Ex-Columbus sports broadcaster climbs new heights for a cause

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 26, 2014 

The sports radio talk show host couldn't hold back her tears. As a guest in her station's studio, the former Alabama and retired NFL fullback -- praised for his toughness -- needed Rachel Baribeau's help to open his soda.

When she met Kevin Turner that August 2012 day in Birmingham, it had been two years since he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, so the fatal neurodegenerative condition already was withering this seemingly invincible man, nicknamed "The Anvil" for hammering defenders with head-first blocks.

"As taken as I was with him, I felt sorry for him, and I guess it showed," said Baribeau, 34, who worked in Columbus for six years after she graduated from Auburn in 2003. "Then he said those words that will forever be seared into my head and became why I'm doing what I'm doing now."

And that's preparing to climb the world's highest freestanding mountain to raise money for the fight against ALS.

Those words

Turner delivered his message to Baribeau's audience during that on-air interview, but, like a seeker in a pew, she heard the preacher direct his sermon at her:

"I don't want people to feel sorry for me," said Turner, now 44. "I got a heads-up on life. Anyone could step off a curb tomorrow and get hit by a bus. I really live my life. I hug my kids. I say 'I'm sorry.' I show the people in my life how much I love them. I forgive. I really, really live."

Which really, really left her impressed.

Used to dealing with athletes, Baribeau was amazed when Turner called her before the show to let her know he was running late.

"He apologized profusely," she said. "Are you kidding me? Then, when he came in, he just had the warmest spirit about him. He was so witty and so funny, so you kind of gravitate toward him."

Baribeau felt compelled to reach out to Turner, but she struggled to find a significant gesture.

First, she set up another interview a few months later. She surprised Turner by having his coach during his Alabama days, Gene Stallings, call in to the show.

Next, when they happened to see each other in New Orleans during last year's Super Bowl pregame week, Turner gave Baribeau tickets to an event he hosted. There, she learned more about the Kevin Turner Foundation's threefold mission:

• Bring attention to ALS and the need for a cure.

• Raise awareness about the seriousness of brain trauma in athletes at every level of competition and its possible connection to ALS.

• Financially support efforts to study, treat, prevent and ultimately cure this disease.

That mission became her mission.

"I was all in," she said.

The idea

Last spring, Baribeau coordinated the screening of "American Man," the film about Turner's story. It was a success, but Baribeau still felt unfulfilled.

"I wanted to do more for him," she said.

Then, during the summer, Baribeau couldn't fall asleep one night as she wondered how to aid the cause -- a big way.

Years ago, she had seen a documentary about Mount Kilimanjaro, and the image popped into her mind that night as she thought, "I want to do something tough, something that would push us to our very limits, so we could tell the world we did it for Kevin and to fight ALS."

A few convincing phone calls later, Baribeau is helping to organize the Climb for Kevin, a fundraiser for the Kevin Turner Foundation. She is on the 10-member team scheduled to leave March 18 for Africa, where she hopes to summit 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania before returning April 4.

After she told Turner about her grand plan, he repeatedly thanked her and wished he could join the expedition. ALS prevents him from climbing Kilimanjaro, but Turner is climbing a more imposing mountain, so Baribeau reminds herself of that when she needs motivation.

"If we tire, if we get weary," she said, "all we have to do is think about what he faces every day."

The impact

His burden is easier, however, because of folks like Baribeau, said Craig Sanderson, Turner's best friend and teammate at Alabama from 1987-91.

"It's an outstanding kind of commitment that she's made," said Sanderson, who played wide receiver and now sells medical devices in Birmingham. "I think when you listen to her talk about Kevin, with true emotion, I don't know of anybody involved in this thing that cares about Kevin more than she does.

"… I guess when you consider all the people Kevin comes in contact with through all the events he goes to now, a lot of people walk away inspired, but then they go to sleep and get up the next day and that fire burns out pretty quickly. But what Kevin has seen with Rachel, that fire didn't burn out. It's stronger now than it was when she met him, and he's very humbled and appreciative of her making a difference."

Yet, ALS is a force even Turner can't block, at least not physically.

"He's made a significant decline over the past six or eight months," said Sanderson, the foundation's vice president. "His speech is greatly affected. He's more difficult to understand because of his breathing problems. His neck muscles have atrophied, so he has a difficult time holding his head up. He still gets around, his legs still are strong, but his upper body is failing him."

Now, when Baribeau thinks about Turner, her tears aren't from pity. They come from joy, because she is grateful for their meeting and for finding a way to share his mission.

"He makes you want to be a better human being," she said, "a better steward of your life."

HOW TO HELP

To help reach the Climb for Kevin's goal of collecting $100,000 to fight Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and its connection to brain injury, click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com for a link to the fundraiser's website.

ABOUT RACHEL BARIBEAU

Age: 34

Current career: Broadcast sports reporter, now heard on SiriusXM Channel 91 College Sports Nation; broadcasting coach; freelance print journalist; motivational speaker; emcee; spokeswoman; Zumba instructor.

Past experience: Sideline reporter during 2013 college football season on ACC Network; provided sports commentary for national broadcasters such as Fox Sports, ESPN, CBS Sports and Yahoo; previous jobs include sports radio talk show host in Atlanta, Birmingham and Columbus; resides in Atlanta, but grandmother Ophelia Snow, who died last year, lived in Columbus and uncle Jimmy Grant still lives in Columbus; credits DJ Jones and Jack Rodgers for giving her career its start in Columbus.

Education: Bachelor's degree, mass communication, Auburn University, 2003; graduated from Pell City (Ala.) High School.

ANOTHER FANTASTIC FEAT

Years before Rachel Baribeau planned to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, she gained fame for another fantastic feat. In 2008, she became the first woman to participate in a professional football training camp when she completed two-a-days with the Columbus Lions. For a link to that story, click on this article at www.ledger-enquire.com.

ABOUT ALS

According to the ALS Association, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.

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