Even Though He Was Better in Baseball, Nelson Glad He Walked On in Football
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Derrie Nelson grew up in an athletic family. His uncle is Bob Cerv, who became the first Husker to participate in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. Cerv, in fact, still holds the Kansas City baseball franchise's single season record for homeruns - 38 in 1958.
Cerv's three sons - Joe, John and Robert Jr. - "were all very athletic, so you can imagine what kind of baseball games we'd have when all of us cousins went to grandma's house," Nelson said. "Every time we gathered at grandma's, everybody brought their A-game, I can tell you that."
That relationship with his cousins is important for Nelson, who revealed at last Wednesday's Nebraska Walk-On Club Luncheon that he was actually a better baseball player than a football player in high school.
But make no mistake. He has absolutely no regrets about walking on at Nebraska where he became a first-team All-America defensive end, a 1980 captain and a unanimous selection as the 1980 Big Eight Conference Defensive Player-of-the-Year.
Obviously, Nelson carved a prominent place for himself in Nebraska football history, and every time he might wonder what might have been if he had pursued baseball, he cuts himself short.
"Can you imagine if I would have played baseball?" he asks. "Every time I think about that, I have to wonder if I would have had the same temperament."
Nelson captained the best defense-against-scoring team in Tom Osborne's 25 years as Nebraska's head coach. That 10-2 team in 1980 recorded three shutouts and gave up an average of only 9.1 points a game. In his three years as a starter, Nebraska never finished lower than eighth in the final polls.
Still, on a quiet day in September, as he prepared to speak at the Walk-On Club Luncheon, Nelson couldn't resist thinking about baseball and how much it meant when he made his decision to walk on.
Nelson Threw Three No-Hitters in Junior Legion Ball
"I'm not kidding when I say baseball weighed heavily into my goals and plans," he said. "I was a southpaw pitcher, and our little Junior Legion team would go into Lincoln and raise some eyebrows. The Cincinnati Reds started talking to me in high school, because I pitched three no-hitters. I'd strike out everybody in Lincoln, and all of a sudden, I got a lot of attention. People were asking: 'Who is this guy?' My mailbox started to get full real fast."
Nelson's baseball dreams were real, and they were memorable. But every time he would stack them up to football, they faded from full-color to black-and-white. At that point, he would blink his eyes, and they weren't there at all.
"What do kids who grow up in Nebraska dream about most?" Nelson asked. "It was the crowds, the attention and Big Red football! I dreamed about getting that chance. I would love to have been able to play baseball, and I think I could have been pretty darned good. But the odds are already so far against you when you walk on, why would you make those odds even worse? I figured why make something tough even tougher."
Nelson remembers asking himself: "How can I play baseball if I walk on in football?" and knowing the answer the second he asked the question.
"For me, it was all about minimizing the odds, and especially the odds I was calculating in my own mind," he said. "I played eight-man football, and every day I would ask myself the same question: 'Can I play with those guys from Omaha and Lincoln? Am I good enough?' And you know what? Every time I asked that question, I kept coming up with the same answer: 'I think I can. I really think I can.'"
For Nelson, it didn't take long to find out.
Playing behind two scholarship defensive ends in his first freshman football game at Iowa State, things weren't going well, and Nelson was pacing the sidelines, waiting for the chance to help turn the tide.
He kept thinking to himself: "If I get a chance, I can't blow it. I have to make a difference immediately because if I don't, I may not get another chance."
Redding Told Him to Go in and Get a Sack
Finally, Dave Redding, the defensive end coach on Nebraska's 1976 freshman football team, approached him on the sideline and said:."Nelson, go in there and sack the quarterback!"
Nelson raced onto the field and did exactly what Redding had asked him to do. "After that play, Coach Redding yelled at me from the sideline and said: 'Stay in there and do it again!'" Nelson recalled. "So, boom, right after he told me that, I did it again."
The result was the opportunity to stay on the field the rest of the game and move ahead of the two scholarship players on the next depth chart.
"From that day forward, I was focused on one thing - making the two-deep, so I could earn a scholarship and get on the field and do what I do best," Nelson said. "I was wide-eyed after that first game and was ready to battle anyone on a daily basis."
Back then, Nelson believes "there must have been 130" walk-ons trying to find a role on the team. "We all had lockers in the North end, away from the main lockers in the South end," Nelson recalled. "Every day, you'd see pink slips on the lockers, telling you that you needed to go see coach so-and-so."
Nelson knew "that it all boiled down to whether you had it or not," he said. "Everyone had the same dream. In the end, out of that 100-plus walk-ons, there couldn't have been more than 20 left standing, if that. And only two of us from that group ended up seeing meaningful playing time."
Mother Bonnie: The Source of Nelson's Tenacity
Every day, Nelson grew more confident. He knew he was blessed with the same tenacity as his mom, Bonnie, who sat next to him at the Walk-On Club Luncheon.
"My mom's 78, and she goes every bit as hard as I do," said Nelson, who is a Life Skills Trainer at Epworth Village in York, Neb.
"She just went to see the Cardinals play the Cubs," Nelson said. "Go figure. She's pretty impulsive, just like I am. She keeps up with Major League Baseball, the NBA, you name it. She's a sports nut and has to tell me what's going on most of the time."
Bonnie Nelson is Bob Cerv's sister, and the family all gathered in his honor last summer to celebrate his 85th birthday in Blair, Neb.
Nelson always has used his Uncle Bob's story as a source of inspiration ... first Husker baseball player to become an All-American ... first Husker to break into the major leagues at 25 after shuffling around in the minors ... first Husker to play with the New York Yankees before being traded to the Kansas City A's, so he could start instead of be a reserve among all-stars and hall-of-famers.
Cerv was so versatile that he also starred for four years on the Huskers' basketball team and was inducted into the Nebraska Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994.
Uncle Bob had his best baseball season in 1958 when he hit .305, jacked a club record 38 homers and drove in 104. For that performance, he started the all-star game ahead of the legendary Ted Williams and singled in his first at bat against 17-time All-Star Warren Spahn. Cerv was later traded back to the Yankees where he became Mickey Mantle's and Roger Maris' teammate and roommate and therefore his character earned a spot in Billy Crystal's HBO movie "61*" when both were chasing Babe Ruth's homerun record in 1961.
Cerv played on four World Series teams with the Yankees and had 12 career pinch-hit homeruns, so yes, baseball was good for Bonnie Nelson's brother, who hit a solid .276 and belted 105 homers in his 12-year major league career.
Nelson Family Believes in Helping Others
But football was equally good for Bonnie's 52-year-old son, who played three years for the San Diego Chargers. After the NFL, Nelson drove a million-dollar truck across the country as a fiber-optic engineer/cable restoration specialist. Then he decided to do something more meaningful and help troubled youth.
Call it an inherited family passion. Nelson's sister, Pam Sanders, has directed a Kansas City center for troubled youth for 25 years. Another sister, Jenny Nelson, is a mental health therapist in California.
"I love what I've been doing, but I'm 52 now," Nelson said. "You never know what I might do next. I may head to Arizona and decide to become a golfer. I'm not any good, but I can be, especially if I decide to really focus in on it."
Three decades after his All-America season, Nelson still believes, deep down in his heart, that no one should ever underestimate the mindset of a walk-on.
A few days ago, looking around a room that included such fellow walk-ons as Tony Felici, Monte Christo, Mitch Krenk and Brandon Rigoni, Nelson couldn't help saying what he's always felt.
"When we played, walk-ons were the heart and the soul of Nebraska football," he said. "I still feel that way. We set the tone, and we showed the work ethic that needs to go with bigger, stronger and faster athletes."