Nothing strikes more fear into the New England Patriots than the Half Eye. That is what they call the glare which dominates the face of Coach Chuck Fairbanks when he is, to put it mildly, unhappy. When a Patriot does something to earn Fairbanks' wrath, the coach will glower at him—and then, slowly and quiveringly, one of Fairbanks' eyes will close to half-mast. The Half Eye has sometimes signaled the end of a player's career with the Patriots.
So consider how New England Linebacker Steve Nelson must have felt that day in 1975 when he suddenly realized that Fairbanks was giving him not a Half Eye but a Double Half Eye. It happened before an exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers. In his excellent rookie season of 1974, Nelson had hit everyone and everything in sight, but in the summer of '75 the only thing Nelson had been hitting was a pillow. Now Fairbanks was standing over his young linebacker in the dressing room, both eyes half shut. "Nelson," Fairbanks muttered darkly, "you better hit someone today."
Nelson began hitting people again almost immediately and has been hitting them ever since. In 1975 he set a team record by making 18 tackles in a game against the New York Jets, and that season he was voted the Patriots' MVP. In 1976 Nelson helped lead New England into the playoffs for the first time since 1963, when the team was in the AFL. And in 1977 he took part in more plays (704) and made more tackles (97) than any other Patriot, even though he missed one game because of an injury.
This season Nelson is the player representative, the defensive captain and the defensive signal-caller for New England, which beat Baltimore 35-14 last Sunday and increased its margin over Miami in the AFC East to two games. The Patriots lead the AFC in stopping the run—and Nelson leads that defense with 118 tackles, 33 more than any teammate. He also tops the Patriots in fumble recoveries (4) and shares the lead in interceptions (5).
December 4, 1978
Nelson's feats have hardly gone unnoticed among New England opponents. "He has developed into the complete linebacker," says Dolphin Coach Don Shula. "He's got the savvy and the intensity. He's good against the pass and the run. He's very intelligent, aggressive and emotional." Oakland Coach John Madden says, "Nelson's a hard guy, and he makes the plays. For a while they never mentioned his name when they talked about great linebackers, but we always mentioned him in scouting reports and staff meetings. We mentioned Steve Nelson's name more than he'll ever know." Adds Miami All-Pro Center Jim Langer, who meets Nelson head-on twice each year, "Nelson's all over the field."
Despite such praise, Nelson has never been named to a major All-Pro team, nor has he played in the Pro Bowl. Cleveland Browns General Manager Peter Hadhazy says, "Steve Nelson is the most underrated player in the NFL."
Underrated or not, Nelson may well be the best of the NFL's outstanding young middle linebackers—a crew that includes Harry Carson of the New York Giants, Bob Breunig of Dallas, Jack Lambert of Pittsburgh and Randy Gradishar of Denver. Technically, Nelson is not actually a middle linebacker. He plays the position called inside linebacker, the designation that the terminology-crazy NFL applies to the two middle men among the four linebackers employed in a 3-4 defense. However, it is a distinction that the people who play the game don't bother with. To them, Nelson is a middle linebacker. On the other hand, to those who vote for All-Pro teams, Nelson is an inside linebacker—and an inside linebacker is a curiosity, not a position.
Nelson doesn't really fit the mold of the classic middle linebacker. Middle linebackers are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap a tall offensive lineman by putting one cleated foot in his stomach and the other in his mouth. They have no front teeth, a Halloween mask for a face and a name that has the sound of a head-on collision—Nitschke, Bednarik, Buoniconti, Butkus. When Hollywood wants a stereotyped running back, it gets Burt Reynolds. When it wants a middle linebacker, it calls on The Incredible Hulk. Even Nelson's name is wrong—and his nickname is worse. Ozzie Nelson may ring a bell, but Steve Nelson? And could the NFL have survived a TV documentary entitled The Violent World of Nellie?
This Nellie has an open, friendly face topped by a mop of blond hair that suggests his Norwegian heritage. From Halloween to Easter, he looks somewhat like a football player—or at least today's football player—because he sports a festive red beard, which he first wore at North Dakota State to get him through the freezing winter. However, he has all his teeth. There is a slight chip in one of his incisors, but that makes him look more boyish than sinister; the tooth was chipped on his 16th birthday when he failed to clear a high-jump bar and got a mouthful of the bar for his efforts.
The 6'2", 225-pound Nelson is also slow for a middle linebacker. In fact, he can't run 40 yards in less than five seconds. Sam Hunt, New England's other inside—or middle—linebacker, stands 6'1" and weighs 268, down from 280, but he is faster than Nelson.
As a public-relations man, Nelson is his' own worst enemy. Or as Outside Linebacker Steve Zabel, his teammate and best friend, puts it, "Nelson's only weakness as a middle linebacker is that he's too humble." It's not that Nelson refuses to talk about himself, it's that he insists on poking fun at himself. At the same time, Nelson is as relaxed and affable off the field as he is intense on it. He leaves one with the impression—no, with the certainty—that he is too nice a Nellie to be hitting people for a living.
Just when you hope that Nelson will reveal that he eats raw meat for breakfast, he spouts forth such doctrine as: "Children are really precious. They can drive you crazy for hours, then give you one little hug and you love them more than ever." Is that any way for a middle linebacker to talk? Nelson, though, speaks from experience. He and his Cuban-born wife Maria have two daughters: 4-month-old Casey, who still doesn't sleep through a whole night, and 2-year-old Cami, who weaves a bigger path of destruction through the Nelson house in rustic Norfolk than Patriot Fullback Sam (Bam) Cunningham does on a football field. She is known as Cam Bam. Asked who is the boss of the family, Nelson sighs, "I've got three women running my life. I come in fourth. When we had a dog, I was fifth."
It must be noted that Nelson put his foot down recently. When Casey demanded some attention in the middle of the night, Maria naturally decided to wake Steve. "Maria, do you want us to go to the Super Bowl?" Nelson mumbled, rolled over and went back to sleep.
If you believe Nelson, he seldom handles life so smoothly. Take the tale of how he broke his hand in college. Linebackers break their hands over quarterbacks' helmets, right? Not Nelson. He broke his in a fight at a fraternity party. His opponent was a 6'5" stringbean named Big Al, who had bloodied the nose of one of Nelson's friends. Nelson attempted to even the score, but he had one handicap. In college Nelson was known as Two-Beer Nelson—and this had been a three-beer night. Big Al ducked, and Nelson punched the wall. "That was the end of my fighting career," he says sheepishly.
And there was the time during the Patriots' minicamp this spring when Nelson and Zabel decided it was their solemn duty as veterans to take the rookies out and get them drunk. That also became a three-beer night. The next thing Nelson and Zabel knew, they were being shaken awake by New England equipment man George Luongo, a full hour after the other players had started practice. They immediately repaired to the training room. Zabel had Assistant Trainer Mark Hanak wrap his head in bandages. Nelson had Hanak bandage his arms and legs. Then they sent a note out to Fairbanks: "Don't pay the ransom. We've escaped." When Fairbanks confronted Nelson and Zabel after practice, he gave their costumes a long look. Almost a Half Eye. "You guys really showed those rookies, didn't you?" he said.
The inescapable conclusion to all this is that Nelson has no business being a pro football player, much less being one of the best middle linebackers in the business. What he was supposed to be was a high school teacher and football coach, like his father Stan and younger brother Dave. For 26 years Stan Nelson has been the very successful coach at Anoka High, which is located in a Minneapolis suburb. He has won a state championship, and at one point his teams won 33 straight games. Steve shudders when he thinks of Dave being a teacher. "He teaches driver's education," Steve kids, "and he's the worst driver you ever saw."
Steve played on three of his father's teams at Anoka. As a sophomore, he was a 5'4", 140-pound third-string quarterback. "I couldn't even see over the offensive linemen," he says. Nelson became a linebacker in his junior year, and by the start of his final season he had shot up to 6'1½" and 195 pounds. He made All-State, and the University of Minnesota tried to recruit him. "The coach kept calling me Stan," Steve recalls. "I had the feeling that I wasn't his biggest recruit that year." Instead, Nelson decided to attend Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where he could play for another member of the Nelson clan—Uncle Edor Nelson, his father's brother.
Maria followed Steve to Augsburg. They had met in the eighth grade in Anoka when he outpolled her in an election for class vice-president. "He was short, fat and had a crew cut," she remembers. "I thought he was a creep." Nonetheless, they started to date in the 10th grade. "On our first date, Steve took me to see the movie The Bible," Maria says. "His big line was, 'I've already read the book.' He was still a creep." By senior year, though, they had become a steady item—and a clichè. Steve was captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams, while Maria was head cheerleader and homecoming queen.
At Augsburg, Maria jumped headfirst into campus politics. She protested the war. She boycotted lettuce. She boycotted grapes. She boycotted class. Meanwhile, Steve played football. "Everything came so easily to Steve," Maria says. "He was always good at sports, and he didn't have to work hard at all to get good grades." And then one day Steve Nelson, Augsburg College's 6'2", 200-pound linebacker, decided that he was going to play pro football.
Reflecting on that decision, Nelson says, "I'm sure most people were laughing at me behind my back. I could never run, and my size was only marginal at best. But I needed to direct my life into something positive. At that time, there was a lot of political unrest, and with my conservative background I wasn't really into it. I kept thinking that I couldn't go on being so lackadaisical about everything. And I didn't want to suddenly be 25 years old and saying to myself, 'Gee, I think I could have played pro football.' "
Seeking better exposure, Nelson transferred to North Dakota State at the end of his freshman year. No North Dakota State graduate had played pro football in 30 years, but under Coach Ron Erhardt the Bisons had just completed two undefeated seasons and had won two NCAA regional college division championships. They won another in Nelson's first year, but Nelson—being a transfer student—had to watch from the stands.
While waiting to become eligible, Nelson lifted weights and built himself up to his 225 pounds. "We had a mandatory weight program," says Erhardt, who joined the Patriots' coaching staff after Nelson's junior year and now is their offensive coordinator, "but Steve did most of it on his own. A lot of guys get in the weight room and just push weights around, but Steve works at it."
Nelson played defensive end as a sophomore, and shuttled between end and linebacker during his junior year, when he became a second-team Little All-America. Two days before Nelson reported for his senior season, he and Maria were married in Anoka. They spent a one-day honeymoon at Mankato, Minn., watching the Vikings scrimmage. "That ought to tell you how much Steve loves football," says Maria.
Nelson was used strictly as a linebacker during his senior year at North Dakota State. Pro scouts dropped by often enough to convince Nelson that he would be drafted. This was a welcome prospect, because the newlyweds could have wallpapered their apartment with all the checks they were bouncing around the upper Midwest. At Erhardt's urging, the Patriots picked Nelson in the second round of the 1974 draft. To celebrate, Nelson took the loving cup he had won as the Outstanding Bison Athlete to the Sports Bar in downtown Fargo and had it filled with beer. Fortunately for Nelson, it held only two beers.
When Nelson arrived in Foxboro to talk contract with the Patriots, Fairbanks told him he would have to be a big bust in training camp not to make the team. "After all the work I had put in, I wasn't about to be a bust," says Nelson. He started his first game as a rookie, and has been a starter ever since.
The question, then, is this: How does a small, slow, self-deprecating player from North Dakota State, Augsburg and Anoka become, as Shula calls him, "the complete middle linebacker"? Simple. Nelson has learned to outthink his opponents, and he can live with pain. "You can find plenty of guys who can play when they're well, but only a handful play well when they're injured," says Hank Bullough, the Patriots' defensive coordinator. "Most players get a nick and their efficiency goes down 50%. When I coached in Baltimore, I used to think Johnny Unitas was the most mentally tough player I'd ever known. I'd have to put Steve in Johnny U's class."
In the NFL, pain is a constant. Nelson remembers the time when veteran Linebacker George Webster told him, "Enjoy how you feel now because you won't feel this good again until the season is over." Nelson is now playing with a painful left shoulder, first dislocated in college, which may require surgery at the end of the season. In 1976 he dislocated his right knee cap in the 10th game of the season; hearing that Nelson was wearing a thigh-to-ankle cast, New York Coach Lou Holtz cracked, "Well, if Nelson plays against us next week, at least the cast will slow him down a little."
"The hardest thing in pro football," says Nelson, "is to watch from the sidelines. I'd rather play in pain. When I was a kid, my father used to take me ice fishing. Sometimes I couldn't use my gloves, and my hands would get cold. He always told me, 'It doesn't do any good to complain.' " Fairbanks appreciates Nelson's bravado. "Nelson sets a tone of toughness for the team," he says. "You can count on one hand the number of practices he's missed in his five years here."
Nelson rarely uses pain-killers, not wanting to show that he hurts while on the job, but occasionally he lets his defenses down at home. "Sometimes I'll just touch him lightly on the shoulder, and he'll cry out with pain. Oooooh," Maria says, imitating her husband's cry of agony. Cam Bam looks up from a game she is playing on the floor and says, "That's what my daddy says."
As for Daddy, he attributes much of his success to the fact that the Patriots use the 3-4, which is similar to the defense he played at North Dakota State. One advantage of the alignment is that everyone always lines up in the same place. Nelson, for instance, sets up opposite the strong-side guard. Consequently, every play he has ever seen in the NFL, he has seen from the exact same angle. As a result, he is quick to recognize a play, which allows him time to react before the offense can set up its blocking. This recognition process is known as "reading." "Steve is not overly big or overly fast," says Zabel, "but he is overly trained. His greatest ability is his reading ability."
From his close-in vantage point, Nelson can't take in the flow of an entire play. Instead, he will read a single player's movement, rely on his experience and then translate that movement into a mental picture of what the rest of the offense is doing. For instance, in the I formation, in which one or more backs line up directly behind the quarterback, Nelson keys mainly on the offensive guard in front of him. On plays from the I, both guards generally go directly to the point of attack. On the other hand, in split formations, in which a back lines up behind each tackle, Nelson looks at the strong side back while keeping an eye on the strong side guard. If they head in the same direction, so will the play. If they head in opposite directions, however, the play is probably a trap—with the fullback trying to lure Nelson away so the delaying ballcarrier can run through the area Nelson has vacated.
Nelson's split-second reactions are critical to the success of the Patriots' defense. Most times New England sets up its 3-4 to free the inside linebackers so they can make the tackle. The three down linemen, particularly the nose guard, sacrifice themselves in order to keep the inside linebackers from being blocked out of the play. That explains, in part, why Nelson leads the Patriots in tackles, and also why defensive linemen in the 3-4 rarely get any recognition.
The Patriots wigwag their defensive signals to Nelson from the sidelines, and Nelson relays them to the defense. If he sees the opposition in an unexpected formation, Nelson can check off and call any of the Patriots' other 12 pass coverages. "Nelson has a thorough understanding of our defensive system," says Fairbanks. "He's very aware of how teams are trying to attack us and how to adjust our defense."
Predictably, Nelson never glamorizes this responsibility. He is too bad a PR man for that. Instead, he insists on describing what a clown he made of himself when the Patriots squeaked by Buffalo 14-10 last month. In a special check-off session two days before the game, the coaches stressed that the Patriots couldn't use man-to-man coverage if the Bills lined up with a running back behind the tight end. When Buffalo came out in that formation on one play, New England was in man-to-man. Nelson, though, forgot to check off and audibilize a new defense. "It just didn't click until the snap of the ball," he says. "When I realized what they were doing, I went to zone coverage myself and tried to holler the check-off to everyone else. The result was that everyone else played a man-to-man, I played a zone, and Buffalo scored on an 11-yard pass play."
For that blunder, Fairbanks was probably tempted to give Nelson one of his dreaded Half Eyes. But how in the world can you get mad at a football player like that?