SPRINGFIELD — Nick Nelson would have done himself a favor had he stopped fielding grounders the first time he felt the “pop” in the back of his leg two years ago.
Surrendering to a little discomfort just wasn’t part of his nature.
“It was Christmas break during my sophomore year, and I was at a (baseball) camp at (the University of Florida) playing first base,” said Nelson, now a senior at Rutherford. “A throw was low, and it was freezing, and I did the splits and it popped. I thought I’d still try, so I took a grounder to throw to third. It popped again and the back of my leg went numb.”
That second tinge of pain was the sensation of his hamstring tearing free from the bone, an injury that ultimately sidelined him for the entirety of his sophomore season with the Rams.
“The doctors thought I just pulled it,” he said. “At my visit to get medically released to play again, they found a knot on the back of my leg. I had an MRI on a Wednesday, found out I tore it on Thursday and had surgery on Friday.
“I didn’t know how serious it was. I didn’t know you could tear it off the bone. That was a shock. I didn’t know what to think. You never think that’s going to happen.”
Nelson batted .333 as a freshman at Rutherford, and he spent the second half of his sophomore year in physical therapy trying to work his way back onto the field. After weeks of physical therapy and one lost season, Nelson earned the go-ahead to return to the diamond. Memories of the injury still remained in the back of Nelson’s mind during his junior year, however.
“It’s all mental,” he said. “You have to get it out of your head on the field. It was probably halfway through the season after everyone telling me a million times it was OK that I could finally quit thinking about it.”
Self-assured that his body was back to full health, Nelson went on a completely different kind of tear at the plate. He put together one of the most productive offensive seasons in recent county history, batting .393 with six home runs and a whopping 51 runs batted in 26 games. Nelson, who plays first base, third base and in the outfield, also finished 6-0 as a pitcher for the Rams and struck out 52 batters.
Nelson has signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Gulf Coast next year, although he acknowledged with a smile that he’d entertain offers from any major league team willing to invest a draft pick in him in the first dozen or so rounds of the amateur draft this summer. He said Gulf Coast is the right fit for him, noting his rapport with Commodore coach Mike Kandler and his coaching staff and their familiarity with him and the injury that sidelined him.
Nelson, 18, said several coaches told him as he matured that he had the potential to use baseball as a tool to advance through life. He refuses to waste his natural ability, and he said he is working hard in the weight room and on the practice field. And if rain interferes with his time on the field, he takes his workouts indoors.
“Yesterday I went to practice at Fusion” Fitness Center in Lynn Haven, he said. “Even though it’s raining, I still put my work in. I feel like I can be better, and I give 110 percent of what I’ve got to get better. … It starts in the weight room, and I do a lot of forearm workouts. It gives me a lot of bat speed. If you look at major league players, all their forearms are huge.
“… I’ve been working a lot in the cages and in batting practice. When they (locate a pitch) on the outside corner, I keep my weight back and smash it the other way. If it’s inside, I’ve got pretty quick hands. A short, simple swing gets you a lot of places.”
Nelson credited his grandparents, Ronnie and Marie Nelson, for adopting him when he was a toddler and providing him with a home filled of love and support. Nelson said he spends one night at his mother’s house every weekend, but he does not know who his biological father is or where he lives.
“My dad wasn’t the nicest person, so my grandparents figured this would be a better environment,” Nelson said. “They’ve come to all my baseball games since I was in T-ball. … They’re really cool. They stay on top of me about my grades, and I’m thankful for that. When I made my choice to go to Gulf Coast, they were supportive of that. They’re just supportive all around.”
Nelson said his grandfather has retired after working for telecommunications company BellSouth, and his grandmother is a paraprofessional at Callaway Elementary School. There may be a gap of more than 30 years between Nelson and his grandparents, but he said his home really isn’t much different from most other households.
“I mean, it is different because you don’t hear about grandparents adopting very often, but they’re just like any parents,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s not different from any other family. … Family is there for you through thick and thin, and they never give up on you no matter the cause or reason.”