by Marcus Harrison Green
(A version of this article appeared in Real Change.)
Soon after the Seattle Seahawks drafted Robert “Turbo” Turbin in 2012 out of Utah State University, it was probably easy for fans to envision him rolling up to a palatial Laurelhurst estate and emerging from a Bentley Continental GT with his signature Herculean biceps.
Most likely missing from that picture was him delivering a DoorDash order to the actual owners of the residence.
Gig work and housing instability were a reality for Turbin less than two years ago. This was one of many stories the Seahawks legend shared during a recent conversation with Real Change vendors on Aug. 25.
What had been a planned discussion for Turbin, a former star running back, Super Bowl champion, and current Seahawks pre- and post-game radio analyst, to share his outlook on the Seahawks’ upcoming season turned into something few in attendance expected, including Turbin.
It turned into something as rare as it is powerful in our modern society — where infamy captivates more attention than integrity, and where even a light sheen of celebrity must be maintained at all times and venues. It turned into a genuine human exchange free of the artifice of celebrity, thoughtless platitudes, and the hallmark versions of personal histories, leaving only the rawest of truth to be spoken and consumed.
His words shined a light on the precariousness we all face in this city, whether a Seahawk legend, street newspaper vendor, journalist, or tech executive.
“I didn’t want people thinking I was some rich guy who was gonna come here and give some ‘go get ’em’ speech and drop some unrelatable story. I’m literally just like anyone else here. I’ve had all the same challenges,” Turbin told me after the conversation.
Post-conversation, I think his worries of coming across as an out-of-touch, insensitive, bougie brother are put to rest.
Turbin was originally slated to sit with the newspaper’s vendors at the Real Change offices and offer a preview of his former team’s season, which began Sept. 10 with a terrible defeat to the Los Angeles Rams at Lumen Field.
As Real Change’s outgoing interim editor, I’ll flatly admit it was a blatant attempt to drive sales of the publication, but it also would’ve been one more season preview atop an endless supply of them this time of year coming from bombastic television talking heads, vloggers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and any amount of pablum found on X (formerly Twitter) with an opinion. Like all those early season predictions, it would most likely have decomposed from memory just as easily.
A day before he was scheduled to be in the city to appear on a game day radio show, Turbin flew into Seattle from his home in the Bay Area to sit down with vendors in a conversation circle. Even beneath his jacket and jeans, he struck the figure of a one-time gladiator on the gridiron — a WWE action figure come to life. Eight vendors, along with Real Change staff, joined him on that early Friday morning for the discussion.
The morning kicked off with the least important question of the day: How far can the Seahawks go in 2023?
For the record, Turbin picked them to finish the season playing in the NFC (National Football Conference) Championship Game. For the football ignorant, that means as one of the final four teams left standing in the National Football League (NFL) prior to the Super Bowl. Translation: Pretty damn good.
Shortly thereafter, a vendor suffered a mental health episode. The incident would prove less a disruption to the conversation and more of a serendipitous reroute. As staff attended to the vendor, Turbin paused from talking about a game he had played to discussing the life he had lived.
He looked around at the vendors, who were rapt with attention, and said, “Shit … I’ve been homeless before … twice.”
The vendors had hung on his words before. Now, they were gripped by each one.
Turbin shared about his time as a junior attending Utah State University. Despite being a star running back and team captain, he had slept in the athletic facility, making sure to prop open its door during the night to have a sleeping spot to return to, and to wake each morning before the janitorial crew and coaching staff arrived so they’d think he was simply an early morning gym rat — the model of a self-motivated champion suffering pain in silence and doing all they needed to to gain an edge on the competition.
While there was truth to this, the complete version was that he was trying to survive in a callous system of college football where sports programs profit off the performance, toil, and broken bodies of predominantly Black athletes. That remains true even in an era where the most marketable collegiate athletes can profit off of their name, image, and likeness, though not be directly compensated for their labor on the field.
That experience stayed with him, even as he joined the Seahawks during the team’s Super Bowl era from 2012 to 2014.
It was an era that found Turbo and Seahawks fandom on top of the world. He and the team won their first and (so far) only Super Bowl in 2013. The next year, they’d return to the Super Bowl in what was then the most-watched football game of all time, but lose in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Patriots when what would have been a game-winning touchdown for the Seahawks was intercepted at the goal line by a Patriots player — what has come to be known as the worst moment in Seattle sports history.
With that play, the team’s Super Bowl window closed, and so did Turbin’s first go-round with the team. He would join the Cleveland Browns, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Indianapolis Colts, before briefly returning to the Seahawks for a final stint in 2019.
He returned to a city and fanbase that hailed him for helping win a Super Bowl, nearly delivering them a second, and providing a walking reminder of the greatest year in Seahawks history.
He also returned to a city where he slept inside his SUV in a parking lot less than a mile away from where he suited up to hear 70,000 fans cheer him on any time he touched a football. It was partly pride but mostly housing costs that placed him in his situation.
An average NFL salary for a fourth-round draft pick, which Turbin was, ranges from $733,600 to $800,000. While that’s obviously not poverty wages, it’s important to factor in that unlike most sports, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed. A team can cut you at any time, leaving you with expenses you have no means of paying.
Factor in the high cost of expensive training and nutrition required to stay at the elite level of world-class athlete, along with taxes, family and friends in need of money, living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and two children you need to provide for, and life can deposit you where you least expect it.
“The parking attendants knew who I was. They knew I was sleeping there. It was hard to do that day in and day out,” Turbin told the vendors.
Harder still was that in a span of two years, he’d lost his father and his sister.
“I used to be one of those people who didn’t believe mental health was a thing. I was like, ‘Just try harder and work through it.’ But no, I found out the hard way how important it is to address and take care of. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human,” he said.
It was evident the words struck many of the vendors. It became less of a conversation with a celebrity athlete, and more a talk among people who shared the same pains, struggles, and journeys, no one above or below anyone else.
“I’d been looking for the right time to share some of this. Today was the day,” Turbin said.
I asked him for one final bit of advice to leave people with. He said struggles can be survived, but rarely alone.
For an hour that Friday, everyone in that room knew they weren’t alone.
Robert Turbin hasn’t played for the Seahawks in four years, but I can’t stop rooting for him.
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Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced firsthand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
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