Leistikow: On Iowa football's Matt Nelson, the epitome of a student-athlete
TAMPA, Fla. — At most, there are three or four years’ worth of fall Saturdays on which college football fans are able to capture a brief window into the lives of their favorite team's players. For the most part, we see a name on a jersey, a helmet and — occasionally — a facial expression.
And that’s the extent of it.
But what about the other 350-plus non-game days of the year?
And what about the 18 to 20 years of non-game days preceding college notoriety?
The story of Matt Nelson is one that can’t be told from four years of fall Saturdays.
Nelson, a towering defensive tackle, will play his final football game as an Iowa Hawkeye in Tuesday's Outback Bowl here on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
After this? At a strong and sturdy 6-feet-8 and 295 pounds, he might go on to play professional football. But whether he attains the NFL or not, his life path suggests the majority of his adult years will be as a medical doctor — perhaps one day performing sports surgery on your son or daughter.
In today’s college football, being an athlete is a full-time job. In Nelson’s case, he has also managed to be a crucial Hawkeye player for three straight years. That he simultaneously thrived in an extremely challenging and competitive academic field is nothing short of amazing.
Whatever life path we take is often shaped by our childhood.
Very early in his life, Nelson stood out. But not yet because of his intellect.
He measured 22½ inches and nearly 10 pounds at birth. When his mother, Julie Palmer, would take him to a grocery store, she would get glares if Matt was misbehaving. Onlookers wondered: How could a 5-year-old act that way?
He’s not 5, his mother would tell them. He’s 2.
As time passed, Nelson would constantly ask questions.
“He was an inquisitive kid," Palmer says today, "who told really bad knock-knock jokes."
How does this contraption work?
Why does the body do this when that happens?
“I always liked taking things apart, trying to put them together," Nelson says now. "In school, science was always my favorite subject. Human anatomy was always really interesting to me.”
A big event that shaped Nelson’s life was his parents’ divorce, a sudden split that happened around Thanksgiving of his fifth-grade year. His mother moved Nelson and his three brothers into a house near what used to be Cedar Rapids Regis High School. At that time, the boys had little awareness that their mom was struggling financially.
Her parents who lived in Marion — father Lowell Palmer, a Korean War veteran, and mother Mary — stepped up.
They furnished the boys with four bunk beds, bringing excitement to their new surroundings. When Julie Palmer's old Buick broke down, Lowell indefinitely loaned her his new truck. He would perform cost-saving, handy-man tasks. The grandparents were a fixture at athletic events.
"They were always there,” Julie Palmer says. “And that’s what the boys needed. They just needed to know someone else was there."
More than anything, though, Lowell became a trusted source of joy and a crucial male role model for Nelson during a significant (and difficult) period of growth.
Nelson fondly recalls with detail being covered in snow after a day of sledding with his grandpa.
“He was a really special man,” Nelson says. “He really impacted my life beyond measure.”
Notice that he used past tense.
About 60,000 Americans per year are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. About 10 million people worldwide are living with the disease, which has no known cure.
Lowell Palmer used to be one of them.
When Julie Palmer told her boys that their grandfather had Parkinson’s Disease, Nelson — the second-oldest — instantly began doing his own research, trying to grasp what would cause his grandpa's personality and capacity to deteriorate. Facial expressions are one of the things that Parkinson's attacks, which made it difficult for Lowell to show affection for his grandchildren. (There were 15 in all.)
“You could see he wasn’t there,” Nelson says. “To see a man that used to be in the military and such a proud man that would always work with his hands … and to be confined to a chair, was just really sad to see.”
Lowell Palmer died while Nelson, then a high school sophomore, was at a basketball tournament in Las Vegas.
His death would seal Nelson's ambition to become a doctor.
"He kind of put it over the edge," Nelson says, "of, 'OK, this is what I want to do.'”
Football wasn’t the original plan. Now, it’s opening doors.
Nelson was a rising Division I basketball prospect while at Cedar Rapids Xavier High School, so much so that he didn’t plan to play football going into his junior year.
But on a whim, he called his mother to ask if she could turn in his forms — and get him a physical — even though he was two days past the deadline. She made it happen, and Nelson stunned his high school coach, Duane Schulte, by showing up for the first day of practice.
“He played football,” Julie Palmer says, “and suddenly things clicked for him.”
Nelson realized his personality fit football’s team concept more than basketball. With his unique combination of size, athleticism and smarts, he quickly became a sought-after Division I football prospect.
His final three college choices were befitting of someone of his academic acumen: Notre Dame, Stanford and Iowa.
Nelson made his decision after attending a Hawkeyes practice with his mother, at which fear caused him to become nauseous.
He asked, “Mom, am I good enough to play at Iowa?”
“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, sweetheart, yes you are good enough to play at Iowa. We wouldn’t be here (otherwise),'" she recalls telling him. "And then he looked at me and said, ‘OK, I made my decision.’”
Good luck finding another 6-foot-8 defensive tackle.
They are about as rare as high-level college football players who qualify for medical school.
Nelson isn't there yet. But as fate would have it, college football pushed him further down a medical path. He’s endured multiple surgeries while playing here — including three in the span of one year.
Before a knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, he made an odd request of team doctor Brian Wolf.
Can you keep me awake so I can watch my own surgery?
“He said no,” Nelson says. “I asked a few times, and he was pretty persistent.”
Wolf says dryly that’s “not routine.” He didn’t want to OK the type of spinal injection often given to women in childbirth. Wolf instead agreed to record the surgery and, in a comical image, handed a DVD of the footage to Nelson's confused mother afterward.
“There has to be something good that comes out of three surgeries," she would tell her son.
A player who spends a lot of time in the trainer's room has more opportunity to ask questions of the medical professionals.
He's also had to be well-educated on the football field. After starting all 13 of Iowa’s games and recording six sacks as a red-shirt sophomore defensive end, Nelson was asked by Iowa coaches to transition to defensive tackle. It was an unorthodox move for someone his size. (Defensive tackles must keep a strong, low base to avoid being blocked backwards by large offensive linemen.)
But Nelson was willing to do it. All for the team.
As assistant coach Reese Morgan recalls, Nelson was injured on one of his first reps at his new position.
When he recovered, Nelson went right back to defensive tackle. No questions asked. No ego.
Whatever position he plays, Nelson has been one of the Hawkeyes' most reliable players and trusted leaders. He's started every game this season for an Iowa defense that led the Big Ten Conference in fewest points allowed.
Morgan gets emotional upon hearing a question about Nelson's impact.
"He’s a remarkable kid," Morgan says, "in so many ways. He is probably the most selfless person on the team. He has no ego. He has fun. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s smart. He’s hard-working. He’s tough. He’s been through a lot of adversity with the injuries … and he’s come back every time.”
And he’s somehow continued to stay the course academically.
Going into Nelson’s final regular-season game of a five-year college football career, Iowa students are on Thanksgiving break. So, Nelson finally relents and does something he rarely does.
Teammate Parker Hesse has Nelson and other friends over for the Monday Night Football matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams. That was the NFL's game of the year, an entertaining 54-51 Rams victory.
Nelson’s night as Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff lit up the scoreboard?
“Just out of nowhere, he pulls his laptop out and applies to some med school somewhere,” Hesse says. “We’re like, ‘What are you doing? Put your laptop away. We don’t even have school this week.’
“So yeah, that’s Matt.”
The fun can wait, Nelson says in all seriousness.
“It’s a lot of late nights. There will be mornings (at practice) I’ll be really, really tired. Obviously not performing optimally,” Nelson says. “But it’s the things you have to do to continue to be pre-med.”
He didn’t want his Medical College Entrance Test scores published, but let’s just say ... they were exemplary.
It's hard to imagine UI turning down Nelson.
Here’s a double major in Biology and Human Physiology with excellent test scores, upstanding character, the highest of recommendation letters (including from Wolf) ... the epitome of a Hawkeye student-athlete.
Wolf, who played basketball at Loyola of Chicago in his day, doesn’t think most people comprehend the demands placed upon today's student-athlete. Twice as time-consuming as what he experienced, he says.
Plus, he sees doctor qualities in Nelson, who — shocker — desires to be an orthopedic surgeon someday.
As we said, life experiences shape one’s career.
“He’s always been very mature,” Wolf says. “He’s always been very even-keeled, which will help him down the road … in terms of making decisions and being analytical and not necessarily being over-emotional.”
Of course, a medical career can wait.
Nelson still wants to give the NFL his best shot. If he gets into Iowa's medical school, he would have two years to enroll. That gives him a fair bit of time to get into a pro camp and maybe make an NFL roster. At his size and with this skill set and diligent reputation, he’ll certainly get his foot in the door.
"I’ve got until March or so to hear back from (medical schools). Pro day is around that time as well," Nelson says. "Hopefully I’ll get a good idea of futures in both at the same time. Until then, it’s kind of a waiting game."
The safe guess is football — be it a career of months or years — then medicine.
Morgan, who knows more about Nelson’s character than just about anybody, shares his fitting, final thoughts.
“He’s going to be a doctor," he says. "And if I have anything wrong, I hope Matt Nelson is the guy that’s going to try to repair it. He will be flawless in what he does.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.