(photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
The Memories of Fame and Fortune
By Crystal Vasquez
The stadium lights illuminate a competitive culture that Texas is well-known for- high school football. Texas is home to some of the greatest stars to play in the National Football League such as Adrian Peterson, Eric Dickerson, “Mean” Joe Green and Earl Campbell to name a few. These athletes embraced their Texas culture and gained fame and fortune from the NFL.
Former Carolina Panthers safety Jonathan Nelson grew up in this culture, too, but the memories of those stadium lights have dimmed. Nowadays he has trouble remembering conversations he had with someone less than a week prior. Nelson attributes his memory loss to the nine or ten concussions suffered during his football career.
Football head injuries are a trending topic right now in sports. Retired Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett has been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and he suffers from dementia and depression, according to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” Dorsett shared with “Outside the Lines” that his “quality of living has changed drastically and it deteriorates every day.” He often gets lost driving around his daughters, and he even has thoughts of suicide.
There’s also retired NFL linebacker Junior Seau who put those thoughts of suicide to action in May 2012 at the age of 43. Seau’s autopsy revealed his brain showed signs of CTE, according to a report in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
Thankfully, Nelson’s condition has not reached that brink. He’s able to recall his first football game as a sixth grader at Cross Timbers Intermediate School in Arlington, Texas.
“The first time I touched the football I scored. It was the first kickoff of the season,” Nelson recalled, laughing. “I dropped the ball, picked it up like Forrest Gump and ran it down the sideline.”
He went on to play cornerback at Mansfield Summit High School in Arlington, Texas from 2002 to 2006. Nelson shined under the stadium lights; ESPN.com ranked him the 10th best high school cornerback in the nation in 2006. While he played for the camaraderie in high school, Nelson hoped he would soon be playing for a roster spot in the NFL.
Nelson suffered his first reported concussion as a senior in high school in 2005. While going in for a simple tackle, Nelson hit the player’s thigh and couldn’t remember the rest of the game.
Nelson said his high school coaches taught him to tackle with his eyes up, but when a bigger receiver came sprinting toward him he used anything possible to make a tackle, including leading with his head. He said coaches weren’t entirely against these tackles if he made the play.
The high school medical staff conducted a standard baseline test at the beginning of each season, but they did not perform further tests on Nelson into the season, he said. He would shake his head and it felt like his brain was rattling. Nelson failed to mention symptoms to medical staff, he said, because he assumed this weird feeling in his head was a normal part of football.
The rattling sensation in his brain continued into college while he played defensive back for the University of Oklahoma from 2006 to 2010. Despite feeling dazed, confused and off-balanced while making tackles, Nelson soon made a name for himself as a Sooner. According to SoonerSports.com, Nelson was a two-time honorable mention in the All-Big 12 conference (2009, 2010).
Nelson said he had as many as nine concussions while playing in college, but OU only documented two of those and removed him from these games. After medical staff verified a concussion Nelson suffered at home against the United States Air Force Academy in 2010, he said he lied to medical staff about his condition until he returned on the field to play.
“You have pressure of the fans and possible career with NFL to get your butt back on the field. ‘I’m your tough guy, I’m good,’ coach wants to hear,” said Nelson.
Nelson felt so dazed that he missed three or four tackles in a row and coaching staff removed him for the rest of the game. He said it was apparent by everyone on the sideline their star defensive back was not clear-minded.
His second documented concussion at OU came on the road against Oklahoma State University. Nelson blacked out for about seven minutes after taking a hit. Medical staff took his helmet and would not let him play the rest of the game in spite of Nelson’s request to return on the field.
Nelson recalled another concussion he suffered while playing the Missouri Tigers. A wide receiver led with the crown of his helmet and knocked him out. The receiver ran over another defender and scored a touchdown, leaving Sooner coaches upset about two blown tackles while Nelson lay on the field.
“I was like a boxer trying to get up,” said Nelson. It took him a minute to get off the field before the extra point attempt, but Nelson said medical staff did not evaluate him that game.
Nelson’s father, Brian Nelson Sr., was unaware of the damaging effects of the nine or ten concussions that his son endured at OU.
“If we would have known anything with his problems remembering anything we would have sought more doctors,” said Nelson Sr. “It’s hard to tell because he was away.”
Nelson said medical staff at OU baseline tested athletes before the start of every season, and he was treated for the two concussions against the USAFA and OSU. About seven concussions suffered during other games and practice slipped through the system. The University of Oklahoma declined to comment on the situation. Nelson admitted he kept quiet about his symptoms because he was unaware of the severity and for fear of losing his chance in the NFL.
Perhaps Nelson’s silence helped advance him to the next level. The Saint Louis Rams drafted him in the seventh round in 2011. The excitement of playing in the NFL was overshadowed by a preseason physical. A doctor told Nelson if he suffered one more concussion he would have permanent brain damage. The doctor said to take it easy or he wouldn’t be able to play with his children at the age of 35.
“I was really scared,” said Nelson. “Once you put the variable of injury into play, you can be a guy who fights and scrapes for eight years [in the NFL]. I have a vision of myself at middle age supporting a family.”
Nelson felt scared to hit anyone with the doctor’s diagnosis lurking in his conscience. Stories circulating about other NFL players’ head injuries brought more awareness to his situation. The Rams eventually cut Nelson from the practice squad in September 2011.
Nelson received another opportunity in the league with the Carolina Panthers practice team in November 2011. The Panthers placed him on the active roster a month later.
Nelson saw some playing time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 16 of the 2011-12 season when Panthers safety Jordan Pugh went out with concussion symptoms. Nelson played an aggressive game with nine tackles and an interception. Head coach Ron Rivera surprised Nelson with his only NFL start the following week against the New Orleans Saints.
“I only know how to play football successfully one way, completely reckless,” said Nelson. “Either you’re reckless or ‘soft.’”
The Panthers waived Nelson the following summer. Fortunately for Nelson, he did not sustain any concussions during his one season in the NFL. Playing ‘soft’ killed his opportunity with the Rams, but playing reckless on any other team could result in permanent brain damage. He decided to walk away from professional football.
“I don’t have anything else to prove. When I made my first tackle at OU my parents were proud,” said Nelson.
Nelson said his friends and family respected his decision.
“He made his mind up and that’s what he wanted to do,” said Nelson Sr. “It’s like that old saying, ‘He’s a grown man.’ He made the right decision and I’m very proud.”
Nelson returned to OU to complete his bachelor’s degree in finance in 2012. Nelson is now a financial representative in Oklahoma City, Okla. He applies a lot of lessons learned from football to financial planning like self-discipline, punctuality and building relationships. He writes down most details because his memory isn’t what it once was.
The Texas culture that prides itself on high school football led Nelson to play alongside stars like Adrian Peterson at OU and Cam Newton at Carolina; but Nelson didn’t reap the same fame and fortune as those teammates. What would be the cost for such memories of fame and fortune in the NFL? One more concussion could have damaged Nelson’s mental health for the rest of his life.
The future memories of his family are worth more than any NFL contract could offer, Nelson said, and for that he has redefined his own fame and fortune while trying to hold tight the memories under those bright stadium lights.