Saturday, December 16, 2017

Fennelly: It was all about family for Hillsborough coaching legend Billy Turner

The last time I saw Billy Turner was a few weeks ago. I'd been thinking about him. People had asked about his condition. One high school football coach asked this way:

"What's the score with Billy?"

That day with Billy was one of his last best days. He was in pain, but he was as sharp as ever. He'd fought an exhausting battle with cancer. At one point, doctors figured Billy was down to a few months, or even weeks. That was a few years ago. Billy fought and fought.

"He's been going up against Goliath, and he doesn't even have a slingshot anymore," said Lucy, Billy's beautiful bride, inside and out.

The last time I saw Billy, a great high school football coach but an even better man, he was in a recliner in the living room of that rambling house under a canopy of trees near Lake Magdalene, where he and Lucy raised eight children. All 20 of the grandchildren and most of the six great-grandchildren learned to swim in the pool out back. His former players visited in the final months, or sent notes or texts or Facebook posts. Billy died on Friday.

Ray-Ray McCloud, who played for Billy's son Brian at Sickles High before going to Clemson, came to see Billy, who helped Brian with coaching even while commuting from chemotherapy. McCloud stopped by with his dad to say hey to Billy and to tell him that he loved him.

I never met anyone who didn't like Billy. He won more than any coach in Hillsborough County, in his years at Hillsborough High and most of all at Chamberlain High.

More important: Billy got it right.

It was about family.

You knew it with all the kids who never forgot him and the hundreds of people who crowded the Chamberlain auditorium in November to celebrate him, an event organized by Brian Adcock, one of Billy's former players.

"I looked up and saw so many smiling faces," said Billy, leaning forward in the recliner, trying to get comfortable. "It made me think maybe I made a little bit of a difference along the way."

Lucy sat near her husband. Her eyes filled. On the back porch at the house, there were dozens of folded wooden chairs, reserved for the Sunday family meal after church, a Turner family tradition. Two days after Billy passed, the Sunday meal went on, as if anything will ever stop it. Billy's photograph was placed on his recliner.

It began with Billy and Lucy. They were married 56 years. Even when they fussed at each other, which was seldom, their love was like sunshine. They fell for each other at the University of Tampa, where Billy Turner was a three-sport star. On their first date, Billy Barnes Turner took Lucille Yvonne Cabrera to … play basketball. For their honeymoon, Billy and Lucy went to a University of Miami football game before hurrying back to Tampa so Billy could play quarterback in a semipro game.

"I got to know what my life would be right off the bat," Lucy once told me.

It was a wonderful life. Lucy and the children, the six girls and the two boys, always held dinner for Billy after practice. They sat down as a family. The kids would be running around the neighborhood. Billy would walk out front and let out three whistles, three blasts, for dinner.

"I can still hear it," Billy Jr. said. "You could be down the street, around the corner, but you'd hear him. 'Got to go.' "

Billy suddenly put a few fingers in his mouth and whistled. We laughed.

He hadn't lost his touch.

The last time I saw Billy, Billy Jr. arrived with his family. One of the children, Brooke, had graduated from Gaither High School that day. Brooke leaned over her grandfather and hugged him. Billy told her he was so proud and that he was sorry he had missed it. Billy didn't miss a lot of things.

Hillsborough High football coach Earl Garcia — who coached for Billy, who learned from Billy — told me a story a few years ago about Billy scheduling a Labor Day 6 p.m. practice. Billy said that anyone who was late wouldn't play in the season opener.

"Everybody is there 15 minutes early," Garcia said. "Except Billy. No Billy. Five minutes goes by. No Billy. Ten minutes. No Billy. … 'Well, okay, guys, let's get ready.' One minute until 6, I kid you not, a station wagon roars up down by the double gate. Billy has got the whole family in there, inner tubes, floaties hanging out windows. He'd taken them to the beach. He jumps out of the car in a bathing suit and flip-flops. He's yelling, 'I ain't late!' "

Billy had a bucket list. He didn't quite get to all of it in his 79 years. Vacations went by the wayside for Billy and Lucy. Money was tight. Time flew.

"Three things I always wanted to do," Billy once said. "One was go to an Olympics, because I was a miler in high school. I wanted to go to the Masters. Third, I wanted to go to Ireland."

He passed before dawn, at home. Lucy lay close to him on the bed for a long while. The memorial service is Friday.

"Friday was his day," Brian Turner said. "Game day."

Billy and Lucy. Those folding chairs on the porch. Billy and family. Billy and the generations he touched. Billy and football. Making a difference along the way.

That's the score with Billy. Forever.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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