Oct. 31, 2014
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By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Bruce Nelson has made a living doing the best he could and succeeding.
Nelson, an offensive lineman at the University of Iowa from 1998-2002, went from a walk-on tight end, to a four-year starter, to a second-round NFL draft pick. Now he’s being honored for his work after football, where he is the third former Hawkeye named to the America Needs Farmers (ANF) Wall of Honor.
“To be honored this way is special,” Nelson said Friday at the Paul W. Brechler Press Box in Kinnick Stadium. “To be able to represent the two groups of people that I have been associated with my whole life, which has been football and the University of Iowa, and the agricultural world, the farmers. It’s a nice honor, and I am humbled.”
The ANF honor salutes former UI football student-athletes who exemplify the tenacity, work ethic, and character of the Iowa farmer.
“I don’t care who you talk to, go back to Emmetsburg (Iowa), interview whoever you want, Bruce is the kind of person you want representing America Needs Farmers and the theme behind it,” said Denny Presnall, CEO of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. “He truly is a farm kid and is everything this honor stands for.”
“To be honored this way is special. To be able to represent the two groups of people that I have been associated with my whole life, which has been football and the University of Iowa, and the agricultural world, the farmers. It’s a nice honor, and I am humbled.”
Bruce Nelson, ANF Wall of Fame honoree
Nelson was first-team All-America center in 2002, helping the Hawkeyes earn a share of the Big Ten championship, advance to the 2003 FedEx Orange Bowl, and finish 11-2 overall. It was a 180 from early in his Hawkeye career, when the Iowa finished with one victory in 1999.
“We were doing everything we could; we just didn’t have a lot of the success we wanted at the beginning,” said Nelson. “I kept trying, and that’s all you can do. Kind of like the 1980s, the farmers were struggling and they were doing everything they could to make it.
“There are a lot of similarities in my first few years at Iowa. It came later on, and that’s how farming has been, too.”
Nelson was drafted in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. He played two seasons, including an appearance in Super Bowl XXVIII, before calling it a career after having three hip surgeries in his second season.
“I got the full gamut of experience,” said Nelson. “I played for the Hawkeyes, played in a BCS game, got drafted, got to the preseason, regular season, Super Bowl, and then it was over. I consider myself lucky having gotten to do all that and to be able to continue farming and do it fairly healthy.”
Nelson and his wife, Ann Marie, returned to their hometown of Emmetsburg after his NFL career to “figure things out.” That included tending to his farm, which he purchased during his rookie NFL season, and helping family farm their land.
“Farming wasn’t the plan (growing up),” said Nelson. “My goals were to play varsity football for (Emmetsburg head coach) Duane Twait, that’s as far as I thought ahead. I wanted to play in the UNI-Dome (in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for the Iowa High School state playoffs).
“When high school was over, I hadn’t thought too much past that. Then I jump into this race of trying to play for the Hawkeyes and being successful. I figured it out on the go, got that dirt under my fingernails, and kept going.”
Nelson still farms with his father and uncle on what he says is “enough land to keep us busy.” He says the reward he feels from farming is similar to that with football.
“I feel good when I finish a field whether I am planting, tilling, or combining,” he said. “I get a good feeling. You get a good feeling when practice is over for the day and you put in that 2 1/2-3 hour day. You’ve practiced and performed. It’s a different work, but still the same feeling after you felt like you’ve earned it and put it out there.”
Nelson also has ventured into coaching, where he is a volunteer assistant at his alma mater, Emmetsburg High School.
“I go and coach what I see and try to share the lessons I learned (at Iowa),” he said. “Those are the things I value, so I try to pass a few of those things on — how to handle winning and losing, the Xs and Os and fundamentals. I am there to share life lessons.”
Nelson will be recognized on the field after the first quarter of the Iowa-Northwestern football game Nov. 1 in Kinnick Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 11:01 a.m. (CT).