Putting his best foot forward
Attention to detail helping Nelson bounce back from 2011 injury Posted on 04/22/2012 by PonyFans.com
The Mustangs’ preseason camp in each of the last two seasons could not have been more different experiences for SMU receiver Stephen Nelson.
Before the start of the 2010 season, Nelson was an unheralded walk-on from Beaverton (Ore.) High School. NCAA rules prohibit walk-ons from taking part in preseason workouts, but while the Ponies went through two practices a day in the blistering Dallas heat, Nelson was there … strictly as an observer. During the morning session, he sat by the fence surrounding the field, taking detailed notes on the plays the receivers ran and the instructions given by then-wide receivers coach Jeff Reinebold. When the team took to the field inside Gerald J. Ford Stadium for the afternoon workout, Nelson was there again, watching his teammates go through special teams drills … but only after he had been running sprints on his own for the better part of an hour.
|Wide receiver Stephen Nelson is back to 100 percent at spring workouts after missing the 2011 season with a broken bone in his foot (photo by David Mojica).
Last year, Nelson entered the Mustangs’ two-a-day workouts with a far more optimistic outlook. He had gone from a “who’s that guy?” walk-on the year before to someone who had been recognized for forcing his way in to the rotation, even though he only played in three games.
That all changed toward the end of fall camp last season. Nelson said his right foot felt “a little sore,” but like many athletes, he played through the discomfort.
“Then, a week before the Texas A&M game, I was cutting on a center route, and it just gave out,” Nelson said. “I knew something was broken.”
Nelson was right. The fifth metatarsal bone, which runs from the smallest toe back toward the ankle, had snapped. He had surgery a week later, a procedure during which doctors inserted “a big screw — it looks like a bolt” that remains in his foot. “They said they can take it out if it irritates me,” Nelson said, “but so far, it hasn’t.”
After surgery, there was some talk of Nelson trying to return in time to get back on the field before the end of the season.
“Coach Reinebold was always asking when I’d get back,” Nelson said. “If rehab went well, I was told maybe in mid-November. But circumstances changed, and I didn’t make it back. I went for my final check-up in the middle of November. That’s when they said ‘you’re good’ to return. I brought that back to the training staff, and we talked about it and agreed that it wasn’t worth it to come back for two games.”
The change meant his season was over, and Nelson admits it was frustrating.
“One of the main things I found encouragement in that helped me see the good that could come out from my injury was, hands down, my relationship with God. Here’s the verse I always turned to:
“(James 1:2-4) Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything
Nelson relied on his faith and support from those around him to get through the disappointment of not getting back on the field, but found solace in the fact that his time off the field might make him a better player when he returned.
Nelson started running again after getting cleared by the doctors, sprinting by December.
“I didn’t do any cutting, but running straight ahead … I felt fine,” he said. “I ran some routes with (quarterbacks) Conner (Preston), (Steve) Kaiser and ‘Stich’ (Garrett Krstich), but I was using muscles that hadn’t been used in a long time. I wasn’t ready.
“At first, I wanted to play again (in 2011). But looking back, there’s a silver lining to getting hurt. It allowed me to grow up and mature. I was able to learn the game more by going to meetings and watching film.”
And taking notes?
“Yeah, and taking notes,” he said, laughing. “That’s the way I approach school, and that’s the way I approach football. For me, I know I’ll forget it if I don’t write it down.”
Nelson said he reviewed the notes he took before officially joining the team at the start of the 2010 season, and found that he didn’t get everything exactly right.
“I went back and looked at those notes I took,” he said. “When I was sitting there watching, I could barely hear Coach Reinebold and Coach Jones, so once I started to learn the offense, I realized I didn’t get everything down just right.
“The best note taker is (fellow receiver) Ryan Walker. That’s who I learned from. When he was hurt, with his hamstring injury, he was still in there taking great notes. I looked at his notes — they’re really organized, sort of an outline format. That’s what I try to do with mine.”
Nelson is now back on the field, practicing full-speed, backing up Der’Rikk Thompson as one of the nearly two dozen receivers hoping to crack the rotation. Despite not having played in a year, Nelson said he feels like his chances have improved considerably since the last time he suited up in the 2010 Armed Forces Bowl.
“I just feel a lot more comfortable now,” he said. “Just having two years learning the offense, and even the time off, it’s more playing and less thinking. Now I feel like I can just play ball. Now I know what the defense is going to do, so I can just react and make plays.”