Character (Ac)Counts: Steelers Wide Receiver David Nelson
I have to publish this quickly, because in the turbulent world of NFL training camps Nelson might not be on the roster for long. Not that I have any doubt about his heart, dedication, or abilities, but the reality is, there are an awful lot of guys in the wide receivers room.
So what is so special about Nelson? I had never heard his name before I ran across an ESPN article about him today. I don’t really pay much attention to other teams, being strictly a Steelers homer. (There. I said it!) And even if I did, Nelson hasn’t played a lot in the past few years.
So what is his backstory? Football-wise, at least?
A Florida Gator, Nelson caught the pass which assured a victory in the 2009 BCS National Championship game. He started fourteen games during his time at Florida, and played in 40 others. He graduated in 2009 with a degree in sociology.
He did not receive an invitation to the NFL Combine, and, not surprisingly, went undrafted. The Buffalo Bills signed him, and he played 15 games in 2010, receiving an 0.6 rating from Pro Football Focus. However, they were considerably less impressed with him in 2011, when he played all 16 games. Of course, if Antonio Brown had some of the quarterbacks they have run out onto the field throwing to him, his numbers might be a bit more pedestrian as well. And even so, his completion percentage of 64.9 was almost the same, (slightly better, actually) than Golden Tate and Mike Wallace that year, or for that matter, 87 other of the most-used wideouts that season.
The following season  he tore his ACL in the first game and was out for the year. The Bills did not offer him a new contract at the end of the season. The Cleveland Browns picked him up in 2013 and cut him at the end of August. The Jets signed him in early October and he played the remainder of the season. They released him almost exactly a year later after the Percy Harvin trade. While with the Jets he played pretty well, and Pro Football Focus rated his pass blocking quite well, making him equivalent to some of the more physical receivers in the league.
He was a man without a team until a week ago, when the Steelers signed him. He is thrilled to be here, not just for himself but specifically for a couple of non-football related things.
The first is the Steelers organization itself. Nelson worked out for some other teams—he won’t mention names—but felt they didn’t give him a chance, because they questioned his commitment to football. In fact, he wrote an essay on that very subject in July. Titled “Do I Pursue My Passion, Or My Heart?, if you can read it without crying (or, if you’re a guy, doing that little sniffing thing that you explain by “a bit of hay fever,”) you don’t have much of a heart. I will quote a few bits, but I implore you, please read this. It will remind you of some of the many things which are so much more important than football:
I’m at a crossroads.
While I’m grateful for the opportunities the NFL has given me over the years, I’m confused by what I’ve recently been given: an ultimatum. I’ve been told to choose between two things I love, two things I’m passionate about, two things that are a part of me—football and my nonprofit, i’mME.
Although I entered the NFL in 2010, my story really picks up in 2012 when I traveled to Haiti during the off-season…I thought that Haiti and its people needed me: an NFL player who could do anything he set his mind to.
But like others who’ve visited Haiti, I was immediately humbled. No one knew my name. No one cared who I was. They barely knew what the NFL was. Understanding that my status didn’t matter there was incredibly humbling and absolutely liberating. The truth was that the people I encountered just wanted someone to show them that they mattered.
While filling up at a gas station, I noticed a boy whose shirt got caught on some rebar while he was playing with other kids. I ran over and got him free, but he still seemed dejected. I offered him food, toys, everything that occurred to me—all of which he turned down. Finally, confused, I asked, “What can I give you?”
Just hold me,” he answered.
It brought me to my knees. Right then and there, my world changed. I realized these people were in desperate need of every basic resource—food, water, shelter, support; but most of all: LOVE.
Nelson goes on to detail how he and his brothers began a foundation after doing a lot of research. As ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler wrote last week:
His startup foundation interviews kids to see how he can help them, providing food and shelter until they find a home, preferably their original one. He makes endless calls from his Dallas office. He has a staff of six in Texas and four on the ground in Haiti. This has been his mission ever since he visited Haiti a few years back, and that mission is clear: Start in Haiti, take orphan aiding global.
The essay continues:
After signing with the New York Jets, I was watching a game at home, and my heart exploded. A burning, indefinable passion for football ignited within me. I had been playing in the NFL for years, but this was different. This was sublime. This was a sensation I’d never felt before, and I’d loved football my whole life.
So just like that, same as when I had found purpose in Haiti, I found meaning in football. More importantly though, I realized I had the opportunity to live out both of my passions. It was a beautiful era of my life. I played my heart out on the field and lived with the Haitians in the off-season. I was whole.
Last fall, however, I was released from the Jets and became a free agent. Since my release, there’s been hesitation to sign me to a contract, due largely to how I spend my free time, even though it’s made me stronger— physically, mentally, emotionally.
For context, not one team has said I can’t play or that I’m not good enough. No one’s questioning my abilities. Instead, I’m hearing questions about my commitment because I’m outspoken about my nonprofit, and I do a lot to make it successful. Rather than posting pictures of me at the gym (which I go to every day), I choose to use my social media and interview opportunities to showcase our organization’s amazing work.
They don’t think my head’s in the game, but it’s all guesswork. Perception isn’t always reality, and that’s the case here…
Why? Every player has a life outside of football, whether it’s days with the family or nights in the club. Before my first trip to Haiti, my free time was consumed with the latter. Since then, whenever I wasn’t with my team, my focus was running i’mME. But if there’s one thing I take pride in, it’s that when I’m at the facility for training, meetings, or practice, I’m there. All of me is locked in. Ask any coach I’ve ever played for—I respect and love the game too much to operate any other way…
So if given an ultimatum, I choose i’mME. But that doesn’t mean it’s my #1 priority and that football is a side project I do for fun. The NFL can—and will— do whatever it wants, but I ask this: What if it was possible to do both, and more importantly, do both really well? If that were the case, what would locker rooms look like? What would this world look like?
Fans of the rest of the NFL hate Steelers fan when they start talking about the “Steeler Way.” I get that. I also get that the Steelers’ organization isn’t perfect, and has overlooked some things I might perhaps wish they hadn’t. But I do believe they try, within the bounds of the responsibility they have to put the best possible product on the field, to run a player-centric, family-style organization.
And I believe they just gave us another little bit of data confirming this hypothesis. As the ESPN article linked above reports:
Speaking Sunday to ESPN before practice, Nelson doesn’t blame NFL teams, but instead America’s corporate culture. He doesn’t get into the specifics of which teams made him choose. But he’s grateful for the Steelers, who didn’t think twice about signing him, sensing a family atmosphere with a singular focus of getting better.
Nelson explains that he grinds on football during the season and in the offseason, but works tirelessly on his foundation during his free time. Right now, it’s all football.
He didn’t have to explain any of that to Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin.
“Wasn’t even on their radar,” he said. “They are comfortable with my skill set, comfortable with what I can do on the field, and that’s it.”
Personally, I think the other teams are missing the boat. As Nelson said in his essay:
The NFL has developed a “black eye” of sorts. Every week, it seems like we hear about a player getting in trouble. It’s become a stigma that marks every player, coach, and executive within the NFL community. There are amazing players in the league who possess the hearts to do powerful things. Our heroes in this sport aren’t allowed to shine because they’re being told to just keep their heads in the game and just the game in their heads.
But what if more stories broke about players doing good for their communities? What if it were possible for players to be good both on the field and off it? I firmly believe this would dramatically decrease the problems we currently have. Teammates of mine would ask to get involved with i’mME, and in doing so, find a passion of their own. These guys just need to know it’s possible. They need the avenues to pursue those passions.
I felt even more urgency to get this post up when I saw a tweet that Nelson is injured. So it’s possible he won’t be a Steeler for long. It’s hard to hold onto guys who can’t show you what they’ve got, and it would be hard to fault the Steelers for seeing it that way. I’m really hoping that either the injury is extremely minor or the Steelers will take the long view. Both would be even better. Because wherever this young man ends up, he actually deserves the adulation we so casually bestow on people who do something really well, whatever sort of person they are.
And from the sounds of him, he would be the last to seek it. I hope you will all check out his essay, which is on the foundation website, read about his work, and donate if you feel so moved. I did. Because the second reason Nelson was so excited to sign with the Steelers is you. Yes, you, the person reading a Steelers article. As he told ESPN:
“I’m doing more for those kids being here, especially with this fan base,” said Nelson, who has helped 52 children successfully find a home. “This is the most loyal and rabid fan base there is in football. They support their players. I have to give them a reason to get behind me.”
Whatever may happen, I’m grateful that there are young men like David Nelson out there. And I can only hope and pray that more NFL players use their unique platform to make the world a better place.