SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With a school deadline bearing down, four-time Super Bowl champion Keena Turner and his daughter Ella sat, stared at and tweaked the first slide of a project. Minutes turned to an hour, and an hour turned to two.
That night in 2019 was slipping away fast, and there was still more to do. But this wasn't a common case of a parent helping a child through an assignment. The opposite, in fact.
"He would be on the same slide for hours," Ella Turner said. "I'd have to say, 'Dad, we have about 10 more to go, we can't be on this one slide for two hours. We've got to keep going, and if you want to come back when we're done with everything, we can come back.' There were a couple times when I was like, 'That's great, you can move on now.' He just had really high standards."
That Keena Turner took an exceedingly serious approach to his return to college -- more than four decades after departing Purdue for the NFL -- should come as no surprise. As a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers from 1980 to 1990, Turner was an integral part of the dynastic Niners. All he's ever known is the highest level of achievement, and he was determined to apply it to his return to college at the age of 60.
Much like in his football life, Turner, now 62, wanted an appropriately poetic final chapter for all of his hard work: the opportunity to share a graduation day with Ella at his alma mater.
A plan that had its share of stops and starts over the past 40 years finally came to fruition on May 15 in West Lafayette, Indiana. That day, Keena and Ella Turner walked side by side into Ross-Ade Stadium, the same venue where Turner had earned consecutive All-Big Ten honors as a junior and senior, and settled in for a ceremony that felt like it might never happen.
"Here's the stadium I played in, and it had all those kind of emotions and memories," Keena Turner said. "Over this last year, we weren't sure if there would be a physical graduation, so there was all of this uncertainty about how it would happen, and so for Purdue to have a physical graduation and have all the graduates in the stadium and getting the opportunity to be acknowledged by family and friends in this way, it was great.
"I actually sat with Ella in the stands. I went in with Ella, and when my school was called, I stood up and got acknowledged with my school, but I was there the whole time with her. That was really cool."
Keena Turner received his diploma for organizational leadership from the Purdue Polytechnic Institute. Ella Turner obtained her degree in selling and sales management from the College of Health and Human Sciences. But the Turner family gained much more along the way.
The needed spark
By the time Keena Turner retired from the NFL in 1990, he already knew he wanted to finish his degree and keep a promise to his mother. At the time, Harry Edwards, the noted civil rights activist who has worked as a consultant to the 49ers, had begun a degree completion program for players through the University of San Francisco.
While that allowed Turner to keep his promise, the fact that he hadn't finished what he started at Purdue gnawed at him. Soon enough, Turner's wife, Linda, began reminding him how much history he had with the Boilermakers and what it would mean for him to have a diploma from the place where his name still rings out.
Over the past decade, Linda Turner had been reaching out to Purdue to find out what it would take for her husband to earn his degree. It didn't happen right away, though, as Turner's return to academia was slowed by a series of false starts.
"This thing kind of had life and died several times," Keena said.
It wasn't until Ella decided she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps that everything finally aligned. Encouraged by her parents to explore schools outside of California as they once had -- Linda Turner is a graduate of Notre Dame -- Ella evaluated all options.
Purdue was at the top of the list, but when her dad offered to make calls on her behalf, she declined, preferring to gain admission on her own merits while keeping her options open. When she was accepted, she said, it "definitely felt right."
As it turned out, Keena needed two more classes, one in science and another in upper management, to earn his Purdue degree. Both could be completed virtually. When he learned he could graduate with Ella, who enrolled in 2017, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
"Once I heard that possibility, I was like, 'I'm all-in,'" Keena said.
Ella quickly helped her father select the two classes he needed: physical geography and supply chain management.
"When I went, it kind of sparked everything back up," Ella Turner said. "He asked me right away if I would be OK with him doing it and him walking with me and everything. I thought it would be the coolest thing ever."
As if going back to school after 40 years away weren't difficult enough, Keena had to worry about his day job. As the 49ers vice president and senior adviser to the general manager, Turner has no shortage of day-to-day tasks.
Because of that, Ella suggested her father would be best served pursuing his final credits outside of the football season. Ever the creature of habit, Turner felt like he could handle the workload and have his summer off like any college student (or football player) would.
"I don't know what I was thinking," Turner said, laughing.
Turner reenrolled in 2019, which also happened to be the year the 49ers surged back to the Super Bowl. Balancing work and school proved no easy task, especially with the physical geography class cramming a semester's worth of work into eight weeks.
On a scouting trip to Notre Dame, LSU, Auburn and Alabama with current assistant general manager Adam Peters, Turner found himself staying up late into the night, turning in daily chapter assignments and taking three quizzes in the span of one week.
In early December, the Niners traveled east to play the Baltimore Ravens with a weeklong stay in Bradenton, Florida, before heading to New Orleans. One night, while coach Kyle Shanahan & Co. were studying Drew Brees and the Saints, Turner's attention was on taking a quiz that had to be completed by midnight.
Turner logged on around 11:15 p.m. ready to take the quiz. At the worst imaginable time, the hotel Wi-Fi dropped, leaving Turner scrambling for an alternative before he realized he had until midnight Pacific time to get it done.
"He said he could do it and I said OK, but of course he was over here stressed out about making sure he gets his quizzes done by the deadline, and he's traveling and going to different schools for scouting," Ella said. "I said, 'See, I told you, you could have just waited until the summer,' but he got it all done. He was super on top of it."
Turner leaned on what he knows best: a team approach.
Linda had remained in contact with Purdue and helped her husband get the needed credits. Keena said his wife "breathed life" back into the college idea more than once.
Ella ran point, helping her dad enroll in his classes, making sure he knew how to use the technology needed to check his assignments and grades and assisting on class projects where she could.
Sheena Turner-August, the oldest of the Turner siblings and a psychology professor at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, served as a sounding board for her father when he had questions about interacting with professors and offered perspective on how to be a student again after so many years away. Turner’s son, Miles, who plays basketball at the University of Portland, also chipped in when needed.
"There were times when I had my wife doing something to help, Ella doing something to help, my son Miles doing something to help and my oldest daughter on the phone just trying to help me keep moving forward," Keena said.
Turner struggled for a bit with physical geography but landed a B. He finished his supply chain management class with little problem, scoring an A for his work.
A special day
Throughout the long journey to their shared graduation day, the Turners were never quite sure if they'd actually get to participate in a physical ceremony. The pandemic had shut down most of those celebrations, but the country had started opening up again just in time for Keena and Ella to enjoy the day they had long discussed.
Even as the big day approached, Keena remained wary of taking attention away from his daughter's accomplishment.
"I didn't even look at it that way," Ella said. "He's my dad; I would never think he's trying to take my shine. But he always emphasized and wanted to make sure I was comfortable with everything. That meant a lot to me."
Now that graduation day has come and gone, Keena Turner has settled back into his daily duties with the 49ers. Ella is planning to move to Phoenix and is looking for a position in marketing or sales.
No matter where their paths lead next, they'll always have the day they won't soon forget, sitting together in a football stadium celebrating each other's shared achievement surrounded by the family that helped make it all possible.
"The emotion of being proud of her and seeing her make this accomplishment back at my school, back at Purdue, that would have been more than enough," Keena said. "But then the icing of me being there and being part of it in that way and that accomplishment, it doesn't get much better than that."