Iowa's Matt Nelson wants to move from surgical patient to surgeon

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

The defensive tackle who aspires to be a surgeon is not your typical patient.

Iowa senior Matt Nelson gets that. He can be a little nosy when nurses and doctors are working on him.

“I ask, ‘What exactly are you going to do?’ ” Nelson said last week after helping the Hawkeyes put on a youth football clinic. “I was watching one of the nurses put my IV in because I’m interested in that sort of stuff. And she was, like, ‘Why are you watching me? This is kind of weird.’ And it made her kind of nervous. It’s stuff I’m interested in.”

Matt Nelson runs kids through a drill during a Hawkeyes Youth Camp at Johnston Middle School Saturday, May 5, 2018.

Before Nelson was a 6-foot-8, 295-pound defensive lineman playing Division I college football — even before he had to undergo three surgeries of his own in the past year — he wanted to be on the other side of the operating table. It’s been his dream since he was a middle schooler in his native Cedar Rapids.

Nelson was rehabbing his left shoulder this spring, missing Iowa’s 15 practice sessions. He helped fill that time by studying for his Medical College Admission Test, which he’ll be taking in late June. The biology and human physiology major is hoping to be in medical school next fall.

He’ll have some stories to tell once he gets there.

“I’ve had too much experience with it,” he joked, referencing his surgeries.

He even asked doctors once before they scoped his knee if he could be awake and watch the procedure.

“They’d prefer not to do that,” Nelson deadpanned.

Nelson back to full strength for summer

The good news for Nelson is that he is fully healthy after tearing his labrum late in Iowa’s Pinstripe Bowl victory Dec. 28. He showed no ill effects while helping children learn tackling techniques at the clinic in Johnston and said he expects to be a full participant when Hawkeye football activities resume next month.

“It’s pretty discouraging, but the guys keep you involved,” Nelson said of missing practice time. “They come up and ask questions, like, ‘Hey, what are we running here?’ … It keeps me mentally involved and that helps me a lot.”

Nelson moved from defensive end to tackle last year to help the Hawkeyes fill a position of need. By midseason, he was good enough to start inside, where statistics are harder to come by. Nelson went from 43 tackles as a sophomore to 18 as a junior; his sacks total decreased from six to one.

By this spring, he had adapted so well that he was able to mentor defensive ends Sam Brincks and Chauncey Golston as they attempted the same position switch.

“He really helped the guys try and learn how to play inside because he went through that same transition recently,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Nelson. “I can’t say enough about his engagement. That’s the kind of kid he is and the kind of teammate he is.”

Nelson, in turn, credited former Hawkeye defensive tackle Nathan Bazata and defensive line coach Reese Morgan for helping him get through the transition. He’s the tallest lineman on the team, and burrowing to create leverage was not something he was accustomed to doing.

“Definitely a lot quicker, things are more tighter,” Nelson said of playing the interior of the line. “It’s a lot different than playing on the outside where you’ve got a little more room to roam.”

Soon, Nelson will have to get used to operating in even tighter spaces. It sounds like he’s ready.