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How a 49ers mandate saved Keena Turner’s life

How a 49ers mandate saved Keena Turner’s life

The wisest soul in the organization, a 49ers lifer who has provided perspective and counsel for decades, was uncharacteristically speechless.

Keena Turner heard the words yet couldn’t comprehend their meaning.

It was February of 2022, and a Stanford cardiologist was routinely delivering the results of an echocardiogram, the only two words of which Turner remembers clearly were “aortic aneurysm.”

Sitting in an office at 49ers headquarters, Turner can chuckle about it now.

“Once I got off the floor, we didn’t really talk about what the options were because there was only one option,” Turner said. “I had to have surgery, so it was just deciding on when.”

The doctors wanted to operate in March.

To the consternation of friends and family, it wouldn’t be until February of 2023 that Turner had his chest opened up so that three inches of his ascending aorta could be removed and replaced by synthetic tubing.

Having experienced no symptoms, Turner, to put it mildly, was surprised. As football players go, Turner seemed in good health for someone who played 11 seasons and 153 games with the 49ers from 1980-90 with four Super Bowl championships. Co-workers called him “The Walking Man” because Turner was always on the move in and around the club facility.

A veteran of 26 years in the 49ers’ front office in various capacities, Turner has spent the last five as the senior adviser to general manager John Lynch.

And Turner will tell anyone who will listen he’s still around because of his boss.

“John Lynch saved my life,” Turner said.

Hired as the 49ers’ general manager along with head coach Kyle Shanahan in 2017, Lynch immediately mandated annual physicals for everyone in the personnel department. Turner’s aneurysm showed up on a test when compared to his physical from the previous year.

San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch walks on the field before their NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020 (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Lynch borrowed the policy from the Denver Broncos, where he finished his playing career before retiring in 2008. The exams included football staff as well as players in their yearly checkups, and 49ers ownership was on board. The team flies in the same medical staff to perform the physicals each year at an undisclosed expense.

“It’s important to do these things, especially when you get up to the years where I’m at, where Keena’s at,” Lynch, 51, said. “When I stopped playing I didn’t have a physical for eight years. That’s crazy. I appreciate Keena saying I saved his life — it was far from that. I credit the York family for allowing us to do this.”

After Turner disclosed his condition to his wife, Linda, and three children, one of the first people he reached out to was former teammate Jesse Sapolu. Sapolu, 62, played 14 seasons with a heart condition caused by rheumatic fever as a child before having surgery in 1997 to repair a valve and then miraculously played one more season five months after the operation.

Sapolu, who later had an artificial valve inserted in 2011, understood Turner’s emotional state.

“I’ve had 13 surgeries with knees and shoulders, but when they go in and touch your ticker, man, it’s a different feel,” Sapolu said.

Initially released by the 49ers after his first surgery, Sapolu rejoined the team after an injury to Chris Dalman, his replacement at center.

“Five and a half months after the surgery I was playing in a preseason game in Denver,” he said. “I told K.T., ‘I know this is scary, but I went through it and I came back and played — and the surgeries are much better now. Everything is going to be fine.’”

Sapolu said he and Turner talk about once a week.

“He’s one of my dear friends and a lot of the things he says to me I store it and use it with how I go on with my life,” Sapolu said.

Turner and Sapolu connected when the 49ers drafted Sapolu in 1983, three years after selecting Turner in the second round out of Purdue.

STANFORD, CA – JANUARY 20: Linebacker Keena Turner #58 and defensive tackle Michael Carter #95 of the San Francisco 49ers tackle Miami Dolphins wide receiver Nat Moore #89 during Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium on January 20, 1985 in Stanford, California. The 49ers won 38-16. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images) 

Having joined in Bill Walsh’s second season coaching the 49ers, Turner became a defensive mainstay and locker room leader on the Super Bowl teams of the 1980s. When Turner retired and Walsh took the job at Stanford a few years after his own NFL retirement, Turner joined the staff coaching a team that included Lynch at safety.

“He had this calm, this wisdom about him and we just loved him,” said Lynch, who had returned to Stanford after initially signing to play baseball for the Marlins.

Lynch graduated and was taken in the NFL Draft by Tampa Bay, while Turner moved into radio and television analysis and eventually rejoined the 49ers in community relations.

When Lynch joined the 49ers in 2017, he turned to Turner to be his senior adviser.

“I think I do a good job of not letting the enormity of this job get to me, but he can see when something’s on my mind,” Lynch said. “He’ll come in sometimes and just listen to me. He always says the right things and his words are never hollow. They always mean something. He’s kind of our compass around here.”

Following Turner’s surgery, Lynch said friends and former teammates were lined up to see him at Stanford Hospital. He was back at work in two months and was a constant presence during training camp in August, making his way around the field and even dropping to the ground and doing pushups on occasion.

The football mentality kicked in immediately.

“My mindset going in was, ‘If I wake up, I’m good to go,’” Turner said. “To be cracked is painful, but I was good with it. I didn’t waste a lot of time thinking about the road back. I just said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Turner has no regrets other than waiting nearly a year after his initial diagnosis to have the surgery. Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, a close friend, was apoplectic once Turner told him of his condition and that surgery was still a ways off.

“Dusty found out and said, ‘What the bleep are you waiting for?’” Turner recalled. “I’m really not sure why I waited. I think I was still processing everything. I really don’t have a good reason.”

Turner isn’t taking any medications and doctors have told him he’ll need no additional procedures.

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Initially reluctant to discuss his medical issue, Turner thought it prudent to shed privacy and go public to stress the importance of physical examinations which can reveal life-threatening conditions before it’s too late.

Turner gets emotional when discussing the death of former 49ers Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox, who died in April at 80 after experiencing heart issues of his own.

“It was a reminder of just how important it is to be appreciative of your days and your relationships and those who love you and their support,” Turner said. “I have a renewed appreciation for all of that.”

Lynch is grateful tests identified Turner’s problem before it was too late.

“We’re better for having him around,” Lynch said. “In a lot of ways, he’s the heartbeat of this organization.”

Four-time Super Bowl champion Keena Turner, now an executive with the San Francisco 49ers, credits a mandatory, team-wide physical exam with catching a heart condition that required surgery. Turner was photographed in the Super Bowl wing of the team museum, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2023, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)