TAMPA -— Even in the figurative fourth-and-long phase of his life, Billy Turner's tenacity remained stoked. As cancer gnawed at his brittle frame, one of the area's most iconic high school coaches eschewed surrender.
"I remember a year ago, Billy telling me how he asked his doctor if he was giving up on him," Ray Rairigh, a longtime Turner assistant, recalled Friday. "Billy told him if he was giving up on him that he would fire him right then.
"Coach Turner never believed in giving up."
He never did. To the contrary, Billy Barnes Turner, who excelled in the mile run (among other sports) at Auburndale High before evolving into the winningest prep football coach in Hillsborough County history (254 victories), simply reached life's finish line.
On Friday, one week after Coach Turner's death at age 79, an overflow crowd at St. Lawrence Catholic Church was there to celebrate that race. A testament to endurance, fortitude and a zeal for living, it spanned 38 head coaching seasons, eight children, 20 grandkids, six great-grandkids and hundreds of surrogates in shoulder pads.
His grandsons served as pallbearers. Granddaughters recited prayers and Scripture. A smorgasbord of current and former coaches, administrators and Turner peers sat snugly in pews or stood along the back of the church.
Roughly a dozen members of the current team at Chamberlain High — where Coach Turner spent 30 seasons — arrived in their green Chiefs jerseys.
"Billy taught all of us," said former Robinson High coach Mike DePue, who credits Coach Turner with helping him land the Knights job in 2003. "He always had a kind word. He showed us all how to do it."
Tianne Turner Doyle, one of Coach Turner's six daughters, enlightened the audience on some of the lesser-known layers of her dad's life.
Though reared on country music (especially Johnny Cash), he came to embrace many genres, including show tunes and Irish tenors. He was a graceful dancer who waltzed with granddaughters at no fewer than a half-dozen debutante balls.
"He would whistle the tune of Phantom of the Opera," Doyle said. "You see, God gave Coach a built-in whistle."
An avid golfer, Coach Turner once recorded a hole-in-one on the 11th hole at Rocky Point. One summer, he grew an organic garden.
"And when he wasn't sure how to fix something, the athlete in him relied on tape to hold things together," Doyle said.
That included the beach tent he once attempted to construct from a tarp, two broomsticks and duct tape.
"That was just so Billy," she said.
He had far more success building winning football teams (he had 10 consecutive playoff appearances at one point) and a stable family life with Lucy, his wife of 56 years whom he met at the University of Tampa tennis courts, when both were students there. On Friday, Doyle called Lucy "the head coach now."
"(Cancer) was the biggest matchup of his life, and with Mom at his side, he fought with strategy, tenacity, confidence and a will to live," Doyle said. "He never quit. That was just Billy's way. Life was the greatest football game that Billy Turner ever played, and God is in dad's press box."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.