Safety Reggie Nelson
By Evert Geerlings
Three and a half years. What is it? It's the shortest average career of any major professional sport on the globe today, the NFL. Don't bother mentioning it to Reggie Nelson. The Florida product entered his 10th year in the NFL and first with the Silver and Black in 2016. The man has made a living ball-hawking and patrolling the secondary for NFL franchises over the last decade.
What were you diving into a decade ago? At that point in time, Nelson was a consensus All-American, voted the team's Most Valuable Player by his peers, as well as a national champion after he led his Florida Gators to a 41-14 victory in the BCS National Championship game over the Ohio State Buckeyes. A memory he's fond of, of course, but not what he hopes he remembers most when his playing career comes to a close. "That was a good feeling but I just want to know what that feeling would be like in the NFL, because the one that was in college was kind of special, but I can only imagine being a champion in the NFL. That's what my goal is and it's always been my goal," Nelson commented.
Although young, highly touted coming out of college and full of hope, playing this long and at such a high level in the most physically grueling professional sport today was not a thought he'd actually given consideration to at that age. "It was not," he said softly. "You know, most people just try to get to the NFL and then when you get to the NFL you try and stay in the NFL. I've just been taking it year by year, and just enjoying the process to be honest with you. It's been a fun ride, a fun 10 years and hopefully I can keep it going."
'Keep it going,' seems to be his mantra as of late, as his 10 takeaways in 2015 were most in professional football, while his eight interceptions were also tied for first. Nelson currently has two takeaways through the season's first three weeks, tied for third amongst all defenders in 2016, and hasn't shown signs of slowing down. His career-high 16 tackles notched in Week 2 further proves Nelson's ageless play in recent years. But, predicting such success at this point in his career may have been tough even for him in 2006. "It makes you think like, 'The NFL for 10 years!?' I mean, to think back when I was in college, 'Reggie's still in the NFL?' (laughing) I mean it's fun, man. I'm enjoying the process and it's pretty good."
I asked if traveling back 10 years was made possible, what piece of advice would be given to 23-year old Reggie Nelson? He replied, "I would have stayed in college. Yeah…I mean, most people don't realize once you get into the league, it's a business and this is how people feed their family. By all means, I have no regrets at all coming out early, but you know, I would have stayed in college and stayed as young as I can. (laughter)"
Although staying in college may have been a thought he once pondered, it's clear even at 23 years of age that Nelson was well prepared to take the next step in life, both professionally on and off the field. As with almost any successful individual today, there was someone who assisted with the reigns, someone who helped lead the way in an influential and strong manner. For Reggie, that man was Charlie Strong. Now the head coach for the University of Texas, Strong was the co-defensive coordinator during Nelson's time with the Gators. "Me and him had a connection right before my mom [Mary Ann Lakes] passed. He was a guy that I'd come to for advice and looked up to. He always steered me in the right place and kept my head clear and focused."
Focused, he certainly has been. His concentration and passion for the game he loves is undoubtedly one of the reasons he earned the original nickname, "The Eraser," during his college days. I asked for some insight behind the meaning of the nickname, and with laughter Nelson responded, "The Old Eraser. The insight on that is like nothing got over my head. They came up with that nickname Eraser, because every time the ball's in the air, I come down with it or I'm hitting somebody. I forgot who came up with it, but it was a cool nickname. Sometimes I hear it, sometimes I don't." His nickname has even followed with him to this day. "Yeah, it'll always stick with me today. They still call me The Eraser," Nelson said as he laughed.
The hard-hitting, safety has a much mellower side to him off the gridiron. In fact, when I asked for him to describe himself to someone whom has never met him nor has any recognition of who he is, Nelson suggested, "Never met me? A person that's never met me…I'm kind hearted, you know, a lovable guy, a family guy... just an approachable guy. I would say he's an approachable guy."
Approachable, he has been, inviting an NFL-best 31 interceptions to his stats sheet since 2007, the most among active safeties since he entered the league. Satisfied? No. "31!? That's it!?..." he joked. But, the one that currently stands as most prominent to him may surprise you. He answered, "The one that stands out…yeah, Oakland. I got my first pick as an Oakland Raider. That means a lot. The first pick is always special, man. Any others after that, it doesn't mean too much, just keep them coming." Of course, icing on the cake is never a bad thing.
Yes, his first interception with the Raiders. But, surely it could have been somewhere else. So, why here? Why did Nelson forego other opportunities and choose to represent the Silver and black? "Why Oakland? I mean I was familiar with [Head Coach] Jack [Del Rio] and you know, I didn't want to go anywhere and not know what I was walking into. I mean, coming out here to Oakland, I knew all about Coach Jack, I've been with Coach Jack and knew what he stood for and how he runs his team and how he wants things done. I knew that I could fall in that line in coming in here and do all the right things."
He has also found he played his cards wisely after experiencing some very different climates during his playing career, saying that California is quickly becoming one of his favorite places to live. "Oh, man. Cali's becoming one of them. You know, it doesn't get that hot out here nor humid. So, I mean, I'll give Cali the two thumbs up for right now."
So here we are, 10 years into a career, accolades galore and yet satisfaction is an afterthought. The seasoned veteran helped his respective teams reach the postseason in six-of-his-nine years in the NFL, starting in all seven appearances and totaling 37 tackles (31 solo), 2.0 sacks and one fumble recovery. He made his first Pro Bowl appearance last season after a career year in interceptions and has started every game he's appeared in since the 2010 season, while making 35 consecutive starts since 2014. So again, what's the driving force behind a man with so little to prove? Nelson says, "What's driving me is just to get up and compete, compete in the game and wake up to a game that I love to do. Most people don't get a chance to work their dream job and you know, I've been doing that for the past 10 years. My drive is just trying to get a ring and pay it forward, help out the young guys that come in the league. Because, when I came in the league, I had that support from Fred Taylor teaching me how to take care of my body, Rashean Mathis…There were a lot of vets that helped me along the way and I'm thankful for that."
His career accomplishments, whether as a Jaguar, Bengal and now a Raider are respected and acknowledged by all. Nelson's play suggests the end to a fantastic career is not near, but as always, the inevitable end does come. For Raiders fans, the hope is for their newly acquired patroller to prolong moving beyond football, as any time would be too soon in itself. But when the time does come, he doesn't need to be remembered for his thumping hits, for his ball-hawking interceptions or for the immense amount of tackle he's racked up from game to game, but rather who he is as a person. I mentioned that someday my own kids may ask who he was, what he was like and what he stood for, and after laughing at the thought of me having children, he quickly responded with, "He was a respectful guy and a guy that was approachable. I don't have too many things that tick me off, but as long as you're respectful. I just like respectful people."
If you're wondering if Nelson might disappear when life after football arrives, you might be right, as he again surprised me by sharing his potential plans for the future. "Life after football, I'm going to be on the lake, man. I'm going to fish!" Shocked, I asked, "You fish!?" He chuckled and finished, "Yeah, I'm going to fish. I'm going to fish when I'm done. I mean, I'm not going to rush to get into anything, I'm going to take my time and when I do get into it, I'm going to give it my all and make sure I'm focused on that. Just like I was in my 'X' amount of years in the league, if I choose to do something, I'm all in."
All in. All in is exactly how he's approached each and every day, and undoubtedly why the play of 'The Eraser' has etched himself amongst the gridiron's finest, an etch that will surely not be erased.