Philip Nelson is back in New Jersey, the one-time Rutgers quarterback just miles away from the campus where he was supposed to lead a team in the Big Ten. Nelson came to Rutgers in 2014 with two years of college football experience under his belt and he was supposed to be a star with the Scarlet Knights, a high-profile transfer coming into the program to take the offense to another level.
Instead, a bar fight back home in Minnesota, just a few weeks before he was supposed to roll-out for training camp at Rutgers, seemed like to derail not just his football career but his entire life.
Except that Nelson has survived the fallout from that night, plain and simple, unwilling to give up on his dreams of playing college football or someday being in the NFL. Now he’s a couple months away from the NFL Draft and training for his Pro Day at East Carolina. The buzz is that he will make an NFL roster this year.
It frankly should surprise no one given how he’s emerged from the past three years.
He’s a Sunday School teacher now and attends Bible Study, a far cry from the image that was painted of him nationally following that fight outside a bar in Minnesota. The police report said that Nelson was involved in a fight on May 14 along with one of his friends and that someone at the center of the melee had hit the ground. He doesn’t remember it but witnesses later told police that Nelson went up to and kicked the man on the ground in the head, doing so while the victim had a concussion.
Days later Nelson was kicked off the team at Rutgers, his scholarship revoked. More importantly he was facing possible prison time.
Football, such a big part of his life, seemed like a distant memory as he sat in jail following his arrest. It was quite a fall from grace.
After all, everything seemed pointed towards Nelson being the starting quarterback for Rutgers. He had just transferred into the program and would have to sit out a year, giving him two years left to play in the Big Ten. Incumbent starting quarterback Gary Nova was set to enter his final year with the Scarlet Knights and if everything went as planned then Nelson, who was a starting quarterback in the Big Ten at Minnesota before transferring, would have two seasons to start for Rutgers.
Instead, that night in May outside a night club was poised to change everything.
It wasn’t widely reported but he was actually punched first, a sucker punch that triggered everything. It didn’t matter much as the media latched onto the idea that he was the aggressor. Nelson doesn’t make excuses for what happened that night, he doesn’t try to dodge his involvement.
It is part of his past, he admits. But a past, he says, that won’t determine his future.
He sits at TEST Football Academy, a training facility in central New Jersey that has readied a number of NFL players for the NFL Draft such as Patrick Peterson and Duron Harmon, even quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco and Brian Hoyer. It is lunch break and most of the other players, over 40 draft hopefuls are training at TEST, are devouring a post-workout meal or relaxing.
He hasn’t eaten yet as he heads straight for the gym floor adjacent to TEST’s indoor practice field to continue his workout. He wants a few more minutes with the weights before he stops to catch his breath and grab lunch.
It is that kind of dedication that impressed Mike Celli, his agent, the founder and CEO of Aggressive Sports, Inc. It is a work ethic born from the experience of the past three years.
“I didn’t just let myself down, more importantly I feel like I let my family down and my teammates at Rutgers. It’s not the way I try to conduct myself. First and foremost, I never should have put myself in a situation like that. And that’s where I let my family down, myself down, my teammates down,” Nelson told Metro.
“Life is about experiences. You take those experiences and learn from them. Now being a 23-year old and going through that, I feel like I’ve been through so much more. I’ve learned how to conduct myself at all times.”
Nelson would be charged on counts of first-degree and third-degree assault. He would end up pleading guilty to charges of fifth-degree assault. There would be no jail time for him but the future for the Minnesota Mr. Football winner and former top quarterback recruit looked bleak.
After all, who would take a chance on him? Rutgers cut ties with him already and no major program would seemingly be interested.
He sat out the 2014 year and worked out at the gym in his high school. He threw to any player he could find willing to run routes and researched then created his own workouts. It would be up to him to get ready for another chance at college football. There was no high-priced trainer, no strength and conditioning coach to track his progress or set forth a plan.
He was far away from the bright lights of Minnesota or Rutgers, a forgotten man, a man with a past. A man with no future.
It was the year where, as Nelson puts it, “I never worked so hard in my life.”
He put in his community service, in all places at a retirement home. Some of the residents asked what a young man was doing there, volunteering and helping out with whatever chores were needed that day. He said that a number of the residents have become fans and “were rooting for him.” He can recall the conversations, the hope they had in him to turn things around and get back to college, to be a quarterback again.
Their names, the kind words, remain etched in his memory.
Nelson also took an alcohol awareness course as part of his sentencing, an emphasis of the program being self-control. But he credits a Sunday School class that he taught to young people at his church for giving him a new perspective on life. His pastor, he credits for being a role model. His family, he says, have supported him through the uncertainty of the past three years.
He reads the Bible every day and calls Jesus Christ his “Lord and Savior.” He’s a changed man and he points to the difficulties of the last three years as proof that he’s emerged better, stronger.
“There was obviously some very low times. For a while there, I had absolutely no idea if I’d ever play football again. I had great support around me. My parents, my family,” Nelson said.
“My faith grew during that time period. I realize I had to let God do His work in my life. My faith grew. If I love this game of football, I had to prepare as if I was going to get a second chance.”
Always in the back of his mind, a return to the football field was of the utmost importance to Nelson. It fueled him to arrive at his old high school at 6 A.M. to throw in the gym, then go lift. He was going to be a new man and, he hoped, a new quarterback. After all, he played for two years in the Big Ten with Minnesota, including a bowl game appearance.
He had the talent, coaches across the country knew that. But he was presumed to be a liability.
Through some family friends who referred him to East Carolina he was given the chance to walk-on to the team. He would have to sit out a year as a transfer but would get the chance in 2016 to compete for the starting job.
After the fall of 2015 where he served as the scout team quarterback, Nelson was granted a sixth-year of NCAA eligibility. He impressed during spring practice and not only earned a scholarship but by that summer was named a team captain.
“Until you face adversity, you won’t find out truly who you are. It will push you to who you want to be. This whole experience truly made me into a better person,” Nelson said.
“As tough as it was to goes through and for everyone involved, you don’t wish that upon anybody. But I can honestly say that from that moment until the point that I’m at now, I’ve grown tremendously. I’ve learned what it takes to play through adversity, play tough. Never give up on what your passion is, what you believe in. I know the person I am today, I’m comfortable with that. I’m still striving to be a better person every day. After the last three years of my life, it taught me a whole bunch of lessons. I’m proud of the way I came out of it.”
East Carolina wasn’t very good last year, finishing 3-9. But when healthy, Nelson looked awfully good, including against some top-end competition. He threw for 400 yards in a tough loss at South Carolina and then the next week had 362 yards and two touchdowns in a loss at Virginia Tech. Not bad numbers against solid programs in the SEC and the ACC.
He proved that after two full years out from a competitive game of football, that he still had the goods. He called this "a long road, but God has taught me along the way."
The long road has paid dividends. Last month at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl he was impressive, with former NFL head coach Mike Martz calling Nelson “a gem” and saying the player could start in the league.
Celli, his agent, said that “Philip's work ethic and knowledge of an NFL playbook will be a true asset to every team that gives him an opportunity to compete " After his showing at the bowl game last month, it appears that his NFL dreams remain alive and well.
“I’m just thankful for this opportunity, that’s all I can say,” Nelson said.
“I wasn’t sure it would come around again. I just need to now make the most of it; I’ve put so much in just to get here I can’t not make it work.”