Senior Sam Turner took a knee in the end zone at Edison Stadium on Friday night, threw his hands up in the air, offered a prayer. Almost as soon as his knee hit the turf, an official flagged the play.
His words of praise earned a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Turner’s action — reminiscent of another more famous Florida football player — and that penalty has been drawing comment in Southwest Florida, mostly positive, for the past few days.
Fort Myers High school football player Sam Turner kneels in prayer after a touchdown Friday, honoring God and paying tribute to slain teammate Jo Jo Brunson who was honored in a pre-game ceremony.
“There’s been tons of support from my family and friends,” the Fort Myers senior said Sunday. “They are proud of me that I stood firm in my faith.”
Turner said that he was only excited to have caught the first touchdown of his high school football career, a 27-yarder from QB Dylan DeGroot during the Green Wave’s game against Riverdale, and went down on one knee and pointed his finger skyward, uttering a prayer.
“I said ‘thank you, God, for this talent you’ve blessed me with,'” he said, and then gave a quick honor to JoJo Brunson and the life he had. Brunson, murdered in April 2013, would have been a senior player this year.
Although the 15-yard penalty Turner received for the 5-second devotional was not expected by the 16-year-old senior, he has since taken it in stride.
“It’s very cool to see how everyone is taking it,” he said. “I use my faith as a platform for my talents. My teammates are giving my tons of support. They all know I’m strong believer, even though it cost us 15 yards.” He also acknowledged it might have been a little tougher if the penalty had cost them the game.
Fort Myers High won , 49-0.
Turner’s coach, Sam Sirianni Jr., said he cannot fault the emotions displayed by Turner nor can he find fault with the reaction by the officials.
“It comes down to a ref’s discretion,” he said. “To them, they try to follow the letter of the rules. You accept both sides. I have seen it happen at all levels. The officials have to toe the line.”
During his college and pro career, Florida Gator QB Tim Tebow often went down on bended knee to mark a good play. Rarely, if ever, was he penalized, and the term Tebowing was coined for the action.
Sirianni said that people on all sides feel bad in a situation like this.
“I bet the official doesn’t feel good about throwing it, but I don’t begrudge the official. You just move on,” he said.
The Green Wave coach said that the night had been one of high emotions, honoring fallen teammate Brunson.
“We talked to Sam. What he did wasn’t selfish,” Sirianni said. “He didn’t understand it at first. He said it shouldn’t have been a penalty. He would never do anything disrespectful or do anything that would hurt the team. You don’t punish or get mad at a kid for his intent.”
For Turner, a member of Next Level Church and one of nine siblings, his future is focused on football, with aspirations to play tight end or wing, his current position, at least at the college level.
“I need to grow my body a bit,” he said. “I skipped a grade. That’s good for academics, but rough for sports.”
Turner said he is a passionate player in a passionate sport. “I’ve been playing since 8 or 9. It has been fun ever since then,” he said.
And, if he gets another touchdown, does Turner have any plans for what ensues?
“I may have to do it on the sidelines,” he said.
UPDATE: Fort Myers (Fla.) High School football player Sam Turner wasn’t penalized for a moment of prayer after scoring a touchdown in Friday’s 49-0 victory against Riverdale.
Instead, both the Florida High School Athletic Association and the South Gulf Football Officials Association said the senior tight end was flagged for violating Rule 9-5, Article 1 (c) of the 2014 National Federation of State High School Associations football rulebook.
The section, which covers non-contact, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties lists as one of its examples, “any delayed, excessive or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself.”
NFL rules also prohibit a player from going to the ground to celebrate, but do include an exemption for prayer. In September, the league said officials were wrong to penalize Kansas City Chiefs player Husain Abdullah for dropping to his knees in the end zone for a Muslim prayer.
There’s no such exemption in the NFHS rulebook, which governs FHSAA football games.
“It’s a judgment call,” Sobers said. “The penalty is not because he prayed. It’s because the official determined he was trying to focus attention on himself and that’s the bigger issue in the official’s viewpoint.”
Gil Whitmore, the president of the South Gulf association whose members worked Friday’s game, said the unsportsmanlike conduct rule is a difficult one for officials to navigate.
“It’s a tough spot to be in,” he said. “We don’t know all these players individually so we have no idea what’s genuine and what’s not.”
Whitmore, who also officiates college football, said he and his crew share a prayer before every game. However, in recent years, his supervisors at both the high school and college level have instructed them to pray in the privacy of their locker room and not on the field.
“Everyone’s hypersensitive to these kinds of issues,” he said. “It’s tough to have a clear picture of it. There’s just so many different situations that can come up in a game that you can’t cover them all.”