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Once Lost, Now Found: Search Leads Bryan Kehl To Biological Parents
The grin stretches from ear to ear across Gary Kehl’s face, the delight evident in every inch of his smile.
It is June 18, 1984, and Gary and his wife, Nancy, are leaving an adoption agency in Salt Lake City with their fifth son, a 2-day-old baby. Gary had been told that the father of the child, Bryan, was an NFL running back, and it didn’t take long for him to stretch that fable into fact.
“Look at his hands!” Gary proudly says, holding the baby up for the video camera. “Look how big his hands are! You think Steve Young’s contract is big that he just signed? Wait till Bryan gets there!”
Football has innately been with Bryan since birth, and the sport has played a pivotal role in the lives of several of the Kehls’ nine children, six of whom were adopted.
Two of Bryan’s older brothers, Ed and Brandon, played at Brigham Young. Ed was in training camp with three teams, while Bryan is entering his fifth season and his first with the Washington Redskins. An inside linebacker, Kehl projects to back up starters London Fletcher and Perry Riley and also play on special teams.
Kehl always kept the legend of his biological father in his mind, but it was never something he thought could be true. It was just hearsay; after all, Gary is a storyteller, Kehl would remind himself – a visionary who lives big and dreams big. With a closed adoption and very few facts available to guide him, it would be difficult for Kehl to ever substantiate the claim.
Still, he wondered, could the story be true?
He’d occasionally ponder his biological parents’ identity – what they looked like, if he looked like them, what happened to them – but never seriously tried to find them.
“That was kind of how I lived my life up until three years ago,” Kehl said.
A COMPLICATED QUEST
Kehl was surfing the Internet two days before Thanksgiving in 2009 when he received a message from a friend, Zac Erekson. A man whom Erekson knew, Chris Clark, posted a picture of Kehl, then with the New York Giants, on his Facebook page.
“Look how good I looked!” Clark’s caption read. “Wait that’s not me, that’s Bryan Kehl, but I’m 90 percent sure he’s my biological brother.”
Kehl couldn’t believe it. Clark, according to Erekson, had a very similar background to Kehl’s – a half-black, half-white baby put up for adoption by a father who played football at Utah State.
That spurred a search. All Kehl knew about his biological father came from a paper he found when he was 15 – that the man was 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds – and he immediately began searching for players that size.
“I didn’t really see anything that stood out in ’84,” Kehl said. “I go to ’83 – I was born in ’84 – and sure enough, I see 12th round, Utah State running back Maurice Turner to the Minnesota Vikings. And I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s a running back. That was the story.’”
Kehl pressed on, trying to find a Utah State roster from 1983. He did, and there it was: Maurice Turner, 5-foot-11, 200 pounds. That’s kind of crazy, he thought.
He abandoned the search, then brought it up two days later at Thanksgiving dinner. Gary considered it a coincidence; Nancy was more intrigued. She shared the tale a week later while on vacation in Los Angeles with friends – one of whom, remarkably, went to Utah State with Turner.
They called him.
“Is this Maurice Turner?” Nancy’s friend, Missy Eckstrom, asked. “Did you go to school at Utah State? And did you give a baby up for adoption?”
“You mean on June 16, 1984 at 4:11 in the morning?” the voice on the other end of the line said.
Then it paused.
“I have been on my knees for 25 years asking for the Lord to bless me that someday, my son would find me,” it said.
‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?’
Maurice Turner makes it perfectly clear that the decision to give a child up for adoption was not his. In the early 1980s, Utah gave only the mother power to make that choice, and Turner never signed any paperwork authorizing the adoption.
It was a complicated situation. Turner and his girlfriend, Amy Evans, loved each other, but the pressures facing the two made any lasting bond difficult. The Evans family didn’t support their relationship; her parents pulled her out of Utah State for a year, then let her return with strict orders not to come into contact with him.
Turner’s budding professional football career also was sure to put a strain on their relationship. When she got pregnant, she hoped they would get married and begin a family together, but when they couldn’t, she made the decision to put the child up for adoption.
“There wasn’t a day that didn’t go by that I didn’t think about what I could do or where I could turn,” Turner said. “We were just left dangling, and we were told there was really nothing I could do.”
The child’s existence stuck with him. When Turner first started dating his wife, Keren, he soon told her he had another son. His children Maurice Jr. and Billy were also made aware from a young age they had an older brother.
Turner’s professional career lasted 27 games with Minnesota, Green Bay and the New York Jets and ended in 1987. He stayed in Minnesota and remained involved in football, coaching first at Macalester, a Division III college in St. Paul, then the Hill–Murray School and Mounds View High School.
When a player with his name made a play, Turner would think about his son. Every few years, he and his wife would attempt a search, but he’d rarely get past the receptionist at the adoption agencies when asking for assistance.
He knew just one fact about his son: the time of his birth, June 16, 1984, at 4:11 a.m. He kept it marked inside the front cover of his Bible, listed atop that of the date of his marriage and his other sons’ births.
After the phone rang that early December day, Turner opened his Bible.
“It was like, ‘Is this really happening?’” Turner said. “Then I called him and I heard the voice, and it was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was almost like I’d heard this voice before.”
AN EMOTIONAL REUNION
Kehl and Turner talked for two hours that day – “about my life, about my experiences, now I’m in the NFL, getting married,” Kehl said. “We talked about him, about Utah State, talked obviously about what happened.”
They emailed each other pictures, which “just freaked me out,” Kehl said. Keren saw a picture of Kehl and started crying.
“A lot of people may have said we should get a test to make sure, you know what I mean?” Turner said. “But once I heard that voice and looked at that picture, I was like, ‘There are no questions here.’”
After a while, their conversation drifted to the circumstances of the adoption. Kehl inquired about his birth mother; she and Turner no longer were in touch, but two of their college friends married, and Turner would try to track her down.
Turner and Kehl met for the first time on Jan. 2, 2010, a day before Minnesota hosted New York for the final game of the season. Gary and Nancy first met Maurice and Keren, then the Turners met Kehl’s wife, Jessica, before Kehl entered the room.
“He comes up and he hugs me and he just starts crying, and just – it was just crazy,” Kehl said. “Words can’t describe it.”
Kehl met his birth mother, now Amy Evans Smith, and her husband, Brian, a few weeks later. That experience was slightly different than meeting Turner; later, she told Kehl she held a lot of guilt for giving him up for adoption, and admitted she spent a lot of time wondering if it was even necessary.
The reunions were tough on Gary and Nancy – and the Kehls’ eight other children, who were afraid of their parents’ feeling they had been replaced. Nancy said any jealousy would be tougher to address if Bryan were her only child, while Gary said his relationship with Bryan “is as close as it’s ever been.”
One of the first things Turner told Kehl during their conversation was that he’d know his agony when he finally had children of his own. Kehl’s first child – a daughter, Jayda – was born three weeks ago.
“That first day in the hospital, I can’t imagine my wife holding our baby for 15 minutes and then a nurse coming in and taking her away,” Kehl said.
“I’m sitting here almost three years later and it’s still surreal. It’s still like, ‘Wow, did that really happen? That really happened?’ It’s just – it’s crazy, and it’s been awesome.”