To the casual observer, Neil Turner was Conestoga Valley head wrestling coach Trent Turner’s father. He was so much more.
Faith, family and wrestling were the hallmarks of a life well lived by Neil Turner, who was called home unexpectedly Wednesday night. He spent what was his last day doing what he loved best, encouraging the competitors at the CV Holiday Wrestling Classic, watching his son’s team compete and talking wrestling with those who would stop by to share a word.
Turner, who was 83, was a legendary wrestling coach, to be sure. He was also a husband, father and grandfather, a man of deep faith, a mentor whose “coaching tree” branched out across Pennsylvania and beyond.
“I always joked with people that I grew up always being Neil Turner’s son,” Trent Turner shared. “I wrestled in high school, in the newspaper I was Trent Turner, 132 pounds, son of head wrestling coach Neil Turner.
“I told people I know I’ve made it someday as a coach when they go up to my dad and say, ‘Hey, you’re Coach Turner’s father, aren’t you?’ That never happened, unfortunately.”
Neil Turner began his coaching journey in 1961 at Altoona High School and, despite retiring in 2002, never stopped coaching. His coaching journey took him to Stevens Trade School, Clarion University and Clearfield High School. He coached the Christian Athletes in Action, then was named head coach at Lock Haven University in 1979. In 1991, he became head coach at Messiah College, directing the Falcons’ program for 11 years. Overall, his teams won 361 matches, with 162 losses and six ties.
Following his retirement from Messiah, he returned to Lock Haven to run the club program there, but soon moved to Lancaster to be closer to his son and family. Before long, he was active in the Buckskin program, serving briefly as junior high coach, then stepping back to direct the CV Youth Program.
A member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Turner helped promote the Hall and its State Chapter subsidiaries, often serving as master of ceremonies at the state chapter’s annual banquet.
While Turner coached Messiah, among the wrestlers who competed for him was a heavyweight from Virginia and a light middleweight from Garden Spot High School.
Jon Mitchell was wrapping up his college career and assessing what was next. At the same time, McCaskey head coach Harvey Sitler, who was looking to wrap up a long and successful career, reached out to his friend, Neil Turner, looking for his advice on a possible successor. Turner recommended Mitchell, who went on to coach the Red Tornado and is now McCaskey’s director of athletics.
“He was an incredible man,” said Mitchell in an email. “He shaped my coaching philosophy. I have so many stories about Coach Turner, but most importantly, you could not spend time with him without knowing his love for wrestling, his family and Jesus.”
“He was my coach all four years and I was his assistant for one year,” said former Spartan Kirby Martin, who now is the head coach at Mifflin County High School. “I had a chance to talk with him for a good 20 minutes (Wednesday), just to catch up with him.
“He was one of my main mentors, especially in that crucial time when you’re a college student trying to figure out your life. So much of what I do as a person, as a Christian, as a coach comes from him. That’s how much he meant to me.”
Trent Turner shared that, as a coach, whatever the level, his father was always supportive of his wrestlers, even when he yelled at them in the wrestling room.
“It was always with love,” Trent Turner said. “You may not have looked at it that way. Sometimes, as a kid, I didn’t look at it that way either. He just wanted you to be better than what you thought you could be. That was his passion.
“He knew the sport of wrestling was a vehicle for what could happen in a young man, young women and girls. Ultimately, his life was about his walk with Christ. His faith was always on full display.”
• Correspondent Dave Byrne covers L-L wrestling for LNP. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @dbyrneman.