Whatever happened to … Michael Turner

Jan. 1, 2012 Atlanta - Falcons running back Michael Turner breaks away from Buccaneers defenders for a 81-yard touchdown run and a 42-0 lead during 1st half action at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012.     Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Jan. 1, 2012 Atlanta - Falcons running back Michael Turner breaks away from Buccaneers defenders for a 81-yard touchdown run and a 42-0 lead during 1st half action at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Not many felt Michael Turner would make it in college football, much less the NFL.

He had one major college offer and was a fifth-round draft choice on a team that already had perhaps the best running back in football.

But the running back nicknamed “The Burner” proved them all wrong.

Turner finished with 7,338 yards in his nine-year career, most of them with the Falcons, and he averaged an impressive 4.5 yards per carry with 66 touchdowns in 134 games.

The Falcons’ record was an incredible 56-24 in five seasons with Turner in the backfield. They went to the playoffs four times.

Today, he just loves to sit back and enjoy a cigar.

It started on the north side of Chicago, where Turner played running back and linebacker, as well as ran track for North Chicago Community High School. The only FBS college program interested in him was Northern Illinois, a member of the Mid-American Conference.

He ran for 983 yards as a freshman, only 395 his sophomore season, but as a junior, finished second in the country with 1,915 yards, averaging 5.7 yards a carry.

Then as a senior, he rushed for another 1,648 yards, including having a big game in a 16-13 upset over 21st-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

He finished his college career with a school-record 4,941 yards and 43 touchdowns, but fell to the fifth round of the 2004 NFL Draft, taken by San Diego, which already had LaDainian Tomlinson.

He spent most of his rookie season on special teams and the next season backing up Tomlinson, but in a Dec. 18 game against undefeated Indianapolis, Turner came off the bench and scored on an 83-yard game-clinching touchdown.

He was put on the market in the offseason, but there were no takers, so he signed a one-year tender for $2.35 million with the Chargers.

Turner became a free agent after the 2007 season.

Atlanta, with new coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, was looking for a cornerstone back and signed Turner to a six-year, $34.5 million contract.

It was a great move, as with the addition of quarterback Matt Ryan, Turner quickly made an impact.

He ran for 220 yards in his Atlanta debut, a single-game franchise record, and helped lead the Falcons to the playoffs.

Turner rushed for 1,699 yards that season and made the Pro Bowl, scoring 17 touchdowns.

He made the Pro Bowl in 2011, rushing for 1,340 yards and broke the franchise mark with his 50th touchdown.

Then, in his final season with the Falcons, Turner helped lead the team to the NFC Championship game in 2012.

He finished his Falcons career with 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns.

Turner retired after the Falcons released him in March 2013.

Where he lives: Now 34, Turner lives in Buckhead and is private about his family life.

What he does: Turner attended his first Falcons game since he retired on alumni day this season. He can be heard every Saturday morning on "Smooth Draws," a two-hour show on 1230 AM that is devoted to cigar talk. He would like to do more radio work.

On being offered just one scholarship: "I was overlooked and people doubted whether I could play in college. It didn't really bother me. I knew what I could do."

On winning at Alabama his senior year: "It was pretty cool running on the field and listening to Bear Bryant's voice on the jumbotron. That stadium and team had so much history. I didn't score in that game, but I ran for 156 yards and we did a great job of controlling the clock and keeping the ball. We pulled it off."

On being drafted in the fifth round: "I thought I was a first-round back. But again, people didn't believe. I had all the talent, but I guess people didn't like the competition I was running against in college."

On being taken by a team that already had a Pro Bowler in the backfield: "When they started calling me (before the draft), I am thinking why in the world are they interested in me because of LT. But I was able to stick and then they wanted to trade me, but wanted a first- and a second-round pick, and no one wanted to give up that much. So, I was patient."

On signing with the Falcons: "They were all over me and Arthur Blank wouldn't let me leave town until he got me. It was a good thing I packed a pair of extra underwear. When I came here for good, I really wanted the chance to put a mark on the franchise. I feel like I fulfilled that, and even succeeded it. Now when I walk around and people notice me, they talk about how much they miss me. It makes me feel good."

On coming in with Ryan: "We were pretty close. He is real impressive, and that is from someone who played with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in San Diego. I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before Matt started making a big impact on the team. I tried to take some pressure off of him. I think it was a good one-two punch."

On the NFC Championship game against the 49ers: "We just didn't finish the job. I was on some good football teams, but I wish I could have experienced playing in a Super Bowl."

On coach Mike Smith: "I loved coach Smith. He was a neighbor of mine when I was living in Suwanee. The thing about him was he always had good coaches around him."

On retiring: "I knew it was time to step away. It wasn't a physical thing, it was just I didn't want to play for someone other than Atlanta. I spent a couple of years away from (NFL) football as much as possible. I went to college games, high school games and tailgates. But now I am coming back to it, and when I went to the Falcons' games earlier in the year and the game kicked off, I felt that old adrenaline."