Shortstop Hayden Nielsen battled back from two knee surgeries and is ready for his senior year. (Photo by Savanna Sorensen/BYU Photo)
Reprinted from football Gameday program guide, November 21, 2015
Some call it a double play. Others say “turning two”. It’s two outs in one play. It’s killing two birds with one stone and it’s not easy. BYU senior shortstop Hayden Nielsen knows all about the art of a double play. But for the man they call “Chief”, it’s all in a days work.
“During my freshman year, Brennon Anderson and I started leading the country in double-plays, and Brennon just started calling me chief,” Nielsen said. “Ever since then, it just kind of stuck.”
Nielsen grew up just a stone’s throw from BYU in Spanish Fork, Utah. At the age of seven, he started playing tee-ball. As he started to advance to baseball, Nielsen claims he wasn’t very good. But one day, things started to click.
“I would always play the outfield when I was little,” Nielsen said. “My dad would always just tell me to keep working hard, and that it would all pay off, so I just kept at it. It clicked when I was about 11 years old and I got moved to shortstop. Ever since then, I have just loved the game.”
Nielsen grew up playing baseball, basketball and football. But no matter which sport he was playing at the time, his parents Rob and Jenny taught him by example at a young age how important it was to pick something that he loved, and to commit to it.
“In the beginning, Jenny and I told Hayden, ‘We don't care what you do, we'll support you 100 percent,’” Nielsen’s father Rob said. “When you find the thing you love, as parents, all we ask is that you try your hardest and be fully committed to what you do. We have been to almost every game since he started playing. Hayden made the commitment, so we also made the commitment, too.”
After prepping at Spanish Fork High School, where Nielsen earned an All-State nod three times, he decided to commit to play baseball for BYU. Since day one, Nielsen has been counted on to be in the starting lineup. Some coaches might find it hard to start a freshman shortstop in the West Coast Conference, a league notorious for great shortstops. But for BYU head coach Mike Littlewood, having a natural leader like Nielsen in the lineup has always been a welcomed blessing.
“It was great to have Hayden as a freshman take on a leadership role, and get in there and compete,” Littlewood said. “I think that kind of attitude filters over to every other player on the team. He is not going to allow anyone else on the team to not give 100 percent. When players see a teammate going about things in that way, it gives a credibility to it.”
Since arriving at BYU, Nielsen has always been the type of player who fit the team together like glue. He’s known to those in his family as someone who will go out and get things done. Those who spend time with Nielsen on the field also know him as a player who will go out and do the same.
“Hayden is mentally tough,” coach Littlewood said. “He’s steady. He’ll battle, and do things like get two-out hits for us. He’s just one of those guys that you have to have on your team.”
Although he has carved out a great career as a shortstop at BYU, things haven’t always been easy for Nielsen, who has played the bulk of two of his college seasons with tears in his knees. But the senior co-captain has never let injury, or anything else for that matter, be an excuse to give up and not compete.
“I tore my left meniscus this past season, and I tore my right meniscus when I was a freshman,” Nielsen said. “My freshman year, I was so afraid to lose my spot that I just had to grit my teeth and play through it. This past year, we made the conference tournament, and there was no way I was going to get surgery and miss the tournament. So there really was a motivation for me to keep going.”
Nielsen has used that motivation to continue on, even when things get tough, to develop into a truly special type of leader for BYU baseball. He is known to those around him as a leader, not only in word, but in deed. It’s not often that a coach can find a leader who not only says the right things, but does them as well. Nielsen is that guy.
“He has totally changed into a player who is a leader,” Littlewood said. “As a freshman, he was a quiet leader, who led mostly by example. Now, instead of being a quiet leader, he has changed into a vocal leader. On any team, there are some years where you don’t have a single guy who can lead the team. But Hayden stepped up for us. He’s become a vocal leader who all the other guys look up to because he goes about his business the right way.”
For Nielsen, the BYU experience has been a blessing. Those around Nielsen have also found that the time he has spent at BYU has helped him grow into not only a strong competitor and leader, but into a special young man.
“We have seen Hayden go from a boy to a man at BYU,” Rob Nielsen said. “His experience has been outstanding. Hayden has grown and developed not only on the baseball field, but also in the classroom and spiritually as well. Coach Littlewood and his staff have been such a great influence on Hayden both on and off the field.”
Nielsen hopes to leave a legacy at BYU after his senior season is over. The one thing that people say about him is that he is a competitor, and that he hates to lose more than anything else in the world. That legacy of an attitude and will to win has pushed Nielsen a long way. It has helped him to contribute to successful BYU baseball teams over the past few years and continues to push him towards future goals and aspirations.
“Hayden has always been a self motivator,” Rob Nielsen said. “His love for baseball is beyond belief, and he hates nothing more than losing. We have a saying at our house we use with our kids: if you want to be better than everyone else, you have to work harder than everyone else.”
“I just want to leave a legacy of being a good teammate and a hard worker,” Hayden Nielsen said. “If I’m not the best player out there, I’m going to out-hustle whoever is the best. I’m going to show up and work harder than he will. I want people to remember that I worked hard, that I never gave up and that I was a good teammate.”
That legacy is already playing out on the field, and will play out again this season on Larry H. Miller field in Provo.