Riley Nelson: mental toughness pays off

(Photo by Jonathan Hardy/BYU Photo)

Reprinted from Cougar Illustrated, Aug. 30, 2012

Learning to deal with and move past difficult situations is something BYU quarterback Riley Nelson has been mastering since childhood.

Nelson grew up in a family fraught with athletes and competitors. The 6-foot, 196-lbs., senior from Logan was taught  persistence and consistency are critical to achieve success on and off the field. Now, in the final season of a college football career full of ups and downs, Nelson is a testament to the power of perseverance and full-hearted effort.

As a Utah State Aggie, Nelson started eight games at quarterback during his freshman season in 2006. After transferring to BYU and backing up Max Hall for the Cougars in 2009, Nelson earned the starting spot the following year, only to wind up redshirting the season three games in as he recovered from surgery.

When asked if he regrets not staying at USU, where he would have likely been a four-year starter, Nelson said he thinks back to a moment in 2010 during the Cougars’ visit to Romney Stadium in Logan, Utah.

Having undergone a season-ending surgery to repair a shoulder injury, Nelson watched from the sideline as his BYU team suffered a 31-16 defeat. Taunts rained down on him from a crowd who once cheered him on as one of their own.

“They’d say, ‘I bet you wish this,’ and, ‘Don’t you regret that,’ but never once did it cross my mind,” Nelson said. “I had confidence in my decision and I don’t let football success define me at all.”

Even at the lowest point of Nelson’s college career, he maintained an admirable amount of optimism and a quality work ethic. He said despite getting hurt and temporarily losing his chance to start at quarterback, there was still much about life to inspire gratitude and humility.

“I was still going to walk away with a college degree and a lot of friendships and bonds and experiences that would’ve been well worthwhile for me even if I’d never played another minute of football,” Nelson said. “There were maybe times of discouragement but that never affected the decision I’d made because my decision wasn’t based solely on football.”

According to Nelson, the core of the matter was he prayed about the opportunity to come to BYU and felt the Lord had confirmed his decision to take it.

“When I got confirmation I could come to BYU, the answer to my prayer wasn’t that I would start a certain amount of games or score a given number of touchdowns,” he said. “I just felt the Lord was okay with my decision to change schools and so I’ve never had to doubt that.”

In 2011, with former Cougar Jake Heaps entering the season as the supposed starter, there was no certainty Nelson would ever start again or even that he’d be logging serious minutes. Despite his situation, Nelson didn’t wallow in self-pity. Instead, he did all he could to make sure if the opportunity ever presented itself, he’d be ready take over.

“Last year, the only guarantee was I wasn’t going to take the first snap of the first game,” Nelson said. “Guys can get hurt at any time, so of course I visualized myself being in those situations because it was something I felt I could be successful in.”

Nelson believes even if the opportunity had never arrived for him to become the starting quarterback, his preparation and hard work would have been worthwhile.

“If I worked and I prepared and the opportunity never came, that would’ve been okay. It’s not like the effort would have been lost,” he said. “It’s kind of like that old saying when you’re setting a goal, the greatest achievement isn’t necessarily attaining it, it’s the progress you make in striving for it. That was the approach I had last year.”
Fortunately for Nelson, his dedication to preparation has returned him to the starting role. Although it’s been a winding road to this point, Nelson said he’s confident in his ability because he has stuck to his strengths through thick and thin.

“Ups and downs are going to happen throughout your life and you just have to stick with it,” Nelson said. “Just stick to the game plan, stick to what you know, stick to your identity. That part of my philosophy translates on and off the field.”

Understanding the principle of perseverance has served Nelson well throughout his athletic career.  According to Keith Nelson, Riley’s father, even as young man, Riley showed his earnest resolve could overcome setbacks and roadblocks.

“Riley had surgeries at a young age that tested him physically and emotionally,” he said. “They set him back so that he had to start from behind and catch up to the others.”

Keith explained when Riley was 12 years old, he broke his femur, causing a growth arrest in his right leg. The problem persisted until surgery intervened, leaving Riley with scars on the outside of his thigh that resemble bullet holes and costing him nearly half a year in rehabilitation.

“It says a lot about his resolve that he’s the kind of soul who can stick to his goal, despite those setbacks,” Keith said.

Last November, at the Utah 4A State Football Championship, Nelson had the opportunity to teach his younger brother a lesson in perseverance.

Nelson’s brother, DJ, was a senior quarterback at Logan High School and had led the Grizzlies to the state championship game with a perfect record of 13-0. In the championship game they were matched against East High School, a team they had previously beaten.

In the final game, East surprised Logan with a completely new defense. The result was a low-scoring, grind out game that came down to the wire. With two minutes remaining, DJ’s Grizzlies took the field trailing by one point.

“For the whole game, East had really formulated the perfect defensive plan to stifle Logan High’s offense,” Riley recalls. “The clock was ticking away and I was thinking we had one or two more drives in the game. I kept saying to my little brother, ‘Stay with it, they will bust.’”

Riley told his brother to avoid doing anything frantic and to stick to his strengths, even though the East High defense had been causing problems the entire game. Sure enough, on a play they’d ran many times before, DJ found a receiver who’d broken free in the man-to-man coverage and made the game-winning touchdown pass.
“I told him if he stayed calm while everyone else was frantic around him, eventually it would pay off,” Riley said. “He stuck to it, and he threw a 40-yard touchdown pass with 30 seconds or so left to win the game.”

Several months after the state championship game, Nelson said goodbye to DJ, who was called to serve a mission in Puerto Rico. Nelson knows from experience that an LDS mission is a master course in perseverance and making the best of any given circumstance.

In 2007, Nelson was called to serve a mission in Barcelona, Spain. Like many new missionaries, Nelson was excited to serve the Lord and expected his hard work to result in numerous conversions.
“You start off with these expectations of baptizing the whole world,” Nelson said. “But when you get over there, you learn there are so many things you can’t control, including the agency of another person.”

For Nelson, respecting the agency of others and their decision to accept or reject the gospel was an important lesson to learn. It reinforced a principle taught to him by his father in youth league football, that the things you can’t control shouldn’t keep you from putting forth your best effort at all times.

“Of course you want people to accept the message,” Nelson said. “You know  it’s changed your life and you’ve seen it change other people’s lives. At the end of the day, you can’t control if they accept it or not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”

Like many other missionaries, Nelson would put forth great effort to encourage investigators to live gospel principles. For example, Nelson said when he’d invite an investigator to attend church, he would not only call them the night before to remind them, but he’d also get up early the next morning to knock on their door and wake them up.

He remembers times when nobody would answer the door. Other times they would answer and say they were getting dressed, then promptly return to the comfort of their beds. Although it may have been disheartening, Nelson and his companions understood and accepted that, at the end of the day, it was up to the investigators to make that choice.

“You can’t go in there and pick them up and drag them to church, but regardless of their decision, you have to continue to work hard and do your part,” Nelson said. “You keep talking to people and you keep working despite the conditions you’re in. You can’t start moping and miss out on contacting the next person who may be ready to hear the gospel.”

Just like stagnant investigators are no reason to sulk in the mission field, Nelson knows a bad play or a missed call on the gridiron isn’t something to sulk about. He realizes he can’t always control the circumstances he finds himself in and that his reaction to those situations will be a result of prior preparation.

“If you sit there and pout, you’ll get worse as a player and when an opportunity comes you aren’t in a position to take advantage of it,” Nelson said. “You’ve spent all that time feeling sorry for yourself instead of using it to get better.”

It’s clear Nelson’s perseverance and work ethic have helped him make the most of the opportunities afforded him. Along the way, he’s achieved many of the goals he set as an adolescent.

When he was in the eighth grade, Nelson wrote a letter to his future self for an English class assignment. Earlier this year, his teacher mailed it back to him.

The first thing it said was, “I hope you worked hard and got a D1 scholarship.”

Even as an eighth-grader, Nelson knew hard work and perseverance would be the key to attaining his goals. Not only has that philosophy helped him become a Division I quarterback; it’s also helped him persist through the bumps he’s met along the way.

As Nelson puts it, “Once you have a solid foundation and identity, sticking to it through the highs and lows will always be for the best.”

 

 Little League Lessons 

After Riley Nelson led BYU to a last-second comeback win over USU last year, head coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters he admired Nelson’s natural competitive mindset and the fact he doesn’t pout on the sidelines when things aren’t going his way.

As a leader of the BYU football team, Nelson believes his responsibility is to make sure he and his teammates are always putting forth their best effort, no matter the circumstances. It’s a lesson Nelson learned from his father as a Little League football player.

Keith Nelson coached his son Riley’s Little League football team that, according to Riley, only had 15 or 16 players on it. Since Keith’s team lacked the requisite amount of players to do full 11-on-11 scrimmages, he would split the boys into teams of three to help simulate game situations.

As Riley recalls, the drill involved two blockers on the offensive end whose goal was to protect the runner from the hounding defenders. Besides basic football principles, Riley remembers learning valuable life lessons on the field from his father.

“When we were doing this drill, my dad would always, always, call a phantom hold, or he’d call someone offside who wasn’t,” Riley said. “I knew for sure that there was no holding and I knew for sure nobody was offside or whatever the case was, but he’d throw it out there just to see how you’d handle adversity.”

Keith said his motivation for the phony penalties was to test the kids and see if they could remain focused on the task at hand despite the unfavorable conditions.

“In football there are all sorts of calls that can go against you,” he said. “It was a character builder for the kids to have to react to those calls and it’s a lesson that extends to real life as well.”

Nelson remembers practices during which he would get so irritated by his father’s questionable calls that he would yell out in frustration, earning himself a lap around the practice field. Sure, the extra conditioning might have improved him as an athlete, but the lesson Nelson learned from his father affected his entire outlook on the game.

“What I learned from that drill was that you can’t control everything,” Nelson said. “If the ref makes a judgment call that goes against you, there’s nothing you can do about it. All you can do is play the next play.”
When Nelson was relegated to a backup position in the beginning of the 2011 season, he was able to apply the principles he’d learned as a child to help him keep a good attitude and stay prepared for any opportunity that would come his way.

“If it’s the coach’s judgment that I’m not the best player, there’s nothing I can do about that,” Nelson said. “The only thing I can do is move on to the next day. You can’t dwell on those things that have happened in the past. If you feel like there have been injustices or things that you disagree with, you can either sit there and argue and make no progress, or you can do your best to put it behind you and move on.”

On game days, when his team is on the field, Nelson uses the same principle to motivate his teammates to put forth their best effort. Regardless of whether the Cougars suffer a holding call, a pass interference flag or a touchdown called back, Nelson keeps his team focused on the next play.

“As a leader, you want to have that kind of influence on a team and get them to believe that it doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past -- that it’s all about us, together, right now,” Nelson said. “With that attitude, you get guys being more consistent and more effective and that makes for better football.”