DeKalb native in NFL fights cancer

By Tom Clegg

The New York Giants might have fared better Monday night against the Chicago Bears defense if they had their top run blocker.

Unfortunately for the defending Super Bowl champions, Karl Nelson, a 6-foot-6 offensive tackle and former DeKalb High School football star, was diagnosed Aug. 22 as having Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphnode tissue.

Dr. Russell Warren, the Giants’ orthopedic surgeon, said Nelson has a 90 to 95% chance of recovery. Nelson’s rehabilitation will consist of five weeks of chemotherapy treatment, said William Nelson, Karl’s father.

Nelson is the fourth Giant player to contract cancer since 1976 when the team moved its practices and games to the New Jersey Meadowlands. Despite these numbers, the incidences are generally not believed to be linked to the surrounding environment.

After complaining of soreness in his left shoulder in early August, Nelson was scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery. A routine pre-surgery X-ray was taken of his chest, which revealed an abnormality later diagnosed as cancer. Ironically, the pain in Nelson’s shoulder was not due to this growth and the cancer was discovered accidentally.

Nelson’s football career began at DeKalb High School where he was a 220-pound special mention All-State player and All-Conference on offense and defense his senior year.

“He was one of the most dedicated players I ever had,” said Richard Russell, Nelson’s coach at DeKalb. “He was what you would call a coach’s dream. You only had to tell him once.”

Nelson went to Iowa State University 1978 through 1983. There he garnered numerous awards and was, by his senior year, looked up to by almost everyone around him for his accomplishments as an athlete, student and leader.

Nelson was a standout at ISU the moment he stepped on the field in 1979. After red-shirting his freshman season, Nelson took the Big Eight Conference by storm. Blue Chip Magazine named him to its freshman All-America team, while ISU awarded Nelson the Dury Moss award for the outstanding newcomer of 1979.

A four-year starter at ISU, he improved each season. UPI named Nelson to the All-Conference second team in 1980, followed by two years on the first team and All-America honors in 1982. He was given the Arthur Floyd Scott Award his junior and senior years in recognition of the team’s outstanding offensive lineman.

Nelson proved he was more than just a great college player when he was selected to the Academic All-Conference team each of his final three years at ISU. He graduated in 1983 with a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering and a B+ average.

Perhaps Nelson’s greatest achievement at ISU came in 1982 when he was bestowed the Reuben J. Miller Award as the greatest contributor to Iowa State football both on and off the field.

A man who played a major role in seeing that Nelson was so honored is Jim Williams, Nelson’s offensive line coach at ISU and current head coach at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Williams, who has kept in touch with Nelson over the years, realized he had more than just another athlete when Nelson arrived.

“You have feelings for everyone you coach, but Karl was special in that he was just super in every respect. He was a leader off the field. He led by example,” Williams said.

ecalling his protege’s outstanding athletic ability, Williams commented on Nelson’s tremendous strength and agility.

“Karl ranked a 10 out of 10 in everything. He didn’t like not to do well, so he always went that extra mile. He had great feet and excellent body control, which allowed him to be a great pass blocker,” he said.

Williams, who spoke with Nelson shortly after the cancer was diagnosed, said they joked together and that Nelson was in a good mood.

“He’s a fighter and he is very positive about the situation. He views this as just a temporary setback,” Williams said.

The Simpson College coach shares Nelson’s optimism, saying, “He has a wonderful family and my prayers are with them. I have every belief he will be back.”

The former DeKalb star lives in New Jersey with his wife Heidi and daughter Brittany.

Nelson’s career took a tremendous leap in 1983. After playing in the East-West Shrine game, he was drafted in the third round by the New York Giants.

Nelson’s first season in New York was one of frustration when he suffered torn ligaments in his ankle during preseason, forcing him onto the injured reserved list for the year. But like he had done many times in the past, Nelson listened to his coaches and trainer and got himself back into playing shape for the 1984 season.

Once healthy, Nelson wasted no time in showing off his abilities and was named to the All-Rookie teams of UPI, Pro Football Weekly and Football Digest.

The highlight of his first pro season came against the Giants’ archrivals—the New York Jets. Nelson led his team to victory by neutralizing Jet star Mark Gastineau, allowing the Giant quarterback precious time in the pocket.

Since joining the Giants, Nelson has bulked up from the 271 pounds he weighed at Iowa State to 297 pounds. Nelson’s outstanding conditioning had allowed him to play in 55 consecutive professional contests.

Nelson’s most recent game came Sunday, Jan.25, when he helped the Giants to victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. Unlike many players who have let such success get the best of them, Nelson took the win in stride.

“His head is really screwed on. Karl is as comfortable in a three-piece suit as he is in a football uniform. He is very articulate and he would like to represent a company as a P.R. man,” Russell said.

The former DeKalb mentor added, “Karl will tower over everyone in the business field in more ways than one.”

Karl Nelson may be well-prepared for life after football, but not until he has finished his work on the field.