Gateway senior Darrell Turner Jr.'s shooting death still resonates
Thomas Woodson might forever wear on his right leg the scar of being shot in a dark, almost-empty parking lot in Durham, N.C.
But it's the emotional scar of helplessly watching their friend die that weighs heaviest on Woodson and more than a dozen other local high school football players who joined Darrell Turner Jr. on that fateful trip in June.
"I dream about it. I'll be sleeping, and I wake up when I see Darrell's face," said senior Jaylen Coleman, a teammate of Turner's at Gateway. Coleman was standing beside his friend when the shooting started. "I miss him a lot. ... A day doesn't go by that I don't think about him."
When high school football teams open camp Monday, the horror and heartache of Turner's death will be felt from beyond Gateway's Monroeville campus. The 15 teenagers who composed the all-star team that embarked on the trip to a 7-on-7 camp in Bradenton, Fla., represent eight schools from communities such as Clairton, Western Beaver and North Allegheny.
"This didn't affect just Gateway," said Gators football coach and athletic director Terry Smith. "This affected a number of schools because all of those kids who played together grew together and became friends. They became a family within themselves."
Others from around the WPIAL got to know Turner through earlier trips the team took. They called themselves the Western Pa. Swag. They affectionately called Turner, who was 18 and of Monroeville, "Mook."
"I think about it. I have dreams about it. I wake up in the morning and thank God for being alive," said Central Valley junior Robert Foster. "It could have been me. It could have been all of us."
Woodson sat in the backseat of an oversized sport utility vehicle, his wounded leg outstretched for the long ride home from a North Carolina hospital, and tried to convince his mother that his playing days were over.
"I just didn't feel like playing football anymore," Woodson said.
His mother thought otherwise.
"My mom said: 'You've been playing since you were 4 years old. Don't stop now,' " said Woodson, 15, a junior quarterback. Then she asked: "What would Darrell want you to do?"
That helped change Woodson's mind. If anyone loved football more than him, it might have been Turner, an easygoing kid with a happy spirit who would have been a senior this fall.
"He definitely would not want me to quit," said Woodson, who has recovered from the single gunshot wound and returned to the football field. "I'm not going to let that one moment take over all the fun times me and him had. I'm going to play as if he was here."
Headed to Florida, the team of all-stars had spent the afternoon of June 23 at the University of Virginia to allow the players to visit the campus. It was late when they finally stopped for the night in Durham, N.C.
They would stay at a Comfort Inn hotel near a shopping plaza that included an Outback Steakhouse, an AT&T store and a Five Guys restaurant. They hadn't eaten for hours, so some players went for burgers, said Ayo Fapohunda, a Gateway graduate who organized the team and its trips.
On their way back to the hotel, seven players — Turner, Woodson, Coleman, Foster, Isaiah Faulk of North Allegheny, Jaymar Parrish of Gateway and Dustin Creel of Western Beaver — were walking together. Woodson was near the front, talking on his cell phone to a friend at home; Turner walked near the back, typing a text. The rest of the team was at the hotel with Fapohunda and other chaperones.
The group passed a well-dressed man, later identified by police as Gabriel James Gamez, 22, of San Antonio, walking in the opposite direction, Faulk said.
"(He) said, 'What are you guys looking at?' " Coleman said. "That's all he kept saying. 'What are you guys looking at?' "
"This dude just came out of nowhere and started arguing with us," Foster said.
Some players stopped and turned around, including Turner, who now was closest to Gamez.
"He said something to us, so we were going to say something back," Coleman said.
According to Foster and Faulk, the words continued.
Coleman grew concerned. Before moving to Monroeville this summer, he lived in Pittsburgh. He had seen friends injured in street violence.
"(Gamez) was so little, and we were so big compared to him," Coleman said. "I was nervous because I thought he might have (a weapon)."
Then Turner threw a cup at Gamez.
Coleman, who did not know what specifically provoked Turner, said he saw Gamez reach for a gun and screamed for his friends to run.
"He said run, and I took off," said Woodson, who hobbled bleeding across a street and pounded on a restaurant window for help. "I never saw (Gamez) pull out the gun."
"After I heard the gunshots, I was gone before anyone," Foster said. "I came back because I heard (Turner) screaming."
Turner had been shot several times. He was pronounced dead at Duke University Hospital.
"It happened all so fast that it was hard to react," Faulk said. "I think about it at least two times a day."
"He died in front of our faces," Foster said. "We tried to do something, but we couldn't.
"It was his time. He's somewhere better. He's in heaven right now."
Woodson spent a night in the hospital to treat the wound near his knee. Parrish stayed with him.
"Me and him were talking (about) how everything went so fast," said Parrish, a junior tight end who uses football to keep his mind off that night.
Police arrested Gamez at a nearby hotel and charged him with first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Rebecca Wiggins, public defender for Gamez, said at a hearing that her client was alone when he was confronted and the shootings could have been self-defense.
Gamez is being held in Durham County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond. His next court date is scheduled for the first week in October.
"I've thought about it every day," Fapohunda said, "wondering why it had to happen."
'It's like a record just scratches'
Terry Smith was surrounded by celebration.
His stepson, former Gateway and Penn State standout Justin King, now with the St. Louis Rams, was getting married in the Turks & Caicos Islands in the West Indies, and Smith was enjoying time with friends and family.
The mood swung on one phone call.
"It's like a record just scratches," said Smith, who usually accompanied the Western Pa. Swag on trips. "It holds you right in your place."
Turner would have been a third-year starter at outside linebacker for Gateway. As a sophomore, he replaced an injured senior and never left the lineup. When the senior returned, coaches rearranged their defense to keep Turner on the field.
At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Turner was strong and quick. He had a bright future, Smith said, possibly as a Division I player in college.
"Darrell was the kind of kid every coach wishes every kid on their team was like," Smith said. "He was an extremely hard worker. He was dedicated. He was committed. He was loyal. He did whatever we asked him to do."
The team will wear Turner's No. 25 on their helmets this season, and a banner with his picture will hang in the tunnel leading to the Gateway stadium turf. The school has planned a memorial ceremony for their season opener Sept. 4.
Turner is gone, but he'll be remembered by his Gateway teammates and the Western Pennsylvania football community. Some days — the first day of camp, the day the team picks captains, the season opener, homecoming, senior night — will be more difficult than others, Smith said.
"Those nights," he said, "are going to be emotional nights."Additional Information:
According to team organizer Ayo Fapohunda, these 15 high school football players were headed to Florida for a 7-on-7 tournament in June when Darrell Turner was fatally shot and teammate Tommy Woodson was injured:
Eric Blinn, Western Beaver; Tyler Boyd, Clairton; Trenton Coles, Clairton; Jaylen Coleman, Gateway; Dustin Creel, Western Beaver; Brendan Edward, Imani Christian; Isaiah Faulk, North Allegheny; Nicholas Fekula, Elizabeth Forward; Robert Foster, Central Valley; Titus Howard, Clairton; B.J. Lipke, Cornell; Jaymar Parrish, Gateway; Darrell Turner, Gateway; Rasean Williams, Imani Christian; Thomas Woodson, Gateway