"He's beautiful." That's what Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith had to say about his new pupil, 4th-round draft pick Robert Turbin out of Utah State. To be fair, Turbin is beautiful, in a very footbally sense of the word. Listed at 5'10", 222 lbs, he may seem undersized for an NFL ballcarrier but, as Smith said, "then you just look at him."
And when you do, what you see is nothing short of titanic. Turbin is Herculean in appearance, a demigod stuffed into the mortal coil of a human being; a Prometheus bound by epidermal constraints. He's an upright Brahma bull with basketballs crammed into the skin between his elbows and shoulders, and powered by the locomotive pistons that serve as his legs.
Robert Turbin is what happens when Bruce Banner gets angry. The sheer mass of muscle on his frame is as dense as a collapsing star and may actually make fumbling a physical impossibility. He's rhinocerean in strength (28 reps at 225 on the bench press, 1st among RBs at the 2012 Combine), has slingshot straight-ahead speed (4.50 in the 40), and changes direction faster than a laser beam in a house of mirrors. Robert Turbin is what would have happened if baby Leonidas was given a football instead of a sword.
There's an entire article that can be written about Turbin's did-you-see-that? physical prowess, but this is not that article. There have been dozens players who have raised eyebrows in isolated workouts, only to flame out once thrown into the gladiator's arena of real NFL games. There is a difference between athletic ability and football ability, and no one's gonna care that Turbin's biceps look like saran-wrapped watermelons if he's unable to move the chains on Sunday.
We're all naturally disposed to justify the Seahawks' picks to ourselves -- it's part of being a fan. We applaud analysts that like Seattle's picks and criticize the ones that don't. The NFL Draft is confirmation-bias in its purest form, as we force ourselves to believe that the guys the Seahawks' front office selected are perfect fits for the team's future even though many of us had no idea who those guys were before the draft. We're excited about Turbin, but there's a 99% chance that you're way more excited about him now than you were three weeks ago. I know I am. Since he has yet to take a snap in The League, yet to change direction in the open field of Century Link, yet to test the limits of Newton's Second Law by meeting Patrick Willis at full speed on 3rd and 1, all we can do is look at what he did in college.
After a foot injury cut his first year at USU short, Turbin put the WAC on notice by amassing 741 yards from scrimmage on just 126 touches as a redshirt freshman, converting 10 of them into touchdowns. As a sophomore, he Batmanned his way to 1,296 rushing yards (6.3 YPC) and 13 TDs, adding 30 catches for 418 yards and 5 TDs just for fun. Poised to build on that momentum as a junior, Turbin ended up missing the entire 2010 season with a knee injury, putting a promising collegiate career on the ropes.
Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for WAC defensive players that didn't want to look like Keystone Cops, he pulled off a full recovery and delivered on the potential he flashed two years earlier. Turbin's 2011 campaign threw gasoline on an already smoldering career and then lit a whole book of matches, culminating in his being named the WAC Offensive Player of the Year -- an award backed by 1,517 rushing yards at 6.1 YPC and 23 total TDs (1st in WAC, 6th in FBS). All told, Turbin totaled 4,160 yards from scrimmage and 51 touchdowns while at Utah State. The numerical tonnage Turbin produced during his college career was enough to sink a freight barge and earn him audible pre-draft buzz as a back capable of serious contributions at the next level, a buzz amplified by his gaudy combine numbers.
Turbin's relatively short height and Jurassic build logically leads one to assume that his accolades are the result of superior strength and a contact-hungry running style, but game tape reveals a much different profile. While certainly blessed with the size and force capable of a bulldozing approach, most of Turbin's big plays came as the result of CGI breakaway speed and one-cut explosiveness tailor-made for Seattle's zone-blocking system.
In addition to his eye-widening rushing ability, Turbin is also "a reliable receiver out of the backfield... and is among the stouter pass blockers in this year's running back class," according to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com.
Exhibit A (NSFW if you're the type to get excited about the best athlete on the field joining your favorite NFL team):
There's plenty of hype-worthy material surrounding Robert Turbin, a running back straight out of central casting with a skill-set to back it up. The most impressive thing about him, however, doesn't have anything to do with his comic-book pipes, Formula-1 speed, or knuckleball elusiveness. No, the most impressive thing about Robert Turbin the football player is Robert Turbin the person. In case you missed it, Thomas posted a link to his story here. I won't spend a ton of time delving into the everyday-heroism inherent in the way Turbin has cared for his family but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it.
As sports fans, we're all faced with figuring out the extent to which athletes' off-field actions affect our view of them. On one side, you've got those whose opinions of a player are influenced heavily by the way said player handles himself in his personal life and on the other side you've got those who don't care one iota how the player lives, choosing instead to judge them purely by what they accomplish on the field of play. Most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes of the performance/personality continuum, but once in a while an athlete comes along whose personal story supersedes our own dispositions. Turbin is one of those men.
Robert didn't choose the situation he inherited, I suppose none of us do, but his included hardships far beyond those I've ever had to deal with. The son of a mechanic-turned-minister, Robert grew up spending most of his free time caring for his siblings. His older sister Trina had multiple sclerosis, debilitating her throughout a life that ended at 21 years old. You see, MS doesn't care about how things "should be" -- no matter how much you want to help, there's just not much you can do. It's an insidious disease that runs its cruel course, human intervention be damned.
Furthermore, his older brother Lonnie, who held a special place in Robert's heart, got hooked on heroin at a young age. "I was going to look out for him," said Robert, "the way he always looked out for me." Robert's plan was to do whatever it took to help out his brother: get drafted to the NFL, move Lonnie in with him, pay for treatment, watch over him, make sure he was okay. Robert never got the chance. Following Robert's decision to forego his senior season and fulfill his dream of entering the NFL draft, Lonnie was shot to death at 35 years old.
Between the loss of his brother and sister, Robert had endured more pain by the time he was in his early 20s, more sense of loss than (God willing) any of us ever have to. It's enough to make one lose faith in humanity, in the idea of fairness; enough to lose faith in faith itself. But Robert didn't have the luxury of losing faith; his other older sister, Tiffany, is crippled by cerebral palsy -- has been since Robert was born.
Cerebral palsy is an infliction that does more than shackle one's physical abilities; in severe cases, like the one Tiffany suffered from, it erects a prison around one's ability to express oneself to others, creating a nigh-impossible riddle for loved ones. As Eric Branch, author of the article Thomas linked to, put it, "He (Robert) bathed her, fed her, and tried to comfort her when she cried in the night. It was guesswork. Was she sad? Confused? There was no way of knowing."
Football was Robert's escape. His natural athletic ability and fierce competitiveness made him a star in the making as a high school player, but his constant tardiness made head coach Bob Spain furious. Day after day, Turbin showed up late for practice, never giving a Spain a satisfactory reason until Spain confronted his blossoming star. From Branch:
Turbin, it turns out, was running home after school to meet Tiffany when a bus dropped her off. Turbin stayed with his sister until another family member arrived, allowing him to go to practice. He didn't tell his coach about the arrangement until Spain angrily addressed Turbin's tardiness.
Carving out seemingly non-existent time to care for one's afflicted sister is a feat worthy of applause, as is being talented and driven enough to earn one's way onto a college football team, albeit in an entirely different way. Accomplishing both is nothing short of divine and not because football is, on its own, a particularly noble venture but because of the staggering amount of work and focus necessary to make it that far in the game.
"Genetics meets work ethic," said Spain.
When Robert arrived at Utah State, he went about bushwhacking a path to the NFL that started daily at 5 am, training before school on top of required team workouts. The hard work paid off, in the form of the accolades mentioned above and a shot at his dream of playing in the NFL. Of the hundreds of thousands of high school football players in this country, few are granted the opportunity to play in college, even fewer for an FBS program. Among those elite talents, only a miniscule percentage ever achieve enough to play in the NFL.
He's fortunate, you might say; and if you did, you'd be right. Turbin knows this, but he doesn't see his place in the NFL as a gift as much as it is his duty. "I couldn't fail. I play to be great. I play to be the best every day because I want to. And I have to."
Go back and listen to the interview at the beginning of that highlight video. As the offensive star of that team, he didn't start out by boasting. Conversely, he led by talking about how he was there to pick up blitzes and catch passes out of the backfield, how it was important that his teammates knew he had their backs.
That's the thing about carrying a superhero's body around, it takes a gigantic heart to power it.