The thing that makes Billy Turner stand out when you first see him in the Green Bay Packers’ huddle is also the thing that helps fuel his creative passions. You won’t be surprised to hear it’s likewise the thing that caught Aaron Rodgers’ eye when the two first came together in the spring.
“Just his presence in the huddle. He’s a big dude,” Rodgers said of his 6-foot-6, 311-pound new right guard.
“He’s a no-nonsense guy but he’s also got a really dry sense of humor. He’s been a great addition to that group.”
But it’s not what stood out to David Bakhtiari, another abnormally large human. Turner had more than size; he had style. It’s a style born out of, or at least supported by, the fact Turner grew up being too big for most clothes. So he found what felt like an intuitive solution to him: he made them.
Turner grew up fascinated by art because of its freedom, a stark contrast from the rigidity and regimentation of the football field where failure to color within the lines can be catastrophic to a play. Not to mention he plays a position relying heavily on brute strength and primal battles of will. There’s nothing esoteric about trying to stop a 300-pound defensive tackle from splatting your quarterback.
“I’ve always been into art from an early age but the thing that has always sparked something in my mind with art is art can be made in so many different forms. You can be an actor. You can be a singer. You can be making actual painting. You can make clothing. You can make sculptures … from an early age, I was always trying to be in an art class so I could let my imagination take over.”
The dissonance of his artistic expression and his chosen profession isn’t lost on Turner, who says he’s learned to flip the proverbial switch, toggling between his on-field football persona and his real-life personality.
“It’s not the norm by any means in my position group but you know what? To each their own.”
Turner’s art opened the door for team building when he got to Green Bay. Bakhtiari noticed the unique threads his starting right guard would wear to the facility and asked Turner where he got them. When Turner explained he often makes his own clothes, the two-time All-Pro tackle asked for some custom looks of his own to wear to road games. Not long after, Bakhtiari was wearing bespoke “Yeet” hoodies from Turner. For the new guy on the team, that affirmation came with a powerful message.
“I mean it shows love and it shows camaraderie ... and it shows respect. And it brings a different element into the locker room that is honestly hard to come by in a lot of professional teams,” Turner says.
“For him to come up to me and show that respect, to show that positivity and that love, and wanting to wear something I make it because one, he likes it or he just wants to show support for something I was doing, it showed a lot to me. It welcomed me into that room. In the NFL, and even in any other line of work, if you get a new and you’re showing up to a new office building and you’re the new guy. It’s a little different. You have butterflies. You have to figure out how everyone works and moves in their element.”
Bakhtiari’s affirmation put Turner at ease at a position where cohesion matters more than just about any position group on a football team. Linemen fight for each other on every play, often having to cover up for the mistakes of the guy next to them. Once assimilated into his new team, Turner wanted to expand his artistic contribution to the Packers to more of his teammates, while finding a way to include a community service element involving art created by kids.
The Minnesota native reached out to an art teacher at Excelsior Elementary in suburban Minneapolis, across town from Shoreview where Turner grew up. Katy Friends took the project from there. The idea was to give the students four words: peace, love, inclusion, and equality, and let them create a piece embodying what those ideas meant to them. Those designs would then go on what Turner describes as a safari-style jacket.
Friends says despite the weighty ideas involved, her elementary students are finding inspiration.
“There is nobody telling me ‘I don’t know what to draw,’” she notes, explaining this also gives his an opportunity to go over the concepts with the kids. It’s more than an art lesson. She tells the story of asking one class about the word “inclusion,” and what it means.
“And this kid pulls his shirt down and says ‘like this’ and it turns out he has a pacemaker. And he felt comfortable enough—I never would have known—to say people include him even though he was born with this heart issue. And I was like yeah that’s really good.”
Originally, there were just going to be 15-20 pieces according to Friends. Once word spread what Turner was doing, everyone seemed to want one and she got a text from Turner.
“I was like ‘Please don’t come up with a larger number.’ I need a call that’s like ‘Katy you’re doing great’ … and he says ‘by the way I need 120 FYI’. And I said ‘you need to call me immediately.’”
Suddenly a niche art project became a school-wide endeavor, one Friends relished. It just meant getting a lot more materials, including denim by the yard, which she bleached herself. Then, it occurred to her this could be a lesson anyone should be able to replicate, so she started filming and documenting the process in hopes other schools would take their lead.
Turner’s plan is to give these jackets to his teammates, then buying and donating jackets to needy families around the Midwest much like Warby Parker or Tom’s does with its products. It’s an opportunity to help foster the artistic expression of students and give back to local communities, something Friends has done with projects in the past, including one in which kids decorated old shoes that were then donated.
Like so many artists, her partnership with Billy — deep in Vikings territory — serves as a subtle act of subversion.
“I didn’t want to tell my students because we are in Vikings Nation, but I was raised a hardcore Packers fan. I don’t think there’s any other kind of fan, but hardcore.”
Turner’s aim isn’t to convert any Minnesotans to the light of Cheesehead Nation, but more about making kids like him growing up feel welcomed and supported in their desire to pursue art. Perhaps some kids will find they have a talent they didn’t know existed. They might not be 6-foot-6 or 300 pounds, or have a pacemaker, but they might be different in other ways and art often serves as a pathway to self-expression amid struggle.
With a little help from Bakhtiari, Turner’s art provided a pathway to for his own self-expression, as well as a connective tissue for his teammates. It’s a way to support him while showing a togetherness. And because art can take so many forms, the same opportunity exists for these students thanks to the work of Turner and Friends.