Far from home, in an area much colder than any self-respecting Southern California native would wish to tolerate, Chris Turner was sure to find some constants in his five seasons at Maryland.
One of them was the classic pizza parlor barely a mile from campus, a College Park institution so nearby it sits practically in the shadow of Byrd Stadium. And it was there this week a waitress asked the question he’d heard so often in recent years.
“Are you the quarterback of Maryland’s football team?” she asked sheepishly.
Well, he used to be. And that could take a little getting used to.
Turner is, after all, the owner of an unexpected and unorthodox career arc at Maryland. He came to College Park almost as an afterthought, a late addition to a recruiting class. He opened only one season as the starter, dealing with criticism of his practice performance much of his career.
Yet he started 30 games, more than any other Terrapins quarterback since Boomer Esiason. His name is scattered throughout Maryland’s record book - second in attempts (918), completions (547) and yards (6,543) and fourth in touchdown passes (30) - even after the Terps last month finished his final season 2-10.
“It is weird to me that I’m good at football, as strange as that sounds,” Turner said. “I’ve always been a little bit self-conscious about my skills because I don’t have a lot. I’m not real fast, I’m not real strong, I don’t have a really good arm, but I seem to do all right when I get out there. Every time I played on Saturdays, it reminds me again ‘All right, I can do this.’ ”
And therein lies the tale of Turner’s career - and precisely why one of his next steps is to hire an agent, stare down the odds and try to etch out a pro career.
Interest waned in the wake of his final month at Maryland. Turner suffered a third-degree MCL sprain Nov. 7 at N.C. State, then endured painful rehab just to be able to play in the season finale against Boston College three weeks later. Initially, walking down a step at a time was a big deal. But the day before Thanksgiving, he could jog and step into throws.
“At that point, I knew I wanted to play,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a burden. I didn’t want to look like that guy who really shouldn’t be playing [but is] because it’s his senior day. I just didn’t want to be that guy.”
He probably didn’t need to worry since Turner defied convention throughout his career. He was the guy just as interested in politics as football, a product of his Los Angeles-area roots right down to the In-N-Out Burger T-shirt he wore on occasion to interviews. At other times, he’d appear with a European soccer jersey.
It was different, but a good different. Of course, it took plenty of breaks for Turner to be more than a quirky, open-minded Californian with eclectic tastes who happened to play football.
But Jordan Steffy proved injury-prone. Josh Portis, who transferred from Florida, lost a year for cheating on a pop quiz and eventually shipped out to a Division II school. Ultimately, Turner was durable and deeply respected, even if it took time for those qualities to become clear.
“The second Portis transferred here, I knew it was his job to lose at this point,” Turner said. “Let’s be realistic. He fits Coach [Ralph] Friedgen’s offense, and I was just that white kid from California trying to make it by. Even after I started playing, it didn’t always feel the same way for me that it did for other people. It took a lot of convincing on the field for me to get to the point where I’m at now.”
Some pivotal moments helped. Getting carried off the field after coming off the bench to secure a victory at then-No. 10 Rutgers. Engineering an upset of Matt Ryan-led Boston College. Toppling California less than two weeks after regaining the starting job. Leading Maryland to a bowl victory less than a year ago.
But it also required an adjustment by the program. Turner invested much of his college years in his team, from the day-to-day grind to speaking engagements. Yet he’s still the guy who values fairness - which is why he appreciated the room he was given this season when the Terps were clearly his outfit.
“I felt like I earned that. As selfish as that sounds, I think I put my time in here and I’ve done a lot for this program on and off the field,” Turner said. “It look a long time for the relationship between me and the coaches for them to give me my space, because I need my space. I can’t be 24-7 football. That’s what they want. That’s what every coach wants. They want that Tim Tebow quarterback, and I’m not going be Tim Tebow. That’s a divide that I think exists in general in football.”
It was a reflective moment, not a projective one. The real chance that Turner hobbled off the field for the final time last month has only started to sink in. His status - that he was and no longer is the Terps’ quarterback - is a distinction he chuckles about when he’s asked.
“I’m cool with it and I’ll move on, but I will miss it,” he said. “I already do miss it. I do miss playing. I’d love to play in a bowl game. I’ll move on. It’s not the end of the world. Everyone has to do it at some point. It’s not like you can play your whole life.”
There are other things to get to. He and a friend will begin a drive back to California next week, crossing the continent and passing through places such as Indianapolis and Wichita, Kan., and Amarillo, Texas. In the future, law school beckons. So does settling down, preferably someplace warmer than the D.C. area.
But the game still calls, even for a well-rounded guy with a lot on his mind. He’ll try to make the pros, and why not? The money is too good, the window of opportunity too small. It has to happen now, and there’s no chance he’ll pass it up.
“I don’t want to be done playing football here,” he said. “I just don’t think I’m ready to be done playing football. I feel like I’m better than I was last year and I think I can still get better, so I don’t see why I should stop playing. I think if I do get a chance, I know I can make a team. That’s all I have right now - my faith in that. I’m just going to roll with it.”
Deep down, he is a quarterback, current verb tense be damned. After the past three years, he’s definitely certain of it.