(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
"A DIFFERENT WORLD" Isn't Just a Television Show
The Bill Cosby-popularized 1980s dramedy about college life, the bright, wide-eyed kids with all the potential in the world who enter through institutional halls of higher learning and exit these corridors of knowledge enhanced, mature young professionals poised for the real world, career and service to community is something of a tribute to art imitating life.
Twenty-three year-old Dane Nielsen of Sugar Land, Tex., was but a juice cup-coddling toddler during the nostalgic TV show’s heyday. Though in many regards he’s a living testament to the show’s universal premise of 20th Century American students transformed by the college experience.
Of course, now it’s the 21st Century with a new generation of iPod, Smartphone and social networking euphoria, but some things haven’t changed. The quirky, nuanced path of youth to adulthood that’s defined generations of college grads is still just as pronounced. And Nielsen, nearing the end of his undergraduate studies on 34,000-strong Brigham Young’s alluring campus, pulchritudinous Provo, Utah campus, has had quite the journey.
His unique encounter with education and personal growth opportunities as they’ve presented themselves go beyond classroom walls, athletic venues and career counseling.
It’s what made him not only a fine infielder and senior leader on the BYU baseball team this season. It’s what contributed to making him a fine student, proud husband and father with a stronger sense of purpose and new hunger for life.
BYU has been an amazing experience,” he said. “And with the two years I spent in Mexico, I definitely feel like I left an 18-year-old boy and came back a man. There’s been more placed on me since I got back. But I think it’s all been made so much easier by what I’ve learned from life and (in) knowing who I am.”
Of note, he’s starting second baseman and No. 2 returning hitter (.347) this spring tor the Cougars. He’s hoping to help propel BYU to a College World Series like any good collegiate player. When he’s not training or busy working through long days for his degree in economics as a full-time student, he’s cherishing life with his wife of two years, Taylor, and adoring every moment he can with six month-old daughter Kalei whom he calls “the sunshine of my life.”
There are many sunny days ahead for Nielsen especially if 12th-year BYU coach Vance Law has his way. The Cougars were picked to be second in the Mountain West Conference behind Preseason No. 1 TCU and figure to have the right mix of leadership, experience, solid pitching and defense to go far.
“I’m more excited about this season we have had in my time at BYU,” Law said.
BYU already held a special place in the Nielsen household where Dane’s mother Wendy is a former Cougars cheerleader and father Gifford starred as an All-American two-sport standout and future Houston Oilers NFL quarterback. His older brother Giff also played basketball for BYU as did grandfather Stan in the 1940s.
The north central Utah valley locale just 40 miles from Salt Lake City has been a backdrop to the Nielsen family for generations though Dane says he hadn’t anticipated so many significant moments of his young life unfolding there.
“If you had told me this is where I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says of the student-athlete-father combo.
He speaks of a current place in life of happiness and completeness that’s almost a far cry from vestiges of life a good life in Houston where an ambitious teenager made a big decision, packing his bags and making the same trek to BYU that’s become family tradition.
Nielsen graduated from Clements High in 2005 where under the tutelage of coach Herb Espinosa he was a two-time First Team All-District baseball player. An All-District selection on the basketball court as well, he’s perhaps best remembered around Greater Houston circles for having played for the Houston Heat squad that won a World Wood Bat championship.
I came to BYU because I knew it was a great school and a great place,” said Nielsen, also recruited by Duke, Vanderbilt and renowned Texas Powers Rice, Baylor, UH and TCU. “As far as baseball, I knew the Mountain West and I knew I could play at this level. Personally, I knew this was a place I could challenge myself.”
Nielsen had the typical freshman year of college, adjusting to time away from home, wintery climate that doesn’t always allow for outdoor practice before April and adapting to college ball as fast and physically demanding as he expected. On the diamond, he had a nice first season, playing 17 games, batting .231, homering and memorably hitting a walk-off single in the 10th inning against Northern Colorado in 2006.
He would leave school to embark on his biggest challenge soon after. Like the more than 45 percent of the BYU student body who engage in missionary excursions on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during their college studies, Nielsen took a two-year hiatus for a volunteer mission to Puebla, Mexico.
In an era when college students take fun trips to Florida for spring break and skills-building internships in Corporate America, Nielsen’s selflessness uniquely was two-fold. Beside putting class on hold for admirable reasons and taking the school’s motto to heart, he shelved a privileged athletic career that offered few fitness guarantees.
“I had friends who told me I was crazy,” said Nielsen, disclosing his parents supported him fully though his father believed the break would set him back athletically. “Some people said that I was throwing my athletic career away. That I’d never be the player I was.”
It took all of the first few weeks in Mexico for Dane to mildly second guess his decision.
“I remember being there and at once thinking these two years would never end,” he says in jest.
But in the ensuring months, he picked up Spanish and gradually adjusted. Routinely, he spoke to natives about Jesus Christ and learned invaluable lessons about the world at large and the people who live in it.
“It was an eye-opener,” he said. “I met a lot of different people. I saw poverty, broken families, people without hope...but I also saw a lot of good in people.
“I think I ended up learning as much from them as they learned from me,” he said. “If not more.”
Returning from Mexico enriched, Nielsen says he learned to appreciate life and what’s otherwise taken for granted by too many.
“I left a boy and came back a man,” he said
“The way we live our lives is pretty complacent. We’re so blessed and don’t always know it. Take running water for example. Here we have clean running water to drink and bathe, and have access to when we want it. I saw families there with none of the above. Families with just a portion of what most Americans take for granted. Happy families that were without a lot of material things that we have and we think we need...
“And yet most of them were happier than us. So, yes, you could say I learned humility.”
Returning to Utah in 2008 for his sophomore year, Dane re acclimated to a college life with perspective and priorities befitting a changed man influenced by such a profound experience.
Balancing homework with a college baseball career was suddenly a lot easier. His purpose and direction that much more defined.
“I’ve definitely learned how to prioritize...with life and with time,” he said. “I think I can go out, work as hard as I can with school, practice or whether it’s something I’m trying to learn from the coaches, but relax my mind so I don’t stress out.”
Perhaps more than anything Nielsen said he’s learned the most from marriage. He and girlfriend Taylor Porter were wed December of 2008 before an abbreviated sophomore season spring 2009 in which he appeared in only seven games for the Cougars.
He admitted to feeling “Slow and out of shape” when he returned to baseball ranks, struggling to regain the strength and muscle mass to his 5-10, 180-pound frame. Ironically, his resolve has never been stronger.
“Most of athletics is mental,” he said. “Once you learn a skill I believe you can get it back. Now I feel like looking back I weighed more, I was stronger (back then) and faster. I haven’t quite gotten all my strength back, and yet I feel like I’m a stronger player because I’m a stronger person now.
“I’m in better position to push my (physical) limits, knowing what I’m capable of,” he said. “And I’m able to be more of a team leader, speaking with confidence and conviction in what I have to say. And I think people see that.”
Nielsen has high hopes for finishing strong both on and off the field in this his senior season. He’s coming off a promising junior year last season in which he earned Academic All-Mountain West Conference recognition in addition to playing a more prominent role in the Cougars’ lineup.
Replacing injured starter and co-captain Andrew Law at second in the second week of the regular season Nielsen went on to start 51 of 53 games for BYU. He hit a career best .347 off 70 hits in 202 appearances at the plate. He also doubled 13 times, hit three homers and drove in 39 runs though his biggest highlights might have been homering against intrastate rival Utah and registering a pair of hits in a 5-4 upset win over then fourth-ranked Texas Christian.
A reputable and much earned return to form for BYU’s Cougar Council President, an advisory board representing all of the athletic program’s student-athletes.
“I’m not the biggest, strongest guy around,” Nielsen said. “But I’m also very rarely outworked. My dad always told me, he’d talk to me before games, and he’d ask me questions I’d have to answer, (like) ‘Has anyone taken more ground balls than you?’
“He’d go down a list of things I should be doing to get better. If I could get to the end, answering all his questions ‘no” he’d say: ‘Then you have nothing to fear.’ So that mentality has stayed with me.”
BYU is banking on that kind of resolve. The Cougars got off to a 15-12 start with three wins in their first four at home after spending most of the season’s first six weeks on the road going everywhere from Washington to Texas to Missouri. They came back with some key wins over the Red Raiders, the Huskies and San Diego State.
Nielsen hit .237 during that stretch, tripling in a March 18 win over Utah and hitting the sacrifice fly to score the game-winner in a 12 inning 7-6 victory over Portland on March 12. His season highlight, if nothing else, merely thriving again, doing something he loves.
“I love my guys here and I don’t think I could trade my time here for the world,” he said.
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