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It's time: HHS football should retire T.J. Turner's No. 35

The Highland County Press - Staff Photo - Create Article
Former Hillsboro High School standout T.J. Turner (35) is pictured in the 2000 Citrus Bowl against Florida. Turner led Coach Nick Saban's Michigan State defense with five interceptions that season. MSU defeated Florida, 37-34, in the Gator Bowl. (Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Athletic Department.)

By Rory Ryan
The Highland County Press

It's hard to believe that it's been a decade since the passing of arguably the greatest player in the 100-year (plus) history of Hillsboro Indians football. 

Former NFL football player for the New England Patriots and Hillsboro High School graduate T.J. Turner died March 10, 2014 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 35. Remember that number for a moment, if you will.

Turner was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2001, following an outstanding college career with the Michigan State Spartans. Turner is remembered for a fourth-down stop in the Spartans' upset victory over then-No. 1 Ohio State in 1998, and for a two-interception game against Purdue that same season, as he ran back one of Drew Brees' picks 88 yards for a touchdown.

Highland County Press columnist and former Times-Gazette sports editor Steve Roush was at the 1998 MSU vs. OSU game. He still remembers it, a quarter of a century later.

"I covered the Michigan State vs. Ohio State contest in 1998 when the Spartans knocked off the top-ranked Buckeyes and T.J. Turner stuffed Joe Montgomery on fourth-and-1 late in the game," Roush said this week. 

"It’s hard to fathom that game was a quarter century ago. It looked like OSU might score on that drive and win that game. They were driving down the field, and the crowd was starting to really rock (I was on the sidelines with a camera); but when T.J. made that tackle, it got eerily quiet in the Horseshoe, almost like an old mausoleum. 

"Like he always was, T.J was so soft-spoken and humble when I interviewed him in the locker room after the game. I remember asking MSU head coach Nick Saban questions about T.J., and he gave me some good quotes and treated me well. It’s a moment I never will forget. 

"T.J. Turner was such a great athlete, and he was a man among boys when he was playing football at Hillsboro High School. I wholeheartedly support retiring his No. 35 jersey," Roush said.

There's that number again: 35. T.J. wore it with pride during his 35 years in this earthly life. He wore No. 35 at HHS and again at Michigan State.

Playing for the Hillsboro Indians, Turner was first team All-Ohio, All-Region, All-District and All-League as a senior in 1996. He was named league MVP after recording 103 tackles, including seven sacks, in just seven games in 1996. He also had three interceptions and recovered six fumbles that year. He earned Super-Prep All-American as a senior in high school.

On offense, Turner caught 39 passes for 757 yards (19.4 avg.) and 14 touchdowns as the starting tight end in 1996. He helped Hillsboro to a combined regular-season record of 37-3 during his four-year high school career. In addition, Turner averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds playing basketball for the Indians.

Turner suffered a season-ending injury his senior season at Michigan State, but still earned four letters (1997-2000) for the Spartans. In his junior year in 1999, Turner was named All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention. He started all year at middle linebacker, finishing fifth on the team with 66 tackles and recorded two sacks and eight stops behind the line of scrimmage.

A highlight of his junior season came against the Purdue Boilermakers when he intercepted two Drew Brees passes and returned one 88-yards for a touchdown.

The Spartans’ 28-24 victory in Columbus all those years ago remains one of the great upsets in NCAA Div. I football and one of the great moments in MSU football history.

As reported by, "On a November evening in historic Ohio Stadium with more than 93,000 in attendance, Michigan State shattered the national title aspirations of Ohio State in one of the greatest upsets in Spartans' history. The Spartans shocked the college football world with a dramatic 28-24 victory over top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State, handing OSU its only loss of the season. MSU scored 19 unanswered points in the second half in garnering its first win over a No. 1 team since 1990. With 3:33 left in the game, T.J. Turner and Courtney Ledyard stuffed Ohio State's Joe Montgomery for no gain on a fourth-and-one, giving the Spartans the ball on their own 26."

In a 2014 story after Turner's passing, Joe Rexrode wrote: "A large mural in the Michigan State football building pays tribute to the unforgettable play T.J. Turner made in a 28-24 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 1998 – a crunching fourth-and-1 stop of Joe Montgomery to help the Spartans preserve victory.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Turner, of Hillsboro, told the Lansing State Journal afterward. “That’s the play I’ve always dreamed of.”

"'It’s a play and game we still talk about all the time,'” said Jason Strayhorn, a teammate of Turner’s on that team. And it is one of many things people will remember about Turner, who passed away at age 35."

There's that number again: 35. 

Strayhorn, an All-Big Ten senior center in 1998, described Turner as “a quiet guy, a guy who came to work every day, a prototypical middle linebacker for that time – he was a load, close to 260 pounds without an ounce of fat. It’s just sad. Our hearts go out to T.J. and his family.”


Turner was drafted in the seventh round by the New England Patriots in 2001 and played one season, including a game in Cincinnati against the Bengals. Former sportswriter Lori (Boatman) Tuttle remembers the game.

Like Steve Roush, Lori is in favor of T.J. Turner's No. 35 jersey being retired. 

"I had the pleasure of covering T.J. in the New England Patriots' regular-season opener in Cincinnati on Sept. 9, 2001," Lori said. "It was a highlight of my career getting the chance to stand on the New England sideline and watch a former Hillsboro High School standout play on an NFL field.

"T.J. was always a very quiet person, so quiet that I'm sure most hadn't even heard his voice. I remember being worried about going into that NFL locker room to interview him, thinking, 'Will he say anything? Will I be able to hear him?' 

"Well, he smiled from ear to ear through the whole interview, politely answering all of my questions. He even made small talk after the tape recorder was shut off. T.J. showed me a side of himself that he had quietly hidden from most of his Hillsboro onlookers. He was chatty, friendly and articulate. I remember, as a young 25-year-old sports editor, being beyond thankful for his overly welcoming demeanor that day. I've never forgotten it."

Another former Hillsboro sports editor, Scott Abraham, also covered Turner's high school career.

"I just would like to say that it was an absolute pleasure to meet and cover T.J. during my time as sports editor," Abraham said. "This was my first full-time position out of college, and I always remembered the immediate impact T.J. made upon me and the Hillsboro community. It was quickly apparent that No. 35 was a FORCE on the football field and the basketball court. He made impact play after impact play throughout all of his contests. Although it was my job to follow all of the action in both sports, you always had to keep an eye on T.J. He was bound to do something special. And I never wanted to miss that, both with my camera and my pen.

"During football season, you could count on a collection of parents to stand by the edge of the field, watching their sons, but also anticipating T.J. to eventually provide a highlight-reel play. They were never disappointed," Abraham said. "With all of his athletic ability, it would be extremely easy for T.J. to become a 'me-first' type of star. He never did. He was always humble, gracious and quiet. He was the quintessential lead-by-example performer. Hillsboro High School, the wonderful Hillsboro community, his friends and family were lucky to have had such a great person in their circle. And I was so lucky to have met him."

It's been 10 years since T.J. Turner's his passing. It's time. Hillsboro should retire No. 35 and have a ceremony at a home game this fall.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.

Below, T.J. Turner (99) makes a tackle for the New England Patriots against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 9, 2001. (Photo by Lori Tuttle.)




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