In 2012, Robert “Turbo” Turbin made the leap few athletes make: from college ball to the NFL. After he arrived here from Utah State University with a contract to play for the Seahawks, fans could easily imagine the luxurious scene: Turbin rolling up to a palatial Laurelhurst estate and emerging from a Bentley Continental GT with his signature Herculean biceps on full display.
In actuality, Turbin was bringing a Door Dash order to the owners of the residence. And at night, he slept in the Bentley.
Less than two years ago, gig work and housing instability was a reality for Robert. His story about the Bentley was one of many the Seahawks legend shared during a recent conversation with Real Change vendors.
Turbin — a former star running back, Super Bowl champion and current Seahawks pre- and post-game radio analyst — had planned to share his outlook on the Seahawks upcoming season at the Aug. 25 event. But the discussion turned into something few in attendance expected, including Turbin.
Instead of analysis, we got something as rare as it is powerful in our modern society, where infamy captivates more attention than integrity, and where even a light coat of celebrity must be maintained by both public and self-deception. What we got was a genuine human exchange. Nowhere was the artifice of celebrity, the thoughtless platitudes, the hallmark versions of personal histories. In the place of such pablum was only bone-deep truth.
It was the most realistic conversation I’ve ever witnessed involving a former professional athlete. With his candor, Turbin shined a light on the precariousness we all face in this city, whether we’re 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 any worries he had of coming across as an out-of-touch moneybag are out the window.
Turbin was originally slated to sit with vendors at the Real Change offices for a preview of his former team’s season, which begins Sept. 10 against the Los Angeles Rams at Lumen Field. I cooked up the idea and, as the outgoing editor, I’ll flatly admit it was a blatant attempt to drive sales of this publication.
A day before appearing on the Sehawks 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 in a casual jacket and jeans, he struck the figure of a one-time gridiron gladiator — a WWE action figure come to life. Eight vendors, along with Real Change staff, joined him early on a Friday morning.
The morning kicked off with the least important question of the day: What was his prediction for the Seahawks 2023 season?
For the record, he sees them going all the way to the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship Game. For the football-ignorant, that means they’d be one of the final four teams left standing in the National Football League 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 welcome reroute. As staff attended to the vendor, Turbin paused from talking about a game he’d played, shifting focus to the life he’d lived.
He looked around at the assembled vendors and said, “Shit … I’ve been homeless before. … Twice.”
The room had been listening closely before. Now, they were paying rapt attention.
Turbin shared memories of his time as a junior at Utah State University, where, despite being a star running back and team captain, he’d slept in the training facility. Each morning, he’d awaken before the janitorial crew and coaching staff arrived, making sure to be in an ice bath by the time they did. The hope was that they’d think he was simply an early morning gym rat trying to gain an edge on the competition, the model of a self-motivated grinder who suffered pain in silence.
There was truth to that. But the full truth is 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 after the NCAA’s 2021 decision to allow college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. (They still may not be directly compensated for their labor on the field.)
The experience of sleeping at the gym stayed with Turbin even as he joined the Seahawks during the team’s Superbowl era from 2012 to 2014, backing up the popular and eccentric Marshawn Lynch — who claimed to never train.
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. What would have been a game-winning touchdown for the Seahawks was instead intercepted at the goal line by a Patriots player, the indisputably worst moment in Seattle sports history.
With that play, the team’s Super Bowl window closed, and so did Turbin’s first stint with the team. He would join the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys and 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 would be sleeping in the parking lot less than a mile away from where he once suited up to hear 70,000 fans cheer him on any time he touched a football. It was part pride, but mostly housing cost, that placed him in his situation.
An average NFL salary for a fourth round draft pick, which Robert was, ranges from $733,600 to $800,000. While that’s obviously not poverty wages, it’s important to note that unlike in 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. It’s a scenario Robert experienced multiple times.
Factor in 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? 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 the fact 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 amongst 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 that struggles can be survived, but rarely alone.
For an hour on a Friday, everyone in that room knew they weren’t.
The man hasn’t played for the Seahawks in four years, but I can’t stop rooting for him.
Marcus Harrison Green is interim editor of Real Change.
Read more of the Sept. 6-12, 2023 issue.