Delarrin Turner-Yell is the 'miracle' in Denver
He entered the world prematurely at 26 weeks. Now, the safety is ready whenever these surging Denver Broncos need him.
A doctor told a mother her newborn son had 24 hours to live.
It was Dec. 16, 1999. Born severely premature — at 26 weeks — the boy weighed all of three pounds and 13 ounces and was promptly whisked away to the neonatal unit five seconds after birth. The next time Denise saw her son? He had a tube in his head, a tube in his mouth and an IV in his arm. His lungs hadn’t matured. She could see directly through his skin. The preemie-sized diaper coated half his body.
Words were not minced.
Twenty-fours, the doctor said.
Next thing she knew, a priest came through the door and they said a prayer together.
“Everything,” says Denise Turner, “was a blur.”
She hadn’t even entered her third trimester yet. After getting off of work one night, Denise went home and woke up at 3 a.m. in extreme pain. Due to placenta previa, she started hemorrhaging. Her local hospital wasn’t equipped for a premature birth, so she was life-flighted 50 miles to this medical center in downtown Houston. And after receiving shots to mature her baby’s lungs, he couldn’t wait anymore. It was time to enter the world.
Five seconds later, he was taken away into the unknown. The worst feeling in the world.
“Imagine,” she says. “You can’t even touch your child.”
She cried and prayed and cried some more, but then? Those 24 hours passed.
Denise is a very small woman. All of four feet, one inch tall. Each day, she drove her Chevy Nova to the medical center at noon, stayed until midnight, returned home in tears and then called the hotline to check on him. Two weeks passed and she was able to take her now four-pound, three-ounce son home on Dec. 30.
He survived. But doctors offered another grave warning: His motor skills would not be normal.
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Yet, it was also true that her newborn son — Delarrin Turner-Yell — was never even on a breathing machine at the hospital. Not once. At 1-year old, he started wheezing bad and developed asthma. But he never developed the slightest inkling of a motor-skill problem. At 3 ½ years old, he picked up a football. When it was time to play peewee football a few years later, he kept an inhaler handy on the sideline. And in the words of Mom, the boy “hasn’t put the football down since.” Mom and Son — “Tre,” she calls him — are seated side-by-side on this Zoom chat.
Turner-Yell is now a safety for the Denver Broncos.
“I have a miracle baby,” Denise says. “And I tell him all the time, he’s Jeremiah 29:11, because the doctors said, ‘OK, he has 24 hours.’”
The NFL is a ruthless profession. As much as we enjoy obsessing over the star power, it’s often the 22- and 23- and 24-players on the fringes who decide the outcomes of games this time of year. The ball has this funky shape for a reason. Countless games boil down to one bounce, one inch and there’s no telling what’s processing between the ears of a player when pressure heightens late in the fourth quarter. That’s why I thought Josh Lucas, the Chicago Bears former director of player personnel, put it so perfectly on the Go Long Podcast in late September. The No. 1 challenge for all GMs, scouts, coaches — year… to year… to year — is figuring out how a player will respond to inevitable adversity. Film. Stopwatches. Bench press. All of this only tells you so much.
Teams want to know precisely what you’ve overcome in your life, Lucas explained. Mental processing in that split-second is revealing.
Then, there’s a player who entered the world with no expectation to live.
Delarrin Turner-Yell had no clue how close he was to dying at birth until he headed off to college. But it all made sense because he’s always felt like a fighter. He’s witnessing the same fight in his mother today as she battles Multiple Sclerosis and Lupus. When the Broncos play the Houston Texans this Sunday, Turner-Yell will bring attention to both the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Lupus Foundation of America for “My Cause My Cleats.”
“This gives me that edge,” Turner-Yell says. “Not to say that every birth should be the way mine was. They literally have no problems, come here, healthy baby. You can’t see through their skin. They’re fully equipped. But when I really think about what I went through to get here, it really makes me different. I’m 1 percent. Think about it: The doctors who’ve seen a lot, who know a lot literally come in and say, ‘Okay, well this baby, we’re giving him 24 hours to live.’ So, they weren’t guessing.”
No doctor wants to rile up and overstress a mother, he adds. No doctor says this out loud unless there’s severe concern.
“So I do feel like it makes me different.”
The Broncos will need a play from this 2022 fifth-round pick at some point this December. He has 32 tackles for a 6-5 Broncos team that has suddenly vaulted itself into the AFC playoff picture with five straight wins. This a team capable of beating anyone in the conference, having already stunned the likes of Kansas City and Buffalo. An unthinkable reality back when the Miami Dolphins turned Sean Payton’s crew into a national laughingstock with a 70-point onslaught.
Everything feels unthinkable to Denise who’ll never forget the raw “trauma” of those 24 hours, the total unknown of whether her son would live or not. She remembers a team of 20 doctors. She remembers, yes, being able to see right through Delarrin’s skin and took pictures for tangible proof of her miracle.
“I always tell him,” Mom says, “you conquered something coming into the world. You fought. You never were on a breathing machine. You fought every day.”
No scientific explanation was given for his survival. He needed Mom’s breastmilk immediately — that helped — and he was on a feeding tube. For three days, Delarrin was under the light with jaundice, too. Mom was not able to hold her son for an entire week and, when she did, he barely fit onto her two small hands. When she tried putting stuffed animals in his incubator, doctors quickly pulled them out and said those could tip over and kill him.
This was all a grueling process, but he got stronger. Only stronger. And he never had any problems.
Denise waited until Delarrin’s senior year of high school — before he headed to Norman, Okla., for college — to tell him all of this.
The timing was perfect.
“I knew,” Turner-Yell says, “no one would be able to stop me.”
Of course, his rise to the NFL was not this straightforward, this simple. Delarrin Turner-Yell never imagined Division I powers courting back him at Hempstead (Texas) High School. He wasn’t playing nearly as much as he’d like, nor did any colleges seem interested.
Every time he’d get restless, Mom stepped in: “It’s not your time. It’s not your time.”
That time finally arrived when Hempstead faced La Marque, a school with a running back that the University of Texas at San Antonio was recruiting. When UTSA popped on the tape, they couldn’t help but notice a safety on the other team: Turner-Yell. Not long after, a substitute teacher asked Delarrin what he wanted to do after graduation. “Hopefully,” he answered, “I could receive a scholarship to play football somewhere.” Less than five minutes later, the head coach of his football team knocked on the door to inform him that UTSA was making an offer. His recruitment skyrocketed — instantly. Within five days, he says he received eight offers. The University of Oklahoma was the third school to extend an offer but, considering Mom is no fan of extreme weather, Tornado Alley was an immediate “no.”
He wanted to stay close to home, so his top choices were Texas A&M and Texas. Neither offered and he committed to Baylor University.
Still, that junior year in ’17, Turner-Yell had previously scheduled a trip to Oklahoma. He figured it was worth following through and, soon after landing, his arrival leaked onto Twitter. Baylor wasn’t happy. Baylor let him know on the phone they weren’t happy. Turner-Yell did not appreciate the coaches’ tone — they were acting like they were already his coaches — and told Mom that if he enjoyed Norman? Even a little bit? He was switching his commitment.
That’s exactly what happened. Off to Norman, he went.
The week before Game No. 1 of his freshman year, Turner-Yell sprained his MCL and missed six weeks. That’s why Mom told him about his birth at “the perfect time.” He knew there was innate fight to his DNA, so he stayed patient and started on special teams upon returning. It was pretty damn cool for everyone back in Hempstead, population 6,000, to see him on TV. But frustrating. Extremely frustrating. It was not easy to go from “The Man” to having no clue if he’d ever start on this Big 12 defense.
Six hours from home, the unabashed “Mama’s Boy” called his mother all the time.
Making matters worse, the Sooners’ defensive coaches were then fired. He had no clue if he’d even fit into the new staff’s plans. So, Delarrin needed to investigate. Admittedly “nosy,” the rising sophomore snuck into a defensive staff room and took a peek at the first depth chart on the board. Right there, he read “Delarrin Turner-Yell” as the starting safety.
“A reality check for me,” he says, “because I was doing all this complaining my freshman year about how I should be playing and this and that. And then once I went into the defensive staff room and saw that I was a starter, I went back and questioned myself: ‘Am I really ready for this opportunity?’ And so early on, I was kind of fighting that because I didn't really want to accept the fact that I was actually a starter at the time.”
Confidence was in short supply.
Into spring ball, he still couldn’t believe it. Told his teammates, “No way I’m a starter.”
He ended up starting 13 games with 75 tackles, only missing the Peach Bowl vs. LSU with a broken collarbone. Turner-Yell never looked back, starting his final three college seasons and finishing as an All-Big 12 second-teamer in 2021. He effectively learned to crush self-doubt. Those constant conversations with Mom always helped — she told him he belonged. The defensive coordinator believed in him, too. Turner-Yell could slog through the worst practice of his life and Alex Grinch would stay positive. He’d tell Turner-Yell how much the safety reminded him of this player or that player who made it. The team’s graduate assistant, Will Johnson, was also quick with a word of encouragement.
Positivity was powerful that fall camp his sophomore year. Back when everything seemed to be moving at “100 miles an hour.”
He slowed the sport down. His career took off.
The infant who entered the world so unbelievably tiny, however, says he’s also been hearing that he’s too small to play safety his entire life. He recalls someone telling him he didn’t even have a draft grade into his final collegiate season. On the spot, he started studying film of the best defensive backs in the NFL to pick up anything he could.
“I knew,” he says, “getting to the NFL was always a dream of mine.”
On this call, Turner-Yell starts thumbing through his phone. He finds the list of names he studied then and reads each name aloud: Eddie Jackson, Jamal Adams, Tyrann Mathieu. Stephon Gilmore. Earl Thomas, Tre’Davious White, Harrison Smith, Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Budda Baker, Jalen Ramsey, Jaire Alexander, Jessie Bates and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
His goal was achieved. The Broncos selected him 152nd overall a year ago. Watching this crew of DBs — nonstop — made him a better player by osmosis at Oklahoma.
But so does every single conversation with his mother.
In August of 2015, Denise Turner thought she was going to die.
Leading up to this day, she was dizzy. Terrifyingly dizzy. The doctor diagnosed her with vertigo, gave her medicine and she was able to attend her son’s high school football game on Friday. Toward the end of the night, however, the dizziness returned. All Saturday, she laid in bed. On Sunday, she got up to go to the bathroom because it felt like she had to vomit. She stumbled. She fell. She shouted for her daughter. When the paramedics arrived, in her mind, Turner sincerely thought that this is what the precipice of death felt like.
One of the paramedics tried to lift her arm and she grabbed him. “Don’t let me die! Don’t let me die!” she repeated, before totally blacking out. Upon waking up, Mom was in the emergency room surrounded by doctors and her two kids.
The neurologist told her an MRI revealed seven lesions on her brain. She had MS.
She was familiar with the disease. One of her uncles had already passed away, while another was in the nursing home. He has since died, too.
Everything suddenly made sense. For so long, she’d spontaneously collapse to the ground. To the point it became comical with her kids — “I’m on the floor again!” With an IV in her neck, unsure of the future, Denise felt like a failure as a parent. “I’m sick,” she recalls thinking, “and I can’t take care of my kids.” Working was not an option anymore. Thus, each summer, Delarrin would chip in at his grandfather’s watermelon field to earn money for school clothes.
With food scarce, McDonald’s became the go-to dinner. Mom would get $3 burgers, one large fry and three soda waters for $1 at the corner store for her and the kids to share. One day, they returned home to discover the lights had been cut out because they hadn’t paid the electric bill. They didn’t complain. They took turns charging their phones in the car and were thankful that the water still worked so they could bathe. When it was dark, they simply went to bed.
Lights getting cut off was common.
So was their car shutting down. They’d roll up to a stop sign or a red light, and… kaput. The Camry quit. That’s why they got into the habit of keeping a gallon of water in the trunk.
“The water would leak out,” Delarrin explains, “and we would have to constantly keep that gallon in the water full. So every time the water leaked out, we would be on the side of the road popping the hood, pouring the water into the car, knowing that it was going to leak right out.”
Adds Mom: “It was tough. It was tough.”
One week after being diagnosed with MS, Denise was also diagnosed with Lupus. This chronic autoimmune disease can cause pain in any part of your body. The immune system attacks healthy tissue instead of infections. She needed to learn how to walk again because her gait was completely thrown off.
At 15 years old, her son helped every day. He adjusted to this new normal with no hesitation, no dread because his mother was always his best friend. Still is. He doesn’t even call her Mom these days — she’s “bro.” Every step of the way, Delarrin was inspired by his mother’s resilience.
One of his best high school games came after his mother was diagnosed. He played with a written message on his wrist tape.
“I saw how she handled her adversity with being sick, without a job, but still having to raise two kids,” he says. “So that’s part of the reason why when I am venting about something, I’m calling her because I know how she handles adversity. And I’m trying to take a page out of her book. If you haven’t really been through anything, you don’t really know how to respond or how to handle the adversity whenever it does hit, and I know she knows how to handle it no other.
“She’ll have some positive information for me to take with me as I deal with whatever I’m dealing with at the time.”
Both ailments are a daily struggle. MS affects both the brain and spinal cord, so even though Mom is exceptionally upbeat during this conversation, she admits she’s never quite sure how she’ll feel in the morning. She’s been averaging one new surgery a year and needs to have MRIs administered on her brain regularly to make sure no new lesions develop. The most challenging aspect of this all, she says, is the medicine. Pills and pills and pills simply to stay on top of her health.
One week before this chat, Turner found out she had walking pneumonia. It never ends.
Son didn’t know much at all about either disease through high school. Only that Mom was sick.
Every time she said she wasn’t feeling good, he’d quickly race into the kitchen to fetch a cup of water. It became a running joke. One time, Denise was hardly able to breathe. As the family waited for the paramedics to arrive again, there was her alarmed son: “Mama, you need some water!” he said.
“I’m like, ‘Hell, I can hardly breathe. I don’t need no water!’”
She laughs. He laughs.
But thinking back? Delarrin is no doctor, but maybe this was the secret all along.
“You’re still here today,” he says, “so maybe me offering you water was the best thing I ever did!”
When the national anthem plays before his Denver Broncos games, each Sunday, Delarrin Turner-Yell closes his eyes. It’s become a new ritual.
For roughly one minute and 20 seconds, he reimagines… everything. He thinks back to his mother sick and out of work. To the lights getting cut out. To the nights they’d have to stay at his grandmother’s house. To the current horror of never knowing where his mother will be hurting next. The song concludes, he opens his eyes and Turner-Yell tells himself: “I’m blessed to be here.”
No wonder the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder didn’t flinch through the Broncos’ defensive struggles. He was on the field for all 73 defensive snaps of the 70-point, 726-yard tidal wave in Miami.
And he bounced back.
Denver’s turnaround is rapidly becoming one of the craziest stories of this 2023 NFL season. Payton built a winner in New Orleans on the strength of tough-minded players — both Lucas and our podcaster Jim Monos were on his scouting staff, too. It’s no different here. All six of the Broncos’ remaining games are winnable. Russell Wilson, mocked and memed and forgotten, has quietly become everything Payton envisioned when he took this job. The QB is not asked to do too much and keeps making key plays late to win. His 103.4 passer rating, 20 passing touchdowns and 68.3 completion percentage all rank fifth in the NFL. He has only thrown four interceptions on 319 attempts. It’s probably time we all woke up and admitted Wilson can still cook some damn fine Rocky Mountain Oysters.
This is a defense that’s proving it can fluster elite quarterbacks, too. Turner-Yell played 34 snaps in Denver’s Monday Night win over Josh Allen’s Bills. He needed to wait for his opportunity in high school, in college and has no problem doing the same now — week to week — as a pro.
Meditation before kickoff always helps him stay ready. He keeps perspective.
He knows how easily he could still be back in his hometown.
“It’s sad to say,” Turner-Yell says, “but a lot of people don't make it out. And even when I go back today, it’s the same old people still doing the same old stuff. During that time, I'm closing my eyes, I'm looking at my high school field, high school weight room — everything in my childhood that got me to the point to where I am today. I could have easily been one of those guys that’s still there, still doing the same thing, but I’m blessed enough to be able to be on the stage that I’m on.
“Once I open my eyes, it's like, ‘OK, I have my why.’”
You’ll see the name “Denise Turner” scripted on the side of Turner-Yell’s cleats this Sunday, with the dates she was diagnosed with both MS and Lupus.
This “why” also includes a four-month son of his own. As a father, he’ll make sure his vehicle never abruptly shuts down at a red light. Back when his family needed to eke through life, as a teen, “Tre” used to promise his mother he’d reach the the NFL one day. He’d take care of her financially. Now, that he’s here he plans to fully maximize every game.
“Some people try to run away from the hard times,” he says, “but going back and reflecting on it really helps you out.
“I mean, it helps me out.”
Like those first 24 hours of his life. He’s been told every detail of that day so many times that it now feels like a core memory. Survival that prepared him for anything awaiting this final month of the season, and beyond.
Mom glances over at her son, and smiles.
“He knows what to do,” she says. “He came into this world like, ‘OK, I’m here. I’m going to do this. I’m going to conquer everything.’”
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