Ryan Wills stood at the memorial service for his fallen teammate and felt something besides shock and sadness: a sense of purpose.
Wills, a La Salle College High School senior, was part of a large group of students, coaches, parents, administrators, teachers, counselors, and family members who gathered Saturday afternoon to honor Isaiah Turner, a 17-year-old football player for the Explorers who died after practice on Friday.
And it was during the somber, 75-minute commemoration of Turner’s life and contributions to the La Salle community that Wills began to see a path forward, for himself and the rest of the Explorers football program.
“I remember being struck by this overwhelming sense that now we were part of something larger than ourselves,” Wills said. “I knew that as seniors in particular, we had to make this all about honoring Isaiah and his memory.”
Turner, a senior offensive lineman, was preparing to leave the field when he collapsed after complaining to a teammate about a “pain or cramp” in his leg, according to La Salle football coach John Steinmetz.
Turner collapsed on a lower-level field after the finish of practice, Steinmetz said. The coach indicated the event happened after most of the players and coaches had returned to the school building.
It was unclear Sunday whether CPR had been performed and if a portable automated external defibrillator (AED) was used before paramedics arrived.
Turner was rushed by paramedics to Chestnut Hill Hospital where he was pronounced dead, according to La Salle spokesman Chris Carabello.
La Salle president Brother James Butler said Turner died of a “catastrophic medical event” but that the cause of death was unknown, pending an autopsy.
Butler said funeral arrangements would be made based on the wishes of Turner’s family, with “the La Salle community offering support in any way that we can.”
Butler referred to the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Turner as “quiet, friendly, easy to be around, sweet.” Others spoke of Turner’s warm and engaging personality and playful nature.
“I remember when I first met him, I was intimidated because he was so big,” said Wills, a top two-way lineman for the Explorers. “But he must have talked for two hours about some kids’ TV show. He was always smiling, just a happy kid.”
Turner, who lived in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, played defensive tackle for La Salle last season. He was slated to move to offensive guard this season.
“He was such a great kid,” Steinmetz said. “When we talked about moving to guard, he was like, ‘Anything for the team, coach.’”
La Salle has tentative plans to play football this fall, although the start of the season is likely to be delayed until late September or early October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Butler said the La Salle community would rally around Turner’s teammates and schoolmates.
“When we go through difficult times, we need to remember two things – reach out for help and take care of each other,” Butler said.
Steinmetz said his players and coaching staff and others impacted by the tragedy need to understand that moving forward will be difficult.
“I think we all need to understand that the grieving process can be different for everyone,” the head coach said. “There’s no playbook, no A to B to C. Everybody is going to go through this a little differently, and we need to be there to support each other.”
La Salle junior running back Sam Brown, one of the state’s top recruits in the class of 2022 with offers from programs such as Wisconsin, Baylor, and Texas A&M, expressed his feelings for Turner on Twitter, writing: “love you forever bro we got you. ik your looking down on us and we are going to make you proud.”
Wills said he began to develop an especially strong relationship with Turner this summer. As a veteran left tackle, Wills lined up next to Turner, the team’s new left guard.
They would talk on the practice field, in the locker room, on the line of scrimmage before the snap.
“The guard spot for us can be complicated, with lots of different assignments, but he was working so hard at it,” said Wills, a two-time All-Philadelphia Catholic League selection. “He was willing to do anything for the team. He was the best teammate.”
He said the Explorers would dedicate this season to honoring Turner and his family.
“I know we’re going to be playing for Isaiah, every single day, every single second,” Wills said. “This season will be all about him and his family.”