Eric Nielsen likes to build things. His civil engineering major will someday allow him to build bridges, buildings and skyscrapers, but for now, Eric is busy building strong relationships in other aspects of his life.
Growing up in Santa Clara, California, the 6-8, 210 pound, forward always knew BYU was his school. Although he was recruited by Stanford, Santa Clara and Colorado State, he knew BYU was the place he needed to be. The decision to come to BYU was easy because he liked the university's high standards and community.
"I grew up on stories about BYU," Eric says. Going to BYU was something Eric did not have to question. Playing basketball for BYU was something he never dreamed of. Eric would be the first in his family to come to BYU as an athlete.
Eric came to play for the Cougars in 1996, the season when the team record was 1-25. Looking back, he views the season as a growing experience. He doesn't regret playing for BYU as a freshman and he doesn't wish himself elsewhere.
Eric takes the hardships the team endured to heart. He learned valuable lessons about being a member of a team. "I learned to rely on my teammates and my coaches. I learned humility," Eric says.
Eric also looks back at the season as an opportunity to play and get a feel for the court.
"Comparing now to then, I appreciate the experience more," Eric says. Watching the Marriott Center fill with fans has also been a fun experience for Eric.
In the Southern Utah game in November, Eric scored his season high of 12 points. This would be a foundation he would continue to build upon.
Along with building a new relationship with the basketball season, Eric has also had to build a relationship with the new coaching staff.
"I respect Coach (Steve) Cleveland's honesty and love for the game. He has prepared us for the season. He expects a lot and demands a lot and he really cares."
Coach Heath Schroyer was also helpful in preparing Eric for the season. The summer conditioning workouts helped Eric adjust from a two-year mission and get back into the swing of things. Eric found his conditioning to be gradual. He would improve step by step, feel a lull and than improve again.
Although getting back into shape after his mission to Russia was difficult, Eric wouldn't trade the experience he had there for anything.
"I went through high and low times, but I kept working no matter what," says Eric. Eric finds many similarities between his mission and the battles on the court.
When Eric looks back at his mission, he remembers the people and the friendships he built with them.
"They (the Russians) are more tentative to open up to you, but once you're their friend, you're their friend forever. As long as you love them, they'll love you back." Eric carries this love and optimism into his game.
Eric feels very fortunate to be gaining an education and playing the game he loves. One of the only cons he can find about playing basketball for the Cougars is the fact that the season extends over two semesters. Practice and conditioning is intense and it is hard keeping up with school.
After his freshman season, Eric was worried about his future with BYU, but he knew Russia was where he was suppose to be. When Coach Cleveland came to BYU, Eric's parents informed him he would be able to play for BYU when he returned. After finding this out, Eric put basketball aside and went to work.
"My parents never talked about basketball with me," Eric says. Eric was able to focus on his mission and give himself to the people in Russia.
Eric continued working when he returned home. He started strength and conditioning programs and worked as a referee for basketball camps. Eric also started to date Anna-Lena Smith, a second team All-American of the BYU women's volleyball team from Mesa, Arizona. She was also working the camps with her athletic training major. Eric and Anna-Lena knew each other as freshmen and renewed their friendship.
On December 30, 1999, Eric and Anna-Lena were married in Mesa, Arizona, the day after Eric played in California at UC Santa Barbara. Eric scored three points and pulled down seven rebounds against the Gauchos. The Cougars won 57-48. Together Eric and Anna-Lena will build a life together.
Eric says Anna-Lena is supportive of his role as an athlete. "She comes to all my games. It doesn't matter to her if I am not playing well. She knows a lot about mental preparation also." Eric says it is nice having someone who understands what it means to be an athlete. Her understanding makes life easier.
"Eric is the hardest working guy I know. Even in the little things, he is the type of player that every team wants," Anna-Lena says. Even when Eric's game isn't at the level he wants it to be, he never brings his frustrations home.
"Eric is pretty quiet and shy, but when it's time to play ball, he's ready to go, Anna-Lena says.
Eric loves the opportunity he has to study at BYU and play the game he loves. Before a game, Eric relaxes himself, gets something to eat and thinks about the game. Mentally preparing for a game is key to his success on the court.
On the court, Eric builds a name for himself. He works hard and is confident. Eric isn't afraid to take a shot, even if it is from the 3-point line. He has the second highest field goal percentage after Silester Rivers at 53.5 percent and he started in 16 of the first 20 games. He averages 4.7 points a game with 4.1 rebounds and set a career high of nine rebounds at Air Force last month.
After BYU defeated the Cowboys in Provo, Coach Steve McClain of Wyoming said, "You have to give [Eric] Nielsen creditÂŠhe did a nice job defensivelyÂŠif Nielsen doesn't defend like that, Josh [Davis] gets more points." Eric's defensive skills and his presence under the basket only get better with each game.
Eric has stepped up his game from last month. In the Colorado State game, Eric who was averaging 3.9 points, scored in double figures and made his first three-pointer of the year, to score 10 points. He scored five points during a 16-5 run in the first half that gave the Cougars a 24-11 advantage early in the game.
Coach Cleveland knows Eric's athletic abilities and the challenges he has overcome. After the Colorado State game in Provo, Cleveland commended Eric.
"Eric Nielsen had a very good night. Eric is very capable. He can face up and hit that little 15-footer. It's hard to gain confidence in conference games. You don't want to be experimenting. Usually you want to get that done in the preseason. I have never told him not to shoot the basketball. But tonight he was on a roll with 10 points and six rebounds. That is a good night for Eric.
"There's nobody I'm happier for tonight than for Eric Nielsen. It's tough for him because he has been in Russia for two years, eating bread and potatoes, lost 50 pounds and to live what he has been through."
Cleveland also talked about Eric's unselfish desires and strengths as a team player. "Eric is a kid who has no personal agenda. He doesn't care if he scores one point, or what happens. He just wants to help the team."
Eric brings the same intensity to his practices. During the summer, he managed to get 40 stitches in just four months. The stitches came from his intense presence under the basket and a few fierce elbows.
The scar on Eric's lip comes from Mark Madsen of Stanford who played with Eric this summer.
"Someday I hope to be able to tell people that the scar came from Madsen who is now playing in the NBA." Despite the battle scars, Eric is optimistic about his game intensity and those with whom he plays.
Although Eric has been successful on the court, he has had to sacrifice more than just his body. The biggest sacrifice he has had to make is time with his family. Eric's summers have been filled with basketball camps and his holidays with invitationals. His family has been supportive of him through everything. They follow him from one invitational to another.
Eric's basketball career leaves little time for recreation; however, he does manage to get a little time away. Eric loves the ocean and enjoys body boarding. Eric hopes to return to Russia this coming summer. He is looking forward to seeing his Russian friends, going with Anna-Lena and viewing the country in a new light.
As Eric continues to build a strong career on the court, he also is building a lifetime of dreams. Eric hopes to push up the intensity of his game and would like to compete for a few years after college in the United States or overseas.
After basketball, Eric would like to settle down and start a family, perhaps build a few bridges and oversee the construction of a few buildings, perhaps take time for the things he hasn't had a chance to do.
Nielsen builds his game, relationships with teammates and coaches, a new life with Anna-Lena and he builds dreams into realities, higher than any skyscraper. Eric Nielsen is a builder.
Eric Nielsen and Anna-Lena Smith aren't the first athletes from BYU's teams to get married.
There is a long list. Most recently before Nielsen and Smith got married last month, former BYU cager Danny Bower married Smith's volleyball teammate last season, Caroline Steuer.
Current Cougar athletes who have married other BYU athletes include: Joe Ellsworth (basketball) and Samantha Smith (track), Todd Barker (football) and Danna Rast (track), Ben Horton (football) and Erin Murphy (soccer), and Nathan Wente (football) and Lindsey O'Reilley (volleyball).
Former Cougar basketball players who have married other BYU athletes include: Peter Tuipulotu (football) and Mo Wolthuis (basketball), Tom Bell (football) and Rosemary Jensen (basketball), Paul Shoemaker (football) and Tiani Hatch (basketball), and former BYU Coach and NBA player Greg Kite (basketball) and Jennifer Cox (basketball).
Former BYU volleyball players who have married other Cougar athletes include: Chad Lewis (football) and Michele Fellows (volleyball), James Johnson (football) and Gale Oborn (volleyball), and Jesse Gant (volleyball) and Amy Steele (volleyball).
Other Cougar athletes who have gotten married include: Wally Joyner (baseball) and Leslie Johns (gymnastics), Todd Herget (football) and Nancy Bryant (track), Earl Kauffman (football) and Tara Laws (track), Dustin Johnson (football) and Dawn Tabla (track), Aaron Roderick (football) and Laurel Simpson (soccer), Doug Bryant (track) and Treva Bacon (track), and Brian Whitesides (track) and LeAnn Martin (track).
Others include: Derwin Gray (football) and Vicki Ensign (track), Doug Alder (track) and Janeth Caizalitin (track), Dave Chipman (track) and Lisa Burgoyne (track), Tapio Kuusela (track) and Heather Wood (track), Rafael Echavarria (track) and Vivian Estes (track), Kalin Hall (football) and Hollie Hamilton (gymnastics), and Jamal Willis (football) and Leslie Durfey (gymnastics).