Bruce Nelson -- Iowa down to the roots

Bruce Nelson will be an honorary captain for Iowa-UNI...Marc Morehouse's story from 2002

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April 1, 2014 | 12:23 am

Bruce Nelson, center from the 2002 Iowa 8-0 Big Ten all-everything team, is the honorary captain.

Here's the release from Iowa:

BRUCE NESLON IS HONORARY CAPTAIN

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Former Hawkeye All-American center Bruce Nelson will serve as Iowa’s honorary captain this weekend as the University of Iowa hosts Northern Iowa (2:42 p.m., BTN) in Kinnick Stadium.

Nelson earned first-team All-America honors as a senior in 2002, starting all 13 games at center as the Hawkeyes posted a perfect 8-0 Big Ten record, earning an invitation to the 2003 Orange Bowl, the first BCS bowl appearance for the Iowa program.

The native of Emmetsburg, Iowa, joined the Iowa program as a walk-on.  Following a redshirt season, he earned a starting position in the offensive line and started all 48 games throughout his four-year playing career.  At the time, his starting streak ranked third in the nation among offensive linemen.

As a senior, Nelson was named first-team All-America by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and CNNSI.com, and he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, presented annually to the top center in the nation.  Nelson earned first-team all-Big Ten honors and was both a permanent team captain and team Most Valuable Player.

Nelson and the Hawkeyes won 11 games in 2002.  The Iowa offense set single-season school records for total points (484), touchdowns (60) and points per game (37.2) in 2002, and also led the Big Ten in scoring in 2001 (32.6).  The Hawkeye offense featured a 1,000-yarder rusher in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Nelson also excelled in the classroom, as he earned academic all-Big Ten recognition in each of his final three years.  He earned the Hayden Fry “Extra Heartbeat” Award as a senior and was selected to compete in the Senior Bowl.  Nelson was drafted in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers.

Nelson will accompany the Iowa captains to the center of the field for Saturday’s pregame coin toss.  He will also be with the Hawkeyes in the locker room before and after the game, and on the sidelines during the contest.

When I hear that Bruce was going to be honorary captain, I thought you might enjoy this story, and it's a story, not a post. It might take some time, but I think you'll enjoy it.

This is what "it's" all about.

EMMETSBURG - Bruce Nelson is driving, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive lineman in his brother's Dodge Intrepid.

It's a snug fit.

We are a click north of Emmetsburg on Highway 4, among the grids and vectors and lines of northwest Iowa cornfields. The idea is to explore the Emmetsburg that took Nelson to the University of Iowa  football team, to find the places where one of the best Hawkeye football players grew up.

He has been at the wheel maybe five minutes. We are on the way to a visit with his chiropractor, Dr. Verland Rients, in Graettinger. The question is how long has Nelson been seeing Dr. Rients?

The answer takes us in a different direction.

"Since I was run over by the hayrack," said Nelson, a  senior.

Whoa, stop right there.

"Run over? Hayrack?" the passenger asked."What's a hayrack? And, wow, that must've done some real damage."

"Sure, it hurt," Nelson said. "It was like running into a brick wall. I had no air in my lungs. I couldn't breathe."

The hayrack story unfolds during the rest of the day. Nelson's parents, Dick and Ann Marie, cringe a little at hearing it again. Can you blame them?

Nelson was 5 when it happened. He was goofing around with brother, Ric, five years older. Their feet were dangling off the wagon. Ric shot Bruce a look that said, "Leave me alone, little  bro," and Bruce walked back to take his seat. On the way, he fell through an opening in the front.

The front left wheel rolled over his chest. The left rear wheel stopped.

"He was shook up," said Dick, a tall, slender, quiet man. "Well, we were all shook up. But he was fine. He was OK."

Something made Dick Nelson stop the tractor. Maybe Ric's yell. Maybe the bump you feel when you run over something. Maybe the  innate sense of danger parents - good parents who look out for and love their children - just seem to have.

Anyway, the left rear wheel stopped.

"Right there," Nelson said, pointing to an imaginary spot just outside his left thigh.

Dick grabbed him by the feet and pulled him up. Bruce couldn't catch his breath. He breathed in, deep down into his lungs, and couldn't find that  click that reels you back to reality.

Finally after a minute or two of gulps, the kid was OK. He did get to ride up on the tractor with dad the rest of the day.

It was a good thing the rear wheel stopped. All the hay in the  wagon was stacked in the back, so all the weight was there, not in the front, not over the front left wheel that rolled over 5-year-old Bruce Nelson's chest.

Fearing reproach from Mom, the boys went about their chores. Ann Marie didn't find out until something like 13 years later. During a Thanksgiving dinner smackdown, Bruce leaked it. Dick got up and left the table, knowing there was no way he could win this one. Uncle Jim got caught in the crosshairs.

"Don't ask about the 4-wheeler," Bruce said. "We rolled it all the time."

Good son, good student

Nelson lived to be a 290-pound center for the Iowa Hawkeyes, a good one at that, one with definite NFL prospects. The Oakland Raiders  have called for tapes.

He lived to be a good student who needs six credits to graduate with a degree in finance.

He lived to be a boyfriend who's probably looking at buying a ring real soon. His girlfriend, Jana Huberty, a health promotions major at Iowa, is from Emmetsburg. She was his first girlfriend, the only girl he's ever dated.

He lived to be a good son, the youngest of Dick and Ann Marie's four kids.

And, today, in an Intrepid heading toward Graettinger, he's a patient of Dr. Verland Rients. Nelson arrives at Rients' office with a little sweat on his brow.

He's wearing a white T-shirt that says "Northwest Football Camp," black shorts that say "2001 Alamo Bowl," and tennis shoes. He's fresh from the morning session at the Northwest Football Camp, put on by his high school coach, Duane Twait, at Emmetsburg High School.

The camp is on a practice field next to Duane Twait Field. When you are the all-time winningest coach in Iowa high school football history (327-62-3), have been to the playoffs in 27 of 28 years, need to build a new trophy case (it's full, only the 1974 playoff trophy sits alone) and have six state titles, they name the field after you.

"Yeah, this is where it all started," Nelson said before breaking out in a laugh.

Firebirds, Suburbans, LeSabres, minivans drop off kids of all sorts. Kids in the coolest new workout gear, the shiny shorts with the Nike cleats. And kids in tennis shoes and cotton sweats. One kid shows up in blue jeans.

Around 70 kids showed up the day after a soaking rain filled ditches with standing water along Highway 4 on the way from Fort Dodge. This is a rainy, humid, miserable Monday. Yet 70 kids dragged themselves away from the PlayStation 2 for football camp.

The kids from Emmetsburg probably know their way around the video-game version of football. They are kids, after all.

E-Hawks rule

This is Emmetsburg. This is where high school football is king.

Hawkeyes, yeah. Cyclones, sure. E-Hawks, well, this is early August and the football signs are up all over town. In Emmetsburg, the signs never come down.

These kids play football. On an ugly Monday, they're in their three-point stances. They're learning, reaching and exploding. They're learning where to put their heads on a form tackle.  They're footfiring here and footfiring there. Footfire is the  cadence and the only speed the kids know.

Every standing building is black and gold, Emmetsburg's school colors. An E-Hawk sign and an Iowa Tiger Hawk are pinned on the

fence that surrounds Twait Field.

With Duane Twait Field in the background, Coach Duane Twait sees the 70 kids and knows 66 running backs and receivers and four linemen will line up.

But that's before he delivers the speech.

"There are two receivers in football, two running backs and one quarterback," Twait said. "Now, there are five or six linemen. Just look at Bruce and Joel (Ellis). They know what it's all about. They know the line is where it's at. And you don't have to be a big guy. You've got to have some heart and desire."

Nearly half the group trots over to the linemen corner of the field. Twait oversees the camp, though he spends most of his time watching the linemen.

Former players work with each group. Iowa linebacker Grant Steen, a former Emmetsburg prep, works with the running backs with his dad, Tom, a longtime assistant with Twait. The linemen get lucky, with Nelson and Ellis, a junior offensive lineman at Northern Illinois.

When the linemen session finishes, Nelson and Ellis work with the kickers. Yes, the kickers.

"Hey, don't laugh," Ellis said. "We were straight-ahead guys. No soccer style here. I don't think we'd know how to teach it. I think they still have the shoe we both used."

So which one of these junior high kids was Nelson?

"He was always tall, always a good athlete," Tom Steen said. "When he was in junior high, he was a little chubby."

No one in the family can remember the name of the disease - "I think it was angio-something," Dick said - but when Nelson was in junior high he had a disease that restricted the blood flow to his kneecaps.

The left knee made it through fine. The right wasn't so lucky.

In sixth grade, Nelson had it scoped. Tiny holes were drilled in the knee cap to facilitate blood flow. He spent six months on crutches.

This is a kid who went to work with his mom every morning at 6:45. Ann Marie was the director of food services for the Emmetsburg school district. This meant Bruce was able to get in on open gym every morning. Beginning as a first grader he never missed a day.

This also is how he first met Coach Twait. And how he and Steen became ballboys for the Emmetsburg varsity.

This was an active kid who literally had his legs taken out from under him in the sixth grade.

"That was my summer of Doritos," Bruce said. "I sat around feeling sorry for myself."

Then Nelson was a chunky junior high prospect. Now he's what every one of these kids wants to be.

Just ask Chris Harris, a 13-year-old from Graettinger. (And by the way, remember this name. He's a stocky, tough kid who'll

be part of a good high school team in a few years.)

Would you want to be like Bruce Nelson someday?

"Yeah," Harris said.

Think he's a role model for kids around here?

"Yeah."

Do you want to play offensive line?

"Yeah."

Do you want to play for the Hawkeyes?

"Yeah."

The beginning

This really is where it all begins for the dynasty that is Emmetsburg football. This is the kids' first full breath of Coach Twait, whose voice is demanding but not threatening. Sort of like a human P.A.

"You want to do what the older guys did," said Jesse Bird, 13, of Emmetsburg. "We have to keep it going."

In Emmetsburg, they might know Nelson more for his role as team captain and most valuable lineman for the E-Hawks' 1997 Class 2A state championship team than for his 35 straight starts as an offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes.

Remember, the Hawks line up behind the E-Hawks here.

After the popsicle break, Twait asks Nelson to give the kids a speech.

"Do what the coaches tell you," he said. "These are memories you're always going to have ...

"When I was a freshman and sophomore at Iowa, we won four games. Four games. You do it for the guys around you. They keep you

going ...

"There is no room for drugs and alcohol ...

"This is your best opportunity to play football. Tomorrow isn't promised to anybody."

Coach Twait pumps the kids up with a talk about the "Gold Cadillac," the state championship.

"We talked about the Gold Cadillac when I was a kid, too," Nelson said. "Everything is the same. These kids are doing the same drills we did. They'll run the same plays. I remember I-right, toss sweep. I remember one game, we ran the toss sweep for a whole quarter."

Nelson is working on his coaching endorsement, the six credits he needs to graduate.

Home on the farm

When the Northwest Football Camp ends with a 7-on-7 drill, Nelson's team falls, 7-6. With that, it's into the Intrepid and off to Dr. Rients.

Dr. Rients has practiced chiropractic for 43 years. He did his first adjustment in 1957. At one time, he worked with the Washington Redskins, when George Allen coached the "Over-the-Hill Gang."

"It's not so much the contact as much as it's the exercises they do to get ready for the contact," said Rients, who wore suspenders and a short sleeve shirt. "The squats are especially tough on the back."

Rients leads Nelson to an array of tables and machines, including the knee-chest table. Joints and discs aligned, it's back into the Intrepid.

"We're really lucky to have Dr. Rients here," Nelson said. "More than anything, a busy chiropractor in a small town shows how hard farming is."

We're heading south on Highway 4, toward the Nelson farm. He points toward two silos poking into the cloudy sky.

"That's how everyone knows our farm, two silos," he said.

Pull down the gravel road. The barn, perfectly Iowa, perfectly red, is on the left. The house is on the right. Other buildings, holding equipment and cattle, line the property.

An addition to the lot is a jumbo RV.

Dick and Ann Marie have seen every one of Bruce's games. This year, they splurged and bought the RV, which is known as "Cousin Eddie," named in a family contest by Bruce's niece, Caitlyn.

Bruce's number is 72. He plays center. The license plate says "72 Hike."

"It's nice," Ann Marie said. "We can take our turns driving. And we can sleep without being too crunched. I don't know why we didn't think of this three years ago."

On the way in the front door - "Can't take you through the garage. Mom would kill me," Bruce said - four round concrete slabs dot a path from the steps to the flag pole.

Three blocks have an Iowa State logo, one a Tiger Hawk.

Ric, Mary Beth and Traci went to Iowa State.

"Everyone in the family is an Iowa fan," Ann Marie said without hesitation. "If they're not Iowa fans, they're Bruce fans. And Bruce plays for Iowa, so that makes them Iowa fans."

Classic Iowa

Inside, front and center in the living room are the senior class portraits of the kids. They're pretty much shrines. Over the fireplace, two John Wayne rifles hang.

The Nelsons aren't sportsmen, not in the hunting and fishing sense. Maybe a little fishing on the family pond. They put up pheasant hunters in the log lodge - Nelson's Cab-Inn - they designed and helped build a few years ago. But that's as close as they get.

They are farmers.

Dick Nelson and his brother, Jim, are partners in the family farm. They work 2,000 acres and have 1,250 head of cattle.

Farm chores gave Bruce Nelson a head start on the prototypical offensive lineman body.

Baling hay, catching pigs for vaccination and other chores gave him those natural farm kid muscles. When it came to pumping iron, he was shy about it. Other players, smaller players, in junior high and high school were stronger. It took some coaxing to get Nelson to jump in with both feet.

Twait gave him the nudge. And we're not talking push or shove.

It really was a gentle kind of nudge.

"It was seventh, eighth grade," Nelson said. "I was nervous, embarrassed I couldn't lift more. I was a country kid. I had to ride my bike into town if I wanted to lift. Mom would give me a ride if it was convenient. So it wasn't easy to make it into town. I was a little behind everyone in the weight room."

Nelson could have easily been turned off permanently. He remembered Twait's encouragement. Constant encouragement.

"He kept finding me in the hall and he always had a way of getting me in there," Nelson said. "It wasn't forced. He was just always there. He never gave up."

Nelson is careful to issue one of those "I owe everything to so-and-so" statements.

Emmetsburg bathed him in football. Twait pointed him in the right direction. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz gave him the chance to play on

the big stage.

The one constant has been Mom and Dad.

Yes, sure, Nelson had his farm chores. All farm kids do. And, yes, they were backbreaking. They were down-and-dirty. He said he caught pigs for vaccination, but he, for the meek, substituted "vaccination" for "castration."

The pigs are gone. It doesn't make economic sense, Dick Nelson said, to have a few pigs. But memories of cleaning the hog shed are

alive and vivid in Bruce's head.

The kids used to ride beans, sitting in a wagon and spraying weeds along the rows of soybeans.

Anything hogs, stunk, literally, and, as you can imagine, figuratively.

Riding beans?

"That was the cake job. Easy," Nelson said. "Cleaning the hog shed was the absolute worst, the absolute

worst. We were smart, though. We never did that one before school."

And there was one tiny stint of detassling. It was 72 acres. All the kids chipped in. They did it to save money for a big screen TV.

"Oh, the kids hated that one," Dick said. "And I don't blame them. That was the last time we did that. We did it all in one shot. There was no easy way to do it."

Play time

But the Nelson kids weren't born to be farmhands. It didn't dominate their lives. Chores didn't wipe away summers.

Dick and Ann Marie let their kids be kids.

"I know some kids worked everything, worked 24-7," Nelson said. "Mom and Dad told us our job was to be kids. We were supposed to go to school, play sports, do band, whatever.

"They didn't want us to be workers. They wanted us to be kids."

All the kids took piano lessons. Bruce claims he can't remember much, and that he's not very good. Ann Marie remembers his stint with the trombone.

"He had long enough arms, so he could play," she said.

Saturday mornings, there were chores, flag football, pickup basketball and league baseball. In the hayloft, Dick Nelson put up a basketball hoop. He painted a lane and a regulation 3-point arc. The ceiling is high enough for anyone's shot.

Ric and Bruce spent hours in games of pickup. Their Michael Jordan basketball still sits in the loft. It's dimple-less and smooth now.

Bruce built the ladder that leads to the loft, explaining the rungs that fit the strides of a 6-foot-5 kid. He worked himself into a dunker when he was a sophomore. "Still can't do it every time," he said.

Some winter days, the pigs were in the barn underneath, and the smell was killer.

It was paradise

"This place was the best," Bruce said, looking up at the gauzy light coming out of the rafters. "It's still the best. I hope it's always here."

We touched on Saturdays. But Fridays are the thing here in Emmetsburg.

Dick Nelson is the oldest of eight kids. They all had something to do with Emmetsburg football at one time or another.

"Friday is a different feeling," Dick said. "You know there's a game. You know it all day. It's a feeling of excitement. The combines are all shut down by 5 p.m. The town is quiet. Everybody goes to the game."

We started with an accident, we might as well finish with one.

Before Bruce was the ballboy, the Nelsons were on their way to a playoff game in their black Pontiac convertible. They were about a block from the field. It was the Nelson's turn to turn. A lady saw it differently and turned into the Nelsons. The force pushed their car into the parking lot of a little cafe.

Dick handed the woman his car keys and said, "We haven't missed a kickoff in 20 years, we're sure not going to start

now."

The accident wasn't their fault. The car was moved out of the way. The family walked the couple of blocks to field.

They made kickoff. Emmetsburg won.

The Nelsons share this story and break out in belly laughs. Dick is on Bruce's right. Ann Marie is on his left.

Two silos tower behind them.

A family portrait. 

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