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Turner the Returner Is Turning Heads : Pro football: But the reasons are his attire and patter. He has yet to make his mark on the Rams’ special teams.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vernon Turner, kick returner and stylist, is a walking, talking, fuchsia tights-wearing tribute to football as “Flashdance.”

Does he stand out? Only when you can see or hear him.

Standing out is the point. When Turner’s Ram teammates greet his latest electric-flavored practice outfit by calling him “Flo-Jo,” he says he loves every minute of the attention.

“I like being different,” Turner says. “I don’t like being like every Tom, Dick and Bert. It’s not something purposefully done. It’s just that’s the way I’ve always been.

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“I like to have an impact. I want people to come and buy a ticket to see Vernon Turner. That’s how exciting I want to be.

“Oh, they tease me. They call me Flo-Jo,” after daringly-dressed Olympic sprint star Florence Griffith Joyner. “They call me all sorts of things. But that’s me.

“I don’t think any other guy would be man enough to do the things I do. I come out here with a different pair of tights every time.

“They’re wondering what I’m going to come out with next. It’s fun. It’s all in fun.”

His uncountable array of wild practice tights, the talking, the whipping up the home crowd, the flashing smile--all this under Chuck Knox, a coach so regimented he makes his players practice breaking a huddle? Would Knox ever want to coach someone nicknamed Flo-Jo?

“Aw, he knows that I’m a hard worker,” Turner says. “He knows it’s not hurting anybody. As a matter of fact, it brings a little chuckle to the team.”

Turner’s attitude melds nicely with his job as the Rams’ main kick returner, a job not recommended for those who don’t like challenges.

If you don’t have a different kind of personality, says Ram special teams coach Howard Tippett, you won’t be a good return man.

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“It’s an isolated place,” Tippett says. “I’ll tell you what, you don’t find a lot of guys on your football team that want to return kickoffs and want to return punts.

“It’s like a boxer in a ring--you are in there by yourself. When you’re back there to catch that punt or that kickoff, you’re back there by yourself and you’ve got to catch it.

“It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to stand there, looking up in the air at a ball, and know there’s a herd of guys coming down to knock your head off.

“It takes a special-type guy to get back there.”

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To Turner, it’s similar to being a matador, or anybody else who gambles life and limb for the enjoyment of others. And he says he revels in it.

When the ball is up, everybody has to look at him.

“Exactly,” he says. “I think what I do fits how I am. I mean, I do a lot of things that are different from others. Being a punt returner, kick returner--that’s a unique job. That’s a different job.

“I guess my character fits my job.”

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And how, exactly, would he describe his character?

“Unpredictable, very different, don’t know what to expect, exciting. . . .

“You watch me on the football field, you watch just the little things I do,” Turner says. “Before they kick the ball, I’m always moving around, I’m always taunting the kicker, I’m talking to the kicker and he sees me talking.

“That’s just my game. It works. It helps me, and I’m out there and I almost break a kick just about every time I touch the ball.”

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Which brings up a sore point for Turner--the fact that he has yet to break a long return this season in 20 tries with punts and 19 with kickoffs. Dating to last season, Turner’s longest return has been 36 yards.

Overdue? It’s hard to be a star when you’re getting tackled inside your 20.

His longest kickoff return in 1992 has been 35 yards, and his longest punt return has been 21. Turner is eighth in the NFC among both kickoff and punt returners.

And worse, Turner fumbled a kickoff opening the second half of last Sunday’s loss to Atlanta, a mistake Knox referred to repeatedly in his Monday post-mortem.

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“Coach knows I’m not a fumbler,” Turner says. “I protect the ball very well. It’s something that happened. It’s over with. Now I’ve just got to score, man.

“I’m so doggone frustrated because I should’ve broken at least three of them now. I’ve got to be patient, and before you know it, I’m going to be on the other side of the end zone.

“It’s just going to take that one block that’s going to spring me. It’s always something--if it’s not a block, it’s a guy getting in the way. If it’s not that, it’s something else.

“Just got to take one game for us to get it all together, then it’s all going to unleash.”

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The Rams picked Turner off the waiver wire in 1991, before the regular season, and he immediately caught everybody’s attention by fumbling two returns in the 1991 opener against the Phoenix Cardinals--this week’s opponent.

But Tippett says Turner is “right on the verge” of breaking a big return, especially now that he has listened to the staff’s instructions and cut down on his side-to-side moves and to take the ball straight up-field.

Turner actually did return a kickoff to the Rams’ 45-yard line in Sunday’s game, which would have been the team’s best return in two years, but the Rams were called for clipping.

So while Falcon returner Tony Smith--subbing for injured Deion Sanders--had two big returns to get Atlanta in good field position, Turner never got the Rams past their 36.

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“Oh, man, that hurts,” Turner says. “I’m saying, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ And then, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to break this one, I’ve got to break this one.’

“It’s a personal thing for me, because I feel I’m just as good as anybody in the National Football League, and I’m not really showing it the way I want to.

“I’ve got to prove it though. Talk’s cheap. I’m a firm believer of that.”


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