I can distinctly remember the first time I saw Riley Nelson play football. It was 2006, and if my below-grade-level match skills serve me right, I was a senior in high school (this, by the way, is the point where you whistle and say, ‘damn son, you’re old.’) Spending a productive afternoon in the living room of my parents’ house in Ellicott City, Maryland, I ran across a MASN-2 feed from some God-forsaken location of a university even I had never really heard of. Utah State was playing some school that day — the exact WAC opponent, I can’t recall — and stopping briefly between the anxious move to the next station and game, I caught a glimpse of a dynamic athlete.
Riley Nelson spun out of a tackle, hit the ground (but didn’t) and sprinted to the endzone. The subsequent touchdown which wasn’t (he was ruled down by contact) was the kind of thing an impressionable college football fan and teenager keeps in the back of his mind. Call it a “player cognition theory” if you will, and even extend it to the university. A few minutes later I turned the channel, but the name “Riley Nelson” and “Utah State” suddenly had meaning.
Flash forward five years later. I’m a half decade removed from that floor, yet I’m sitting here all the same. An out-of-work college graduate – ironically enough, from Utah State — I’m watching the same exact player, who, as if laughing in the face of all conception of four-year eligibility, is still playing college football. Riley Nelson and me (yes, and me, because those are how the words form in my mind) now find each other in a curious position. He’s no longer at Utah State and has seemingly burned bridges with many in Logan, yet he’s moved on. I was no longer in Ellicott City, burned some bridges, went to Logan and loved it, but also had to move on. But now I’m back here sitting on my butt, and he’s leading the school he felt compelled to transfer to for reasons all his own.
Riley wouldn’t remember the one conversation we had in our lives. It was on the phone in 2008, and the last thing he was going to do was to open up for some college paper writer looking for a sensational quote about betraying a university and community. I remember the conversation though, and I remember how stalwart he was in defending the course he’d taken in life. He really felt God had led him away from Logan, just as — oh, the irony again — I had felt God led me to Logan. I walked away from that conversation with a respect for him, a respect, I want to add, that continued even as his once-bright career looked to have passed him by with the triumphant arrival and sensational play of Jake Heaps at the close of the 2010 season.
Considering this, perhaps my fellow Utah State graduates will forgive me when I admit I was rooting Nelson while he was leading the Cougars on their game-winning drive in yesterday’s 24-21 Armed Forces Bowl win. I won’t deny a burst of sudden emotion when he brilliantly faked a spike at the goal-line only to connect with Cody Hoffman for a touchdown, and I won’t pretend like the victory didn’t mean something to me as both an individual and a fan.
You can talk all you want about loyalty. You can talk all you want about throwing away the love shown to you by an entire community, or wasting your potential on a circuitous route to only minor glory. But there’s another way to look at it, and that’s through the eyes of the person making the decisions that other label as such.Riley and me, me and Riley, we’re not so different, I think. And yesterday, sitting on my parents’ floor watching him on a football field all these years later from when I first saw him, I can’t help but think that while I’m really in the same place, I too, have found a hint of redemption.
And that’s a story worth writing about.