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LINCOLN — The biggest man in the circle paused after the question. His eyes grew red.
“Oh, it ...” Garrett Nelson said.
The freshman Nebraska outside linebacker and Scottsbluff native was overcome for a second. He hoped his mom wouldn’t cry when he told her the best news: The Blackshirt he’d been working to get? He was wearing it. No. 44. As a true freshman.
“It felt pretty good, seeing it in my locker,” Nelson said. “It meant a lot.”
Fifteen seconds later, as he grew more composed, Nelson’s demeanor hardened.
“Now the rent’s due every day,” he said. “I’ve got to go pay it.”
Nelson’s attitude — the energy he brings in practice and in games, the way he executes his assignments — is big part of why he wore that Blackshirt on Tuesday. He’s still growing as a collegiate defender. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has 10 tackles and 1½ tackles for loss this season and doesn’t yet play every series. But, like Nelson’s friend and teammate Damian Jackson — the ex-Navy SEAL and special teamer who also received a Blackshirt on Tuesday — Nelson has intangibles that build a team up.
His position coach, Jovan Dewitt, rattled off Nelson’s character strengths when explaining the Blackshirt decision.
“Have you ever watched Garrett practice? Have you ever watched Garrett prepare for a game? Have you ever watched Garrett run out on the field pregame? Have you ever seen Garrett not do things he’s supposed to do consistently? Garrett does things right off and on the field, and that’s what’s given Garrett an opportunity to get a Blackshirt,” Dewitt said. “That’s why his stats have gone up game to game to game.”
Nelson is so excited before games that he gets ready with the defensive linemen — the big men who hit the field earliest because it takes time for their 300-pound bodies to warm up. Nelson’s just fired up to be out there, Dewitt said, so the coach doesn’t try to stop him.
“He can’t sit still before the game,” Dewitt said. “He’s got to be on the move, he’s got to go, which I love.”
The son of All-America Husker wrestler Chris Nelson, Garrett committed to NU before his junior football season at Scottsbluff and was an early enrollee at the school along with several other recruits, including Wan’Dale Robinson, who has made a major impact on offense. Robinson expected to play a role, but his chances to do so were greater than those of Nelson, who joined an experienced defense with returning starters at outside linebacker.
As the season has progressed, however, Nelson has surpassed senior Tyrin Ferguson and sophomore Caleb Tannor, both of whom have played sparingly in recent weeks.
“Well, I’m here right now, aren’t I? So why wait?” Nelson said. “Why wait? Why excuse yourself to, ‘Oh, I’ll get it junior, senior year, I’ll get it as a sophomore’? As soon as you step on the field, you’re going to try to make every play, you’re going to make every impact you can, you’re going to work hard every single practice, and you’re going to do it a million miles an hour.”
Not perfection. Nelson stressed that. Blackshirts make mistakes; he’s made them.
“But it’s not like they disregarded the mistake,” he said. “They fixed it and it got better. It’s working hard every day and wanting it every day.”
It catches the attention of NU defensive coaches who don’t have Nelson in their position group.
“He’s the first one out of the tunnel,” defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said. “That’s energy level, that’s what you want. ... It’s been noticed, trust me.”
Said inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud: “He loves football and he’s the type of guy we want in our program.”
Even an offensive player, running back Dedrick Mills, sees the passion.
“Sometimes I have to tell Garrett to chill out because, when he walks around the locker room, you might want to slap his hand, but he hits your hand too hard,” Mills said. “I’m like, ‘Dang, it’s cold outside.’ But I admire that.”
Nelson looks up to Jackson, the oldest member of the team, who’s still relatively new to football but carries a unique spot of leadership within the Husker program because of his military experience and work ethic. Nelson didn’t know Jackson had received his Blackshirt until they were both on the practice field doing a drill.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, Damian!’” Nelson said. “We were freaking out. We hugged each other.”
It was a morning full of those kinds of moments for Nelson. NU coaches congratulated him.
“I don’t think they really needed to say anything,” he said.
He then referred to his Blackshirt.
“I think this was the biggest thing they could have said.”