S Reggie Nelson was one of the top playmakers on a Florida defense that completely shut down Ohio State in the national championship game
(More than 320 standout college players put their skills on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. On the weekend of April 28-29, the vast majority of those players will hear their names called in the 2007 NFL Draft. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will take a closer look at some of those names from the combine, and the stories behind them in our "Road to the Draft" series. These features are not meant to pinpoint the very top prospects in the draft, nor to reflect the Buccaneers' opinions or draft strategies. Any mention of draft-board status or a player's strengths and weaknesses are from outside sources, not the team's own scouting work. Currently featured: Florida safety Reggie Nelson.)
For Reggie Nelson, more than most, Florida's football national championship was a bittersweet affair.
On December 21 of last year, Nelson's mother, Mary Lakes, succumbed after a three-year battle with breast cancer. Nelson's Gators had been using the month of December to prepare for their title-game matchup with Ohio State on January 8, and he had just returned home after one last pre-Christmas practice.
It was devastating for the junior safety, of course. As Nelson said at the NFL Scouting Combine two months later, "you only have one mother." The loss hit him and his three siblings hard.
Less than three weeks later, however, there he was on the University of Phoenix Stadium field in Glendale, Arizona, helping the Gators' defense contain Troy Smith and the Buckeyes offense to a shocking degree. Ohio State gained just 82 yards of total offense in an absolutely dominant, 41-14 Florida victory.
Nelson played in that game and helped limit Smith to 35 passing yards because he believed his mother wouldn't want him to give up one of the other main loves in his life. Still, as thrilling as the victory over Ohio State was, it was bittersweet because Lakes wasn't in the stands.
"I just hope she's proud of me," he said later at the Combine, in as few words as possible.
Nelson's teammates were shaken by his loss, but they advised him to keep playing, to concentrate on football and remain in the middle of the activity with his extended family.
"I looked to my seniors, my teammates," he said. "Those were the people I was around all the time. I just looked to them for advice and they told me to keep my head up. I've just been trying to stay focused and look to my teammates for advice."
The post-championship circuit and the all-star kept him busy afterward and allowed him to keep his grief at bay. Now, preparations for this month's NFL Draft are doing the same – Nelson could go as high as the first round, but how he performed at the Combine and at Florida's Pro Day would play a big part in that.
It's clear that this pursuit has allowed him to remain single-minded about something other than his family's loss. At the podium in Indianapolis, in fact, he betrayed little emotion, politely answering a long string of questions about his mother's death and how he is coping with it. The tight schedule, he says, has certainly helped occupy his mind. Still, there are moments when he feels her absence more strongly, such as at Florida's postseason football banquet.
"When I went to the banquet, I got [the team MVP] award and I was happy," he said. "But then again, my mom would have been there. Everything I do is bittersweet."
Nelson's mom, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, two older brothers and one younger sister kept him in the dark about the ups and downs in Lake's condition. They didn't tell him when she went into the hospital or when she came out, all in the hopes of letting him focus on his pursuit of a championship and, after that, the NFL. He was angry, at first, to find out what had been kept from him, but he was able to clear the air at a private family meeting.
Since then, he has trained his sights on the NFL.
"It has been very difficult…[but] I haven't had time to think about," said Nelson, a 5-11, 198-pound defender who some scouts believe is capable of playing either safety or cornerback in the NFL. "I've just been trying to stay focused and look forward."
Against the odds, he's done a very good job of that. After a fine showing at the Combine, Nelson may have further enhanced his stock with an outstanding effort at Florida's Pro Day on March 7. He ran an outstanding 4.35 40-yard dash and also graded high in such workouts as the short shuttle run and the standing broad jump.
Beyond those numbers, the scouts say Nelson is an interesting combination of talents. He runs well enough to be an elite cornerback but appears to get more pleasure out of the hard hit. It is said that he plays with abandon, but he's also a dedicated weight-room worker. Some teams see his playmaking skills at safety – he had six interceptions for the Gators this past season – and want to add that to their secondary; others see his hip swivel and speed and think they can make him a cornerback at the next level.
To that point, Nelson said he would be more than happy to play either position, thereby not limiting the teams that will show interest in him. He played cornerback during Florida's spring practices and felt comfortable there.
"It was pretty nice, being up close to the line and to the receivers," he said. "I really liked it. If I do end up playing cornerback, I would have no problem with it. I just love hitting and running around."
While his current preparations are tinged with grief, Nelson is definitely happy to be where he is at the moment. He wanted to attend Florida as a well-regarded prospect coming out of Melbourne (FL) High School, but didn't have the grades. He started at Coffeyville (KS) Junior College instead before finally making it to the Gators in 2005. There, he made a point of concentrating on his studies and built a respectable 2.5 GPA while nearing completion of his degree. He fully intends to return to finish up his final hours after his rookie campaign.
With all those transitions Nelson has made in the last five years, he's more than ready to make one more to the NFL.
"The pro game?" he said. "It will be bigger and faster, and I'll have to adapt to the speed like I did at Division I. Coming from junior college to Division I you've got to adapt to it and I think I did that pretty well."
Plus, the process of preparing and adapting for the next step helps him work through his grief. It does not, however, drive away all thoughts of his mother…and he wouldn't want it to. That's not the approach he took on January 8.
"I really didn't block it out," he said. "I knew my mom would want the best from me, so I just took that and ran with it. I just continued on, making plays. I kept playing like she would want me to."