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Turner playing back where it all began
Gainesville graduate playing soccer in New Orleans this summer
North Georgia College & State University midfielder Caleb Turner, a Gainesville High graduate, is playing soccer this summer for the New Orleans Jesters. - photo by For The Times

Time hasn’t diminished Caleb Turner’s love for his hometown of New Orleans.

If anything, the nearly five years since he left the Big Easy due to Hurricane Katrina has made his fondness for the city even greater.

When Turner, a 2008 graduate of Gainesville High, left his family’s driveway in northern Hall County on May 2 en route to New Orleans, his mind was racing a mile a minute while he made his journey back to the Gulf Coast; his first trip back to the city which was ravaged by one on the nation’s worst natural disasters in 2005.

Turner, a rising junior midfielder on the North Georgia College & State University soccer program, was making the drive eight hours to the south primarily to join the Premier Development Soccer League’s New Orleans Jesters for the summer, but couldn’t help but make it a journey to reconnect with his past.

“I was really anxious and really emotional about getting to go back to New Orleans,” Turner said. “I was really happy about getting back.

“I never really got to say goodbye when we left.”

When he arrived in New Orleans, Turner was flooded with memories. To make it even more of a sensory overload, he arrived on a night that was almost equally as stormy as when the family boarded up the house, assuming they would be able to wait out the approaching Katrina in Baton Rouge, like they had previous hurricanes to hit the area.

When the storm’s magnitude was finally realized, the Turner’s relocated to Gainesville, which is where his parents, Mark and Shelly, grew up.

Turner’s first stop upon arriving back in Louisiana last month was to re-visit the family’s old house that has now been rebuilt since it was hit by more than 40 trees during the height of the storm. However, he quickly had to turn his mind to soccer as he had been chosen to take part in playing with the Jesters, a minor-league franchise.

Turner had been referred to Jesters coach, Kenny Farrell, by team operations director, Stephen Magennis, who plays against him at fellow Peach Belt Conference school, Lander University. After initially trying out with the Atlanta Blackhawks, Turner didn’t want to let the opportunity slip by without jumping at the chance to return home and wear the jersey representing New Orleans.

The Jesters play their home games at City Park, just down from the French Quarter.

“We’ve been back for two home games,” Caleb’s father, Mark Turner said. “It’s really a blast to see him out there playing in front of crowd of 2,000-2,500 for home games.”

Ultimately, Turner would love to play professionally after graduating from college. He knows that is quite a lofty goal, but playing at the minor league level has also shown him that it is attainable. He’s playing on a roster that is stocked with international talent, including players from Brazil, England and Ireland, among other countries.

To be able to play minor league soccer for the summer, Turner had to properly secure documentation for the NCAA Clearinghouse that he wouldn’t be paid to play.

“This is a building block,” Turner said. “I’d like to play in the MLS and this has shown me that it will be tough, but it’s not a lost dream.”

Even though he’s one of the youngest members of the team, Turner is still getting 10-12 minutes each game, and is one of only a handful of the team’s substitutes that have landed considerable playing time through nine games this season.

However, playing for a soccer program at this level is more than just suiting up for games. Long daily practice is a grind with players jockeying for playing time. Then there’s the long road trips on a team bus and nights in a hotel room to remind players that they are competing at a higher strata.

“I think I’ve been able to improve a lot this summer,” Turner said. “When I go back to school at North Georgia, there’s going to be a night and day difference.

“This experience has really helped my soccer IQ.”

Road trips are long for Turner. Recently, the Jesters returned from a series of games in Florida, against Bradenton and Fort Lauderdale. After Thursday’s game against Atlanta at Alpharetta High, New Orleans is headed north on Interstate-75 to wrap up a two-game road trip tonight at Nashville.

After a trip to nearby Baton Rouge next week, the final five games of the season are in New Orleans. Turner says the organization makes a point to make home games as elaborate and festive as possible with VIP tents, autograph sessions with players and big crowds to see the team play. Right now, the Jesters don’t have to fight for fans with the area’s two biggest sports draws: LSU football and the New Orleans Saints.

“They run the Jesters like a major league team,” Mark Turner said. “It’s a very high level of competition.”

Of course, when he’s back in New Orleans, this summer has been a lot about reconnecting with his past. Turner is staying the summer with family friends and in the room of his friend, Pepper Burns, who is attending LSU.

When he gets a minute away from the soccer pitch, Turner is doing his best to catch up with old friends, see what present-day New Orleans looks like, including the historic French Quarter, and visiting his friends from his childhood that are now away at school at LSU.

“I’ve been gone from New Orleans for five years now,” Turner said. “This is a chance to be able to come back and adjust to life on my on for a while.”

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