Known for his ferocity and intelligence on the playing field, safety Eric Turner showed another side of his life - the private side - when he quietly lost a battle with stomach cancer on Sunday.
"I was unaware of the severity of the illness,'' the Ravens majority owner said last night. "I heard he was sick, but never did I think he was that sick.
"In retrospect, he was extremely private, in cloaking this illness in the most private of terms, insisting publicly that nothing was wrong with him. ... It's very sad that a young man that age has to be taken that way.''
In a written statement issued May 15, Turner refuted newspaper reports that he was gravely ill and had lost 70 pounds to a serious stomach condition.
On Sunday morning, little more than two weeks later, he was taken by ambulance to the Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., placed in intensive care and died at 4:35 p.m. local time. The cause of death, according to Craig Stevens, medical examiner at the Ventura County Coroner's office, appeared to be complications of abdominal cancer.
Turner had spent six of his nine NFL seasons playing for Modell's franchise. Two of them, including the Ravens' first year in Baltimore in 1996, were Pro Bowl seasons. Released by the Ravens in 1997, Turner signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders and played the last three seasons there.
His death served as a haunting reminder for Modell of another football tragedy.
"There's a very eerie connection," Modell said. "We drafted Eric in the first round [in 1991], and he replaced Donnie Rogers, who also died in a tragic situation.''
Turner and Rogers were high first-round picks by the Browns out of UCLA. Rogers had played two seasons, 1984 and 1985, before he died of a cocaine reaction on the eve of his wedding.
"The safety position was a problem for us until we drafted Eric,'' said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public relations.
Turner was the second pick in the 1991 draft, the NFL's highest-selected defensive back of the post-merger era. Defensive tackle Russell Maryland went to Dallas on the first pick.
Turner played five seasons in Cleveland. When the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996, he was among the first five players introduced in a ceremony here that February.
"He was in the first group of players to set foot on Memorial Stadium,'' Byrne said. "His reaction was, 'It's great to be on the same field where [John] Unitas played.' So he had a sense of history.''
In 109 NFL games, Turner amassed nearly 800 tackles and had 30 interceptions. At 6 feet 1 and 215 pounds, he was a notoriously hard-hitting safety. On his first tackle in the NFL in 1991, he bent the face mask of Cincinnati's James Brooks.
"He might have been, pound for pound, the toughest player I ever knew,'' said Modell, who also had Hall of Fame back Jim Brown.
Turner was a leader on the field and a special person off it. Byrne told the story of how Turner befriended his own son, Sean, who was a Browns ballboy in the early '90s. When Sean Byrne graduated from high school in 1996, Turner gave him a signed Ravens jersey.
"It's the only jersey in our house,'' Kevin Byrne said.