IOWA CITY, Ia. – All-American football player turned farmer Bruce Nelson gets a tremendous sense of satisfaction when he finishes a field, whether it's planting it in the spring or harvesting it in the fall. It reminds him of finishing a practice during his playing career.
"Different work, but the same feeling," said Nelson, the newest inductee in the America Needs Farmers Wall of Honor at Kinnick Stadium.
Nelson, 35, who came to Iowa as a walk-on tight end under Hayden Fry and left as an all-American center under Kirk Ferentz, will be honored during ANF Day that is part of Saturday's Iowa-Northwestern game.
Ferentz calls Nelson "not only an outstanding player but a great story in our program, and we're really proud of him."
In 1985, with a farm crisis gripping Iowa and the nation, Fry came up with ANF as a way to raise awareness for farmers struggling to make ends meet. Iowa players wore ANF decals on their helmets, and still do.
Nelson, six years old at the time, remembers those decals in 1985, but he didn't have a grasp of the meaning.
"I didn't really understand the times that my folks and grandparents were going through in the agricultural world," Nelson said.
Now Nelson farms with his family, and they grow corn and soybeans and raise cattle. Nelson is also involved with an ethanol plant "that has been fueling my fire lately."
And he joins Casey Wiegmann and Jared DeVries as ANF Wall of Honor members.
"This is the kind of person you want representing ANF," Iowa Farm Bureau executive director Denny Presnall said. "Because he's truly a farm kid."
After playing at Emmetsburg High School for a coach he deeply admires, Duane Twait, Nelson decided to walk on at Iowa because Fry had a track record for giving walk-ons a chance. But Fry retired in 1998, after Nelson's redshirt season, and was replaced by Ferentz.
"The new guy on the block came in and saw the great talent I had," Nelson said. "The speed, the hands. So he moved me to the line."
Nelson started at left tackle, moved to left guard and finished as a center for two seasons. Iowa went from 1-10 in his redshirt freshman season to 11-2 in his senior season, earning a berth in the 2003 Orange Bowl against USC.
Selected in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft by Carolina, Nelson played two seasons and started at center for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. But after three hip surgeries, he decided to retire.
"It was really a blessing, to get away with the health I had," Nelson said.
After leaving the NFL, Nelson decided to give farming a try.
"I figured it out on my own," Nelson said. "I got that dirt under my fingernails and just kind of kept going. There's always a season coming."
The similarities between farming and football are never ending in Nelson's world. There was an accountability in football, driven home by videotape that exposed the truth. There was always a consequence for your actions.
"With farming, there's a consequence, too,' Nelson said. "If you don't do it right, you're not going to have the yields. If you don't spray on time, you're going to have a poor crop."
Nelson doesn't miss the practices or games, but he does miss the teammates he shared a common goal with. He listens to Hawkeye games on the radio in his combine during harvest season.
"It makes the day go faster," Nelson said. "We don't need any more bye weeks."
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