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Panthers' Nelson Girded for Grid Career Early
When Nick Nelson narrowed his wide-ranging athletic pursuits to football, his dad sat him down in front of a blank screen and pressed ‘play.’
Game tape flickered.
Nick rarely blinked.
A future Northern Iowa football player, who will start at safety in Saturday’s 6 p.m. Football Championship Subdivision playoff quarterfinal against New Hampshire at the UNI-Dome, was born.
“I said, ‘This is how you play,’” Rick Nelson, Nick’s dad and also the Panthers’ offensive line coach, recalled saying. “‘You don’t stand there. You don’t take one hit and watch. You play between whistles.’”
Nick Nelson started on partial scholarship at UNI, slotted in the quarterback position.
Then Eric Sanders solidified his role as starter at the position and went on to craft a record-setting career.
Then Pat Grace came into the fold and seemed slated as the starter-in-waiting.
Then Panthers coach Mark Farley switched Nelson, a redshirt senior in the program since 2004, to safety and another rebirth took place.
“I knew it was going to be a big challenge to play here,” said Nick Nelson, who made his first start six weeks ago after Curtis Meier got hurt. “There are so many great players who come through here.”
There are also so many who came through after humble beginnings, including Sanders, a former walk-on who became an all-American, and Farley, also a former walk-on who became an all-American.
So Nelson began working with secondary coach Chris Klieman — now the co-defensive coordinator — in 2006.
He relearned back-pedalling technique.
He buried his mind in the basics, actively biding his time.
“Going into the season I didn’t really know what my role would be, if I would be purely a special teams guy or if I was going to have a starting position,” said Nelson, who plays on a defense allowing an average of 16.2 points, tied for lowest among playoff teams.
“I didn’t really think about that too much. I really care about this team. I really care about my buddies.”
The Panthers are 5-0 with Nelson in the starting lineup.
It’s not something he takes credit for — even a little bit.
It’s something he proudly takes part in, contributing in ways both small and large, some tangible, some hidden.
“From the first time he could get up and walk, he had a ball in his hands and was throwing and hitting and kicking,” Rick Nelson said. “He just loved it.”
Found a way to play it at a high level — despite not being overly tall (he’s 5-11) or fast.
“I didn’t bless him with a whole lot of genes,” Rick Nelson said. “I mean, he didn’t have a lot of height or speed, but he has work ethic and he’s smart. He used those things to help him become, I think, a pretty good football player.”
With a pretty good dad, too.
“I see him as a dad, but I more see him as a best friend type of guy,” Nick said. “I can ask him anything, go to him with any problems. He understands. He knows everybody in the world. Everywhere we go he’s always shaking hands with someone. He’s just a happy guy to be around and I wouldn’t want any other dad in the world.”
Panthers’ Nelson girded for grid career early
By Rob Gray, The Des Moines Register