Cream of the Crop: What makes Jordy Nelson the NFL's best deep threat
This story appears in the Dec. 1, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The defensive back drops into his stance across from Packers wideout Jordy Nelson, and this is what he sees: A tall guy, 6' 3" in bare feet; seemingly a little on the slender side, but at 217 pounds, actually much bigger and more powerful than he looks in his uniform. Good at using his hands to fend off tight coverage at the line of scrimmage, deadly fast once he gets free. Totally in sync with his gifted quarterback. Precise, relentless, nonverbal in the extreme. The D-back has studied Nelson's tape (maybe he's played against him previously), so he knows all of this. There was a time when he might have also noticed the color of the face inside the yellow helmet, but he knows by now that's irrelevant. Or at least he should know.
The defensive back knows a lot, because there are few secrets in the NFL. But he doesn't know enough. He doesn't know about Riley County, in northeast Kansas, where the Nelson family has been farming the earth and raising livestock for four generations, beginning early in the morning and working into the darkness—every single day—to support families whose children never strayed far from home in adulthood. That is, until one of them grew so big and ran so fast that he earned a job as a professional football player instead of buying some land of his own (although he's done that too).
He doesn't know that this football player grew up helping tend 200 head of Black Angus cattle, farming more than 1,000 acres of crop with just his father and his older brother, working long hours before and after school, every day a fresh set of chores. He doesn't know how, as a 12-year-old boy, this player drove a tractor along the shoulder of a busy highway, hauling a gravity box full of grain behind him en route to the elevator in town. "Cars just flying past," says Nelson, now 29. "Me driving along at 10 miles an hour." He doesn't know about Nelson fixing fence on cold winter days and checking on cattle to identify which ones were in heat, ready for artificial insemination. Or about the worst job of all, three summer weeks every year spent walking the endless rows of a sorghum field after harvest, hacking down chest-high stalks of shattercane with a corn knife so they wouldn't go to seed and overwhelm the field in the spring. Sometimes hot, sometimes muddy. "And boring," says Nelson. "Really boring."
The NFL locker room is a vast stew of cultures, 53 men often linked only by the game they play together. They come from inner cities and suburbs, from giant universities and tiny colleges, from the deep South and the Midwest. They are African-American (more) and Caucasian (less), and countless variations on each. There was a time, long ago, when the United States was a very different place, when many of these men were farmers. The great Sammy Baugh, who quarterbacked the Redskins from 1937 through '52, was born on a farm outside of Temple, Texas. In the book The National Forgotten League, author Dan Daly wrote that Joe Stydahar, who played tackle for the Bears between '36 and '46, and who coached the Rams and the Cardinals in the early '50s, once said, "Farm kids have the best chance to succeed in pro football today. They lead a more rugged life than the city youngsters."
There is no database of farmers in the NFL, but there undoubtedly are far fewer now than there once were. (And in the general population as well; according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are 2.2 million farms in the country, down from a peak of 6.8 million in 1935.) But Nelson is absolutely a farmer. And that life—"farming is not a job, it's a lifestyle," says Nelson's father, Alan—is the foundation of Nelson's world. He not only grew up on a farm; he also married a Riley County girl, Emily Rothlisberger. They first met in kindergarten and now have a four-year-old son, Royal, named for Emily's father, Royce, and Jordy's father, Alan. Nelson plans to move back to Kansas when his career is over and raise his family on a farm. He even brings his wife and son home in the summer and operates a combine to help his brother and father with the wheat harvest.
That life is also the foundation of Nelson's football game. It is the farmer's work ethic—along with size, speed and sticky hands, not small factors—that prepared him to reach the highest level of NFL receivers. It's something, maybe the most important thing, that the defensive back across from him doesn't know. "Jordy is a hardworking farm boy," says Vikings receiver Greg Jennings, who played alongside Nelson in Green Bay from 2008 through '12. "His physical skill set is second to none, but he's smart, he works at his craft, he studies the game. He's a hardworking farm boy in his life, and he's a hardworking farm boy on the field."
On the third Monday night in November more than 500 people have scurried in from the single-digit cold and lacerating wind to the asylum of a sprawling ballroom at the downtown KI Convention Center in Green Bay. The occasion: a dessert fund-raiser celebrating the 10th anniversary of the city's chapter of Young Life, an international Christian-based youth mentoring program. Jordy and Emily Nelson are the night's official hosts, and as attendees gather up giant slabs of cake and pie and move toward round dining tables, Jordy answers questions for a series of brief television interviews. As he speaks, a line forms nearby, fans seeking autographs and pictures. Nelson obliges each with a broad smile that forces both of his eyes shut and doesn't stop until it's time for the program to begin.
The Nelsons are introduced to thunderous applause. Jordy thanks everyone for coming out and supporting the cause. Emily says a prayer and then adds, "We hope everyone leaves here tonight with a light heart, a light spirit and, hopefully, a lighter checkbook." There are peals of laughter as the couple leaves the stage, Packers royalty in bloom.
"Guys still underestimate Jordy's ability when he's standing in front of them," says Jennings. "Honestly, I don't know what more they need to see."
Green Bay is unlike any professional sports city in America, by far the smallest (its population of 104,779 is only marginally bigger than the capacity of Lambeau Field) yet among the most historically significant. Packers fans divide their emotions between a prolonged embrace of the Lombardi-era 1960s and the Favre '90s, and zealous expectations from the present bunch. These days they're happy. This year's team is 8-3 after Sunday's 24-21 win over the Vikings. They sit atop the NFC North, a genuine Super Bowl threat. Nelson's chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the central element in Green Bay's explosive offense.
In 11 games Nelson has caught 68 passes, eighth in the NFL. He averages 15.7 yards per catch, which ranks 16th in the league but second among the 22 pass catchers with at least 55 grabs. He has nine receiving touchdowns (only two receivers, Dez Bryant and teammate Randall Cobb, have more) and six receptions of more than 40 yards, second to the Redskins' DeSean Jackson, who has nine. Nelson most often lines up as an outside receiver, from where he can schematically lift the top off coverage schemes and open the middle for Cobb (58 receptions, 77.6% of them for first downs), Davante Adams, tight end Andrew Quarless and others, but from where he has also consistently torched corners for long gains, often on presnap improvisations between him and Rodgers. "Body language, unspoken adjustments, eye contact—we've made a lot of hay on those things," says the quarterback. "We have really good chemistry on and off the field. We talk a lot about route concepts and adjustments, making things look like they're the same thing we did last week, when actually they're different."
Nelson's success on deep routes is built on a tall stack of qualities. "First, great strength and combative hand technique to get off the line of scrimmage," says Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett. "Second, he's fast." That much should be obvious. As a high school senior in 2003, Nelson ran 100 meters in 10.63 seconds to win a Kansas state championship; that year only 15 boys in the U.S. ran 10.52 or faster. Nelson ran only a 4.51 40 at the NFL scouting combine, but once he unwinds his long stride, he's a burner. In '11, as Nelson was on his way to 1,263 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, Jennings told reporters, "They underestimate him.... Seriously, a lot of it has to do with the fact that guys look at him and say, 'O.K., he's the white guy; he can't be that good.' Well, he is that good." Last week Jennings told Sports Illustrated, "Guys still underestimate Jordy's ability when he's standing in front of them, and honestly, I don't know what more they need to see." For his part, Nelson sprints away from any discussion of race. "When that came up, reporters came to my locker and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, no. No.' That's so awkward. I do not want to be in the headlines, especially not talking about race. That is not my deal." He says a defender once mentioned his race to him in college, but it has never happened in his seven-year NFL career.
Once Nelson is free and running on deep routes, he is adept at "stacking" defensive backs—keeping them behind him, denying their leverage to defend the pass—and staying off of the sideline. "Holding a tight line," says Bennett, "giving Aaron a window to throw into."
Jennings, who played with Rodgers for five seasons (and Brett Favre for two), says, "You've got a quarterback who can throw any receiver open at any given time if the receiver understands what he's supposed to do. And Jordy understands what he's supposed to do. Combine that with Jordy's skills, and what you get is a joy to watch."
It's been that way for the better part of four years. Dating back to the start of the 2011 season, Nelson's 39 touchdown receptions are fourth in the NFL (behind Jimmy Graham, Dez Bryant and Rob Gronkowski), and his 49 catches of 25 or more yards rank third (behind Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas, who have 52 each). The trigger for all of this, says Rodgers, was Nelson's nine-catch, 140-yard performance in the Packers' 31-25 win over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, four years ago. "Since that [game], he's been our best receiver," says Rodgers. "He took a big confidence jump after that game." In truth, it had been building for a long time.
As far as Alan Nelson can verify, the first in his family to settle in Riley County and start working the land was his great-great-grandfather, a Swedish immigrant whose first name he doesn't know—"something Nelson," he says. That man begat Elmer Nelson, who begat Raymond Nelson, who is Alan's father and who still putters around the homestead at age 83. Farmers all.
Alan married Kim Wohler, whose father, Fred, was a farmer in nearby Leonardville. They went to high school together, married and had two sons, Mike and then Jordy (named after a character on a soap opera) and a daughter, Kelsey. Alan and Kim divorced in 2010; Kim runs the family's seven-year-old restaurant, Nelson's Landing. Mike, 31, has his own farm now, and three daughters. Kelsey, 27, played basketball at Kansas State; she's now a third-grade teacher and basketball coach in Riley County.
The boys did two things: They farmed and played sports. "But everything we did," says Mike, "was scheduled around chores." Mike was a grade ahead of Jordy, and they played basketball and football together at Riley County High, which had approximately 250 students in grades 9 through 12. Mike was a rugged 5' 9". Jordy grew past him to a slender 6' 1" in high school; he played quarterback, and in highlights looks like he's marauding past grade-schoolers. "We'd put the ball in his hands," says Steve Wagner, who has been coaching Riley County for 31 years, "and he would just take off. He was so fast. It's like the pads didn't slow him down."
Still, Nelson's only college football interest came from in-state D-II schools Emporia State and Washburn. Nelson passed on both and walked on at Kansas State, 20 miles southeast in Manhattan, where the Nelson family had attended most home games dating back to the program's late-1990s renaissance under coach Bill Snyder. "I didn't want to go to Washburn, have a great career and think, What if I went to K-State?" says Jordy. "I didn't want any what-ifs."
There he struggled for two years, miscast as a free safety, in part because Riley County grad Jon McGraw, who was built much like Nelson, had flourished as a Wildcats safety and gone on to a successful NFL career. "Jon was a lot more physical than I was," says Nelson. "I preferred to run from contact. Still do." Mike Nelson would drive to home games, watch from the family seats in the south end zone as Jordy warmed up, and then leave when the game started.
After two seasons Snyder called Nelson and receiver Marcus Watts into his office and asked if they would consider switching positions. Nelson ran with the change. He caught a team-high 45 passes as a sophomore, 39 as a junior (despite a nagging left-knee injury and a new coach, Ron Prince), then exploded in his senior year for 122 receptions and 11 touchdowns from quarterback Josh Freeman in Prince's spread passing system. He also returned two punts for touchdowns and completed two passes, both touchdowns. "That year we were all like, WWJD?" says Watts, who became a starter at safety. "What Will Jordy Do next?"
Nelson's signature play came on the first weekend of October against rival Kansas. Early in that game Nelson faced press-man coverage from cornerback Aqib Talib, a projected first-round pick with reputed 4.39-second 40-yard speed. Nelson scorched Talib for a 68-yard touchdown catch, running away in the final 30 yards as Talib quit chasing. "Freeman threw the best ball of his life," Talib says of that play. "It was nothing that Jordy Nelson did. He just outside-released. [Nelson] was running slow, actually, and then when Freeman threw the ball, he just sped up on me." Sped up. Exactly.
Speaking in general terms, not specifically about the Talib play, Penn State coach James Franklin, who was Nelson's offensive coordinator at Kansas State, says, "There are stereotypes in football, especially at certain positions. Those stereotypes are wrong. A lot of people didn't want to give Jordy credit for being what he is—big, fast and strong. I just know we wanted to get him the ball as often and in as many ways as possible."
Seven years after that play, Packers general manager Ted Thompson leans back in a conference room swivel chair in his Lambeau Field office. In 2008 he selected Nelson with Green Bay's first draft choice, No. 36 overall. "There was no concern on our part that Jordy couldn't run fast enough," he says. "I guess you'd say the rest is history."
Only eight current Packers have been with the franchise as long as Nelson. Once the silent observer in team and position meetings, he's become both a vocal presence and a mentor to the cavalcade of young receivers in Aaron's World. "He gives more of himself now," says Rodgers. "The epitome of a great teammate. "In July, Nelson signed a four-year, $39 million contract extension through 2018. Green Bay remains the ideal home for a guy with what Snyder calls, "real Midwestern values." Nelson's father says, "It couldn't have worked out better for Jordy than to wind up in Green Bay." To help his teammates understand these roots, Nelson has brought many of them back to Riley. Jennings recalls doing "low-end manual labor." Rodgers says he told Nelson, "That tractor with climate control [in the cab] isn't real farming."
Money is unlikely to change the Nelson clan. Alan flies into Milwaukee for home games—when he comes in at all, because farms don't close—and then drives up to Green Bay, because direct flights are more expensive. "I know, here I am saying I can't fly into Green Bay to watch my son play NFL football," he says. "But that's the way we roll around here. Jordy has filthy money, but look at the property he bought: It's got junk equipment, trees that need trimming. He'll deal with it when he gets home. He's not going to hire somebody to do it."
As Nelson nears the later years of his career, he both plans for a life back in Kansas and better appreciates the foundation that it gave him. "Farming teaches you that nothing is handed out," he says. "If you take a day off, you have to work twice as hard the next day." When he goes home in the summer, he drives the same 2003 Chevy Silverado that he bought as a junior at Kansas State. His land sits, awaiting his return.
Meanwhile, there's a pasture that backs up to Nelson's home in Green Bay. One day last spring Nelson went outside, mowed his lawn (of course he did) and bagged the clippings. When he was finished, he gathered up the cut grass, hauled it out to the fence line and dumped it into the pasture. Soon after, the cows arrived and began eating.