The mind and the games for Matt Nelson
IOWA CITY — The chair looks miniature. The Birkenstocks are size 16.
When Matt Nelson sits in a regular-person’s chair, his knees come up to just about eye level.
Everything about Iowa’s senior defensive tackle is imposing.
He’s 6-foot-8, 295 pounds. He is a destructive contributor on Iowa’s defensive line, one of the Big Ten West’s power squads so far this season.
Nelson stands tall in the middle of that mayhem.
At some point, medical school will shed its “side hustle” status in Nelson’s life. Don’t let “side hustle” diminish the fact that Nelson took his Medical College Admission Test earlier this year and med school is something he’s aimed at.
The total package is imposing. Nelson is one of the biggest Hawkeyes and one of the smartest. He doesn’t club you over the head with any of it.
You get over any intimidation factor when he tells you what’s at the heart of his journey.
“The path after med school, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do,” Nelson said. “I wanted to be a doctor and help someone.
“My love for medicine and science, I thought about being a researcher at one point, but the people aspect you get with being a doctor is just huge. During the offseason, when I was hurt, that reinforced it. Just being around people, teaching them, coaching them on the sideline, kept me involved but was more rewarding.”
An inquisitive mind
Nelson wanted to be a doctor long before the three surgeries he’s had as a Hawkeye.
Matt was in middle school. His parents, Julie and Jay, were divorced. Julie’s parents jumped in and helped with the kids.
We’re talking four sons — Josh (25), Matt (22), Eric (19) and Kevin (16). That’s a lot of raising. This wasn’t a situation where the boys would only occasionally see their grandparents. There was raising going on.
“Matt was the kind of kid who told really bad ‘knock, knock’ jokes,” said Julie Palmer, Matt’s mom. “He was the kid who would say, ‘Mom, God created heaven and earth in seven days, so when did dinosaurs come?’
“I was like, ‘I don’t know, Matt, day 4?’ Raising Matt was like that. He was the extra friendly kid who sometimes I’d look up and ‘Holy crap, I lost my child.’”
So, Lowell Palmer was stricken with Parkinson’s disease around his 70th birthday, the family didn’t shy away from it. They stayed with their grandfather. They witnessed the ravages.
“It was sad to see grandpa in his decline,” Julie said. “But hey, he’s having a really good day today, so let’s take advantage of this really good day that he’s having.”
Matt was in middle school when his grandfather’s illness began. Matt counts that as the spark for his interest in medicine.
“We talked about it as a family. This is what he’s going through. I think embracing it like that and knowing what was going on was helpful instead of saying, ‘Grandpa isn’t doing well. What’s going on?’” Matt said. “Talking about it helped me understand it. That just kind of melded into ‘what can you do for it now?’
“I’ve taken a class here at the University about aging and Alzheimer’s was one of the main things we talked about. The parallels with what I saw with my grandpa and Alzheimer’s, all of this stuff took me back to what my love was and kept reinforcing it.”
Parents, stay with the Legos. Good things happen with the Legos. Matt Nelson was a Legos kid.
“He was the kid who played Legos,” Julie said. “He’d follow the instructions for the first time and then the second, third and fourth times he’s building stuff that was totally, totally different from whatever you could imagine.”
A future in football
There was Legos. And basketball. And, eventually, there was football.
Well, not really eventually. Remember “Punt, Pass and Kick”? Nelson won that in Cedar Rapids as a second and third-grader.
Matt and Josh are close. Josh got to go through all of the cool football stuff first, including the helmet and pads of Cedar Rapids’ Metro Youth Football. While Josh was off wearing a helmet, Matt was hanging out in YMCA soccer league.
“He would be playing and all of the sudden, he’d yell out, ‘Mom, I scored my first girl,’” Julie said. “I’m like, ‘No honey, it’s goal. It’s goal. You do not want to be yelling, you scored your first girl.’”
There was shortness of breath and Matt was eventually diagnosed with asthma. That was a hurdle Julie wanted cleared before the football could happen.
Well, that wasn’t the last hurdle. Julie was cool with it once she learned the bigger kids weren’t allowed to tackle. Matt always was the bigger kid and he had some wild-horse rider in him.
“My brother played first and I really wanted to play with him,” Matt said. “I wasn’t old enough. My mom was like, ‘You can’t play, but you can come.’ So, I went and watched. He played MYF with the Broncos or something. I think he was the quarterback. I want to say Marcus Paige was on his team and a few other known athletes in the metro area.
“It was really fun to watch and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ So, my mom enrolled me in some flag football. I played that and said, ‘Next year, mom, please, please, can I play football?” She’s like, ‘fine. We’ll let you play football.’”
Matt was nearly 10 pounds and 22 inches when he was born. He always was going to have a chance to play sports. Size can unlock doors. Of course, you have to have the sand to stick.
Matt found that in ... basketball.
Xavier coach Duane Schulte maybe did sell Matt on football. Or maybe he showed him a future.
“I remember coach Schulte from the Future Saints camp,” Matt said. “He said, ‘You’re a big kid, you have potential to play.’ But he knew I was a basketball kid.”
How much of a basketball kid? He had Division I offers. Rice visited Xavier to see Nelson play basketball. For a while, Nelson wasn’t going to play his senior year at Xavier.
Then, from a 17-under hoops tournament in Las Vegas, Matt called home and asked his mom if they still had his football stuff.
“This is the end of July, I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’” Julie said. “He said, ‘I think I want to play football.’ I’m like, ‘Seriously? At Xavier?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think I want to play.’”
Physicals and paperwork and all of that, he played his senior year.
Schulte maybe kind of got him.
“I honestly considered playing college basketball first. Height and everything, plus it was my first interest,” Nelson said. “So, everything pushed me in that direction. Coach Schulte just said ‘Football is like basketball on grass.’ He drew up pop passes for me and that sort of stuff. He used a bunch of basketball terms, like ‘box out,’ and that drew me in, but I just had so much fun with all of the guys growing up that I just stuck with it.”
Nelson ended up with about a half dozen hoops offers and a half dozen football offers (Notre Dame, Stanford and Wisconsin, by the way).
Mom wanted basketball. It’s just a safer sport. Julie never said that to Matt, though. It had to be his decision.
The scene on his visit ... Vulnerability is something that doesn’t show up much in football. There was a moment.
Matt and family took a last visit to Iowa in January 2014. Matt paced up and down the practice field.
“He looked like he was just going to go some place and throw up,” Julie said. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Am I good enough to play for them?’ I went, ‘Matt, you wouldn’t be here.’ He goes, ‘Really, mom? Is that right?’ ‘You would not be here if they didn’t think you were good enough.’
“And then he said, ‘OK, I just made my decision.’”
Setting an example
Coming out of the Iowa State game, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was asked if that was Nelson’s best game as a Hawkeye. He said yes.
“The first two things I think of when I think of Matt, he was taking organic chemistry a year ago I ran into him getting a sandwich in the weight room,” Ferentz said. “I asked him what the hell he was doing. It was that three-week break where nobody is supposed to be here, but he was taking a 10-week course because he is pre-med.
“So again, you go back to time management and sacrificing things, he’s certainly making a sacrifice. (Former Hawkeye) Mike Elgin did the same thing, but he had 900 job offers when he finished up. So, these guys get the big picture. They understand that.”
Iowa’s defensive line has an embarrassment of riches in the talent department. Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa are professional football players in the making. They might not be it, either. There might be a bunch more in there.
Steering this ship is a trio of seniors — Nelson, Parker Hesse and Sam Brincks. The defensive line is co-coached by Reese Morgan (tackles) and Kelvin Bell (ends). They know what works here. Morgan is in his 18th season at Iowa; Bell started at Iowa as a defensive line recruit in 2000. They have more than enough history to know what works and what doesn’t at Iowa.
Bell had the idea to open up a mentoring notion with that senior trio and the younger D-linemen. This is the type of thing that could pay dividends for years.
“Reese and KB really promote that, and that’s part of the benefit of having older guys in the program is they’re trying to work with the younger guys and share experiences with them so they don’t go through some of the hardships that they went through,” Ferentz said. “But usually you do anyway. But these guys are team-first guys. They’re unbelievable.”
Nelson feels this has been an organic thing. Just seniors helping young players move along and get to the good stuff.
“It kind of comes out of all of our personalities,” Nelson said. “We want to give back to the program that’s given us so much, but at the same time, like (special teams assistant) coach (Kevin) Spencer said, ‘Leadership is ownership.’ And then something, ‘Leaders know the way, go the way and show the way.’ That’s what coach Bell said to us three as a leadership group, I guess if that’s what you want to call it on the defensive line.
“He pushed us, ‘Hey, we need to bring everyone in together. We don’t want someone floating out there by themselves. We want one unit, because we’re all stronger together.’”
What the program looks like when they leave — that “leaving the jersey in a better place” thing — matters to these three.
“Humility is a big thing in our room,” Brincks said. “It’s been fun to see the younger guys grow into their roles and really contribute.”
You obviously can’t say, “This is because of that,” but the Hawkeyes are third in the nation with 12.0 sacks heading into this week.
You’ll recognize a sentiment here, with Nelson talking about what he says to players who might be “floating.”
“A lot of times, it’s like, ‘Flush it, you’ll fix it during film,’” Nelson said. “Or ‘You’re a good player, you’re talented enough to be here, if no one saw that, you wouldn’t be here.’ We positively reinforce. You’re a good player, flush it and move on.”
Here to help
That part “You’re talented enough to be here,” the same question 18-year-old Matt Nelson asked his mom on the Iowa practice field in January 2014.
“He has made the best of his God-given talents,” Julie said. “He really has.”
Matt Nelson spent five years making his body into 6-8, 295. Yes, he will see what he can do in the NFL.
The conversation quickly turns to med school and those possibilities. Nelson is in the application process. He’ll start hearing on those in March and April.
He wants to be a surgeon, either orthopedic or neuro. He’d love to be a college football team physician.
Nelson has the kind of mind that sees a lot of things on a lot of different levels. So, yes, of course, he sees the irony of playing high-level football and then learning to become a doctor. He doesn’t totally buy that, by the way.
“Yes and no,” Nelson said. “That’s been my entire life so far. It’s what’s pushed me toward loving orthopedics. Taking a damaged body and repairing it back to normal is amazing.”
Matt Nelson is big, but not imposing. He’s actually here to help.
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