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Nelson: Walk-ons will Help Forge a New Culture A former eight-man player who wasn’t even invited to walk on, but did, and became an All-American, has some friendly advice for Nebraska football fans – take your eyes off the list of can’t miss, multi-star football recruits for a few minutes and spend some time checking out the Huskers’ 2008 walk-on commitment list.
Derrie Nelson said the walk-on list, which includes such last names as Makovicka and Pillen, is just as interesting in its own right. In the days and weeks ahead, he can’t wait to see more players with big dreams get on the same list that mentions Bridgeport, Wauneta, Roca, Ulysses and Wisner . . . places that remind him of his own hometown – Fairmont, Neb.
“I can’t tell you how keyed up I am that the walk-on program is booming again,” Nelson said Tuesday. “The walk-ons were the heart and soul of Nebraska football when I played. Walk-ons bring the passion and the drive to practice every day, and they help set the tone for Saturdays. Walk-ons drove the culture when I was here, and they’ll be the ones who’ll help drive a new culture for us again under Bo Pelini.”
Nelson, who will turn 50 on Friday, flew low on the radar at Fairmont in the mid-1970s before Tom Osborne had the NU walk-on program cranked into its higher gears.
“I wasn’t even asked to walk on, but I knew I had to take a shot,” he said. “Inside my mind, I’d worn a Nebraska jersey since I was 10 years old. Tim Turman (father of ex-Husker quarterback Matt Turman) was my high school coach. He wanted to know if I was interested in a scholarship at a smaller school.”
Nelson didn’t even consider the possibility. “I told Coach Turman that I had to see how good those Nebraska players really are and if I didn’t, I’d wonder for the rest of my life if I could compete with them,” he recalled. “I knew no one wanted to play in that stadium more than I did. And I knew no one was ever going to outwork me on the practice field once I got there.”
His vision became a reality. After playing on the freshman team in 1976 and redshirting in ’77, he earned a scholarship for his last three years. In 1980, he became a co-captain, a unanimous selection as the Big Eight Conference Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-America defensive end.
Derrie Nelson was the 1980 Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year.
“I learned from the best – on both sides of the ball,” he said. “Every day in practice, I had to go against Junior Miller, Jamie Williams and Mitch Krenk, three tight ends who played in the NFL. I had to battle through every play, every day. Whenever we went one versus one in practice, it was rough. It was war.”
Nelson understudied George Andrews, an Academic All-America defensive end who went on to play seven years with the Los Angeles Rams. Andrews’ intense physicality was on par with his keen intellect. Teammates called him the “Smiling Assassin” because he was such a nice guy off the field, but a real brute on it.
“I loved watching him practice,” Nelson said of Andrews. “He’d just take that big, right, forearm pipe of his and knock people out. The trainers always made sure they were close to George and had some smelling salts for the players he’d just laid out.
“You should have seen the tight ends reshuffling in the line trying to make sure they didn’t have to go against George. They didn’t want any part of him. I watched him and everything he did. That’s how I learned to match my emotion with a more controlled physicality. We all want Nebraska to become very physical again on defense, and we all want teams to dread playing us like they used to. That time will come again, and I can almost guarantee that walk-ons will play a big role in that.”
Part of the tradition of being a walk-on, Nelson said, is to “make sure you push the scholarship guys above and beyond – on every single play. Walk-ons carry the pride of the entire state, and it doesn’t take long for the scholarship guys to realize and understand it. There is no special treatment. There are no favorites. When I played, the second string was just as good as the first string. The competition to get on the field was unbelievable. We all knew if we didn’t get it done, we might not get back out there.”
Nebraska finished eighth nationally in 1978, and the Huskers finished seventh in both ’79 and ’80 with identical 10-2 records. Nelson’s senior season was Osborne’s best scoring defensive team in his 25 years as head coach, allowing only 9.1 points per game.
More than a quarter century later, Nelson says he’s finally figured out what Osborne meant when he said football is about more than winning.
After spending five seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Nelson drove a million-dollar equipment truck across the country as a fiber-optic engineer/cable restoration specialist for MCI before becoming a project manager for MFS, another fiber company. He worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week and made “great money.”
Then one day, when he grew weary of California traffic taking three hours to drive 10 miles, he decided to come back to Nebraska where he could drive 20 miles in less than 20 minutes. Living on a quiet spot on the Little Blue River five miles west of Fairmont, Nelson can see a turkey or a deer in his front yard or catch a 15-pound catfish in his back yard when the river’s up and the weather’s right.
For five years, he tried his hand at organic farming and turned a decent profit growing and selling popcorn, sunflower seeds and soybeans. Then, six years ago, he decided to do what his mother had done before she retired and what both sisters still do – help troubled youth get their lives in order.
Derrie Nelson, All-American, is a Life Skills Trainer at Epworth Village in York, Neb. “I absolutely love it,” he said. “What I’m doing now is what Coach Osborne wanted us to do when we were playing – give back to the community . . . selflessly.”
From 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., five days a week, Nelson leaves the peace of his country home to make the short drive to York. He picks up kids, ages 8 to 14, at school and takes them to Blatchford, one of six cottages at Epworth Village, a 118-year-old, non-profit, family-centered treatment agency that helps children reach their potential so they can return to a home environment.
“Growing up, I had my rough edges,” Nelson said. “Now, it’s my job to help take some of those rough edges off kids who really need to get back where they want to be – with their family or in a foster home. They need therapy, and they need encouragement. It’s a rigorous process, and all they really want is a chance. There’s a lot more at stake in a group home, but there is a bit of a link to what a walk-on wants – a chance to work hard and get better every day.”
Almost every week night, when Nelson makes sure his “kids” are in bed, he walks out of Epworth with a smile on his face.
“Sometimes, it can take three months before these kids see a light and there’s a breakthrough,” he said. “For them, it’s a lot like football was for me. It takes a lot of hard work, mental preparation, intensity and trust. It’s all about rules, accountability and teamwork. I love this job and the rewards it brings to everyone involved. I may be doing this one longer than any of the others.”
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