Zeke Turner: Inside the uncertain life of an undrafted free agent

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The longer Zeke Turner's first test drive of the afternoon went, the more comfortable he got.

He had never owned a car before, so his first time shopping for a vehicle wasn't just a practical need. It was meaningful. It was symbolic.

He followed the sales person's instructions. Left here. Right there. Get on the freeway. Get off. He tested the acceleration. He turned the radio on -- and then up.

Turner, an undrafted free agent safety with the Arizona Cardinals, has held off on getting a car. First he wanted to make the team's 53-man roster, now he just wants to stay on it. Since making the team he's ridden the wave of emotion that has also required him to make some practical decisions. He's settling into a new home in a new city in a new state.

And even though Turner is on the Cardinals' roster, he knows this chapter of his life could end any day.

Turner took ESPN inside the first few months of an undrafted free agent's career, how he has beaten the odds and had to adjust to a new life.

Unfinished business

Turner expected to be drafted in late April.

But when that didn't happen he and his agent, Ross Jones, had a plan. Teams called before, during and after the draft, trying to lure the former Washington Huskies safety as an undrafted free agent. One of the two teams Turner preferred was the Cardinals. He had spent time talking to special teams coach Jeff Rodgers, defensive backs coach Dave Merritt and scouts, so a relationship was already being built.

Teams offered Turner twice the $3,000 signing bonus he received from the Cardinals, but Arizona didn't draft a safety.

"I had to look to the future," Turner said. "In the long run, where would the best spot for me to go be?"

So, Turner signed with the Cardinals.

Turner was about to embark on the most important opportunity of his life. But he wasn't done with school -- and he wasn't about to give up on his degree.

He moved into the Cardinals' team hotel that housed the rookies in the middle of his final quarter at Washington, still needing 20 credits to get his bachelor's degree in political science. Turner devised a plan with the Cardinals and his professors to take his classes and even take an online course in Arizona.

"I just knew growing up, my parents, that's what they always wanted me to do, was finish college and get that degree," he said.

Getting 20 credits was ambitious. His academic adviser questioned whether he could get it done. Even Turner was skeptical.

"I'm telling them, 'I got it,' but in my head I'm like, 'I don't know, Zeke. I'm not 100 percent sure on this,'" he said. "I was like, you just got to pull it together and you got to get through this."

From early May to early June, Turner worked day and night to pass.

He woke up at 5 a.m. and was at the Cardinals' facility by 5:15. He had practices and meetings throughout the day, and would sometimes need to fit in time to write papers from the facility. He wouldn't get home until about 6 p.m. and would do school work for a few hours before opening his playbook, which he'd then review more the next morning. He tried to get in bed by 11 p.m. but there were nights he didn't hit the pillow until midnight.

Turner returned to school for two weeks of classes, including the final week, and managed to miss only one organized team activity. After some anxious moments while awaiting his grades Turner earned a chance to walk at commencement with his family in the stands at Husky Stadium.

"It was pretty packed in there," he said. "It felt like a football game. I was like, 'Wow, this is nice.'"

Surviving the reapers

For more than three months, Turner worked with one goal in mind: Earning a spot on the Cardinals' 53-man roster.

Midway through training camp, in the wake of linebacker Jeremy Cash's knee injury, Turner was moved from safety to linebacker. He had two preseason games to prove he could not only make the move, but excel at it.

"In my head, I'm like, 'Wow, they really just want me to jump in here and play linebacker?'" Turner said.

The move may have saved Turner's job.

"I think [the transition] was seamless," coach Steve Wilks said of Turner. "Again, physical guy. He can deal with what I call the noise, inside the box. Taking on linemen, you know the pullers, just his physicality."

Said defensive coordinator Al Holcomb: "Zeke's doing a great job. He's a physical young man. He's smart. He likes the contact. He likes the noise."

After leading the Cardinals with 10 tackles in addition to a sack, a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries in the final preseason game, Turner waited anxiously to hear if he had made the team.

When the 53-man roster was first announced the night of Saturday, Sept. 1, Turner's name was on it. The texts and calls came pouring in, but he didn't respond to them.

"I was like, 'No, no, no, no. Hold your horses. Everything's not set right now. They're still making roster changes,'" he said. "So, I just kind of ignored everybody for the whole weekend until Monday, then I started saying, 'Thank you, thank you.'"

By the middle of Week 1, Turner began to breathe a little. He was the roster -- for now.

"I'm never really in the clear," he said. "I always keep that in the back of my head when I'm out there practicing. They're always [someone] out there trying to replace me."

Settling in, not settling down

Until the Cardinals decide to replace Turner, Phoenix will be his new home.

But Turner has been cautious about settling down.

He stayed in the team hotel as long as he could before moving into a furnished apartment after Arizona's Week 1 game against Washington. He didn't move to Arizona with much and the idea of moving right into a furnished apartment made the move "smooth."

"I love it," he said. "It's sweet."

He has a place to live but still doesn't have a car.

He took two Lexus sedans for test drives and shopped around the Audi dealership before putting his search on hold. His plan, he said, is to find a car soon. For now, he continues to use Lyft to get around.

Before now, he never had more than a few thousand dollars in his bank account. Starting Week 1, he began collecting checks on his $480,000 salary. He doesn't think his new income will hit him until a few weeks into the season when he starts looking at his account.

Turner is cautious about his standing with the Cardinals but don't think he hasn't dreamed of what that new bank account will look like.

"I can't lie and say the thought's not in my head," he said. "I guess you can use that as motivation."

He plans on saving as much of it as he can. Turner beat the odds, all while balancing school and football, to make the 53-man roster. He can breathe a little easier, but he still knows the money -- and football -- can end at any moment.