BELLEVILLE — While most of the Althoff High football players probably never met Sarah Turner, they knew what she meant to her son.
So when Sarah Turner died of cancer in late August, the Crusaders wanted to do something special for her son, their coach Ken Turner.
Wearing their football uniforms, they went to Officer Funeral Home in East St. Louis as a group and showed their support to Turner and his family.
"We're so close to Coach T because he gives us everything he has," said Althoff senior linebacker Erik Furmanek. "He's always there for us and knows how to motivate us. Since freshman year we've spent so much time with him that he's practically a family member."
Sarah Turner's death at age 74 came not only during the football season, but also during the week leading up to Althoff's game against rival Belleville West.
"I actually thought everything was going good and the chemo(therapy) was taking pretty good," said Ken Turner, who missed three days of practice that week to deal with his loss. "The day she died, they had told my sister that she had six days to six months --and I didn't know that because I was the baby of the family.
"It was still a shock. I knew it was probably going to happen, I just didn't know how long she had."
Raised in Virginia Place on the south side of East St. Louis, the 42-year-old Turner endured the death of his father, J.T. Turner, several years earlier.
"My dad was in the military and he made sure I did the things the right way," Turner said, "so I didn't have to worry about the stuff that was going on outside of my house."
Losing his mother was just as devastating to Turner, who wakes up every morning wishing she was still part of his life.
On Friday, Turner will lead the Crusaders against Mercer County in the Class 2A state championship game.
He knows his biggest fan won't be there in person, but is still counting on her for support.
"It's tough with Thanksgiving this week and it's the first one without her," Turner said. " I know she loved me and I loved her, she gave me as many years as she could. She gave me everything that she could possibly give me.
"I know she would want me to work hard and she's probably smiling on what we're doing right now. I want to take this thing as far as we can take it."
The support of the Althoff players and coaches helped Turner make it through Belleville West week and the rest of the season. Football has helped keep his mind occupied and the Crusaders' long state playoff journey has been an emotional lift.
"If it wouldn't have been for me being so close with my team, I don't know if I would have gone out there," Turner said, thinking back to the West game, a 35-0 loss. "I wanted to go out there and show them that they could go on. They make me happy, I think they understand how much they help me out."
No one has seen that more than Turner's wife, Tracy Turner. The couple have two children, 7-year-old son Ken Turner, Jr., and 11-year-old daughter Kaci Turner.
"Because his team has done so well this season, it just could not have happened during a better time because he needed that," Tracy Turner said. "He needed his team to pick him up and they came through. Through his practices and his teaching, it allowed him to fill that empty space and empty time with practice and working with the team."
She said her husband still hasn't taken time to properly deal with his grief.
"His mom was like his best friend, he shared everything with her," she said. "I know he's had to hold a lot of it in to get through the season. When it's over and he has those days when he's coming home early and we aren't here yet, he'll have some time to think about that."
One of Turner's good friends at Althoff is basketball coach Greg Leib.
"His real gift is his relationship building with the kids," Leib said. "He loves the kids and they love him, that's why they play so hard for him. He really does a great job with that.
"He's tough on them and demands a lot from them, but at school there's always a crowd of kids around him."
Growing up with the Flyers
Turner was a wide receiver at East St. Louis High, playing for the Flyers during the dynasty days under Hall of Fame coach Bob Shannon.
During Turner's senior year, his chance at a state championship ended when the Flyers lost 26-6 to Arlington Heights Hersey in the 6A state title game.
"I just remember being sad and being hurt, not believing that we lost because we were undefeated up to that point," Turner said of the East Side team led by running back Marvin Lampkin. "We were expected to win and just lost a tough ballgame. I just remember the medal ceremony being kind of sad."
Turner has another shot at a state championship Friday when he leads his own team against Mercer County.
Much of his coaching background was shaped by two of the best coaches in the history of metro-east football -- Shannon and former Althoff coach Glenn Schott.
"I feel like I owe it to Coach Schott and rightfully so," said Turner, who spent five years under Schott as an assistant coach and was hired as his replacement when Schott retired. "He started me coaching football and did a lot for me."
Turner got caught up with emotion in his early coaching days. A talk with Schott helped steer him in the right direction.
"I was like a real hyper, loose-cannon type guy and he was always telling me to stay on an even keel," Turner said. "I wouldn't be here without him having me coach football."
Turner also recalled being a 135-pound receiver at East Side and catching passes thrown by Shannon during early-morning workout sessions in the gym.
"He was a former quarterback and I still remember him throwing us those hard passes just like it was yesterday," Turner said. "It felt like he was your dad and your coach at the same time. He was a straight shooter and what he believed in was either you went with him, or he didn't need you with him
"I learned a lot from the man; he commanded attention even when he just walked in a room. You knew he was somebody special."
Because his mother had lupus, a condition that affects the body's immune system and can damage skin, joints or internal organs, she rarely got to see her son play.
"The sun reaction used to always affect her body wrong and it wasn't really good for her," Turner said. "Dad was always the one that took me to everything."
Turner's mother did get to see her son coach a game against Northwest Academy his first season as a head coach.
"Outside of that she probably saw a couple games and it wasn't much," he said. "But she always read the newspaper and was always happy, she always knew what was going on with me. She was a big part of my sports without being there.
"She was a huge part."
Part of the Althoff family
Turner played baseball in college at Kentucky State and also Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He was serving as a volunteer baseball coach at Belleville East when he found out about a teaching opening at Althoff and eventually hired as a teacher and assistant coach in baseball and football.
Throughout the years, Turner's ability to connect with students and players has never wavered.
"I don't know what it is, but I've always been that kind of guy," he said. "I just try to work as hard as I can to put us in the best situation I can as far as a win. I guess the guys see how hard I work for them and become a little closer to me."
Althoff High Principal Dave Harris is also on the football coaching staff and has seen that connection first-hand.
"He's always had that ability from day one, he relates well with the kids and talks to them on their level," Harris said. "To be able to do that and still keep the separation of talking to them and having their respect is a tough thing to do, but he's very good at that."
Harris wasn't surprised at all to see how the football team rallied around its coach after the loss of his mother.
"They were letting him know they were there for him," Harris said. "The kids said they had his back and would do whatever they had to to support him. Because the team was a family, she was part of them also.
"Because of his bond with the kids, it helped him get through that."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.