at that time.” Kyle concurs: “It was a bad situation back there—well, it was me, really.”

Still, with Dean approaching kindergarten, if they were going to move, the time was now. Part of California’s appeal was its lax marijuana laws. Most violations carried penalties akin to traffic citations, and the wind seemed to be blowing toward legalization. Indeed, that came in 2016, two years after the Turleys moved to Riverside, Calif.

Turley, conducting an interview on Radio Row before Super Bowl LI. - Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Turley, conducting an interview on Radio Row before Super Bowl LI. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

It wasn’t just that friendlier marijuana laws made the product’s purchase and consumption safer for Turley; it became easier to find the cannabis strains that best fit Kyle. “It’s the psychoactive natures of cannabis that make people ‘high,’” he says. “But what I’ve learned is it’s very strain-specific. You can try something that makes you want to just veg out on the couch, or you can be smart and find something that gives you a frame of balance. You’ll have energy and clarity and be at your best.”

Turley once went to Boston with a jar of his favorite strains buried in his suitcase. He took it to a company called Medicinal Genomics for analysis. The results found that the strains had high contents of CBD—a cannabinoid that, unlike THC, has no intoxicating effects. Now Turley’s mission is evangelizing CBD.

He likes California but laments some of the state’s marijuana regulations. This is not surprising; he’s always been highly opinionated and political. His views could probably be described as “libertarian,” though a person would be excused for claiming they’re too scattered to categorize. A current snapshot “I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. And I didn’t vote for Trump—I wasn’t going to vote for that a------. I don’t think he’s presidential at all. We were given two mediocre candidates. Who was I going to vote for? I didn’t vote for anyone.”

On ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Turley called Trump “the poster boy for Alzheimer’s disease.” He stands by this. “He acts like a child. It’s insane. He’s a perfect example of somebody going through early onsets of Alzheimer’s. He’s completely erratic. He needs CBD. He needs to legalize marijuana because he needs to fix his crazy brain.”

If Trump ever did, he might forever have Kyle Turley’s loyalty. Turley trumpets, almost relentlessly, that CBD can save football—a game he and Stacy love, but one they won’t let Dean play until at least high school. For that matter, Kyle believes CBD can save the world. He loves to tell the story of Daniel Franco, a boxer in Iowa who Turley says awoke from a coma after his brother dripped CBD oil in his mouth. About motorcyclists who suffer serious brain injuries in a crash and successfully treat it with only CBD. About civilians circumventing routine surgeries by using CBD.

Turley is full of such testimony, and its extremeness might leave some listeners skeptical. So might the fact that three years ago, he founded a company—Nuero XPF—that makes CBD products. Through the first dozens of phone calls and hours of in-person interviews for this story, Turley never made any mention of a potential sale, but Tuesday night he texted that he had just sold the company for $10 million. Marijuana and its relatives still have a certain stigma; this frustrates him to no end. CNN did a lengthy feature on him this past spring which, in his mind, perpetuated stereotypes. They addressed some of the science, but to Turley, there was a lot about CBD they left out. Par for the course.

Other media outlets have featured Turley but have not followed up. Overall, the CBD discussion has not gained nearly the traction he desires. Stacy has heard Kyle rhapsodize about this hundreds of times. Herself a beacon of understatement and rationality, you expect her to wear a wry smile when hearing her famously extreme husband sound off on the “magic” of CDB—like how a spouse might react to retold stories about exaggerated casino winnings or a gigantic fish that was almost caught. But on the topic of CBD, Stacy is a stone-cold believer, every bit as fervid as Kyle.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” she says. “I never thought I’d have my husband back. I never thought I would sit here and have hope. I thought I would be spending every day of my life just trying to get to the next day with as little drama as possible. I had come to terms with that being my existence, and it was O.K. because Kyle’s a hell of a dad. I’ll [make that trade]. I don’t have to anymore. I have so much of him back now.”

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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