Dan Nelson is a 21-year-old true sophomore who transferred from Arizona Western JC in Yuma, Arizona last January. Nelson will start this Saturday against Oklahoma State since Justin London is injured.
Give us the story on how you came to UCLA, starting from high school...
“I graduated from high school in 2001. Out of high school I went in the Marine Corps. I was in the Marine Corps for about a year and a half. I got sent home. I went back to Boise, Idaho, where I’m from, and for a semester that fall I went to my old high school and did student teaching and coaching there, the d-line and the running backs. I was 19. So I was pretty much the youngest guy doing that, at 19. It was a great experience. I really liked it. I then kind of thought I’d like to play football again, but didn’t think I’d be able to play. So I spent that fall when I was coaching also rehabbing.”
Rehabbing because you were injured when you were a Marine?
“Yes, my back. So, I didn’t even know what JC football was. I started looking into it. In the northwest there are no JCs that have football. So I sent some letters to some JCs, and I only heard back from four or five of them. One of them was Arizona Western in Yuma, Arizona. Coach (Bob) O’Mera was originally from Idaho back in the ‘70s, so he still keeps up on Idaho high school football a little bit. He kind of remembered me from high school and decided to take a chance on me. I was thinking I’d be student teaching for the rest of that year and start playing the next fall. But he said, ‘Just come down right now.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready with my back. I haven’t played football in a long time.’ And he said, ‘Just come down, give it a shot.’ So I went down there to Yuma in January, spent the spring semester there. It went really well. I think everyone was kind of surprised, including myself. I played one season there in the fall and then came to UCLA.”
When you were at the high school teaching and coaching, did you ever think you’d play football again, with your back injury?
“Definitely not. Football was really the last thing on my mind. Which is really weird since it’s the only thing on my mind now. Yeah, but I really wasn’t thinking about playing. And was pretty disappointed. I never even thought about coaching either. It was just kind of a chance opportunity. They asked me if I’d like to coach and I did it. At first it was just for a week-long summer camp and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to help out.’ And I don’t mean to brag, but I think I have a little bit of talent for coaching. It went well and they wanted me to stay around and I wanted to stay around. And then that season we ended up going undefeated. So it was great.”
When did you realize you could play again?
“I never really did. Coach O’Mera took a huge chance. No other JCs offered me a scholarship except for him. But see, I had start rehabbing when I came back to Boise. And that included running. The only thing I hadn’t done is hit or take hits. But I felt strong. And then after coaching, I realized I couldn’t live without football. After being so concentrated on one thing like the Marines, and then getting out and having absolutely nothing, even though it was just a month, it was a lifetime for me. I was so lost. And then I found football again, even though it was in coaching. So that made me decide I was either going to try to play and it works out or it doesn’t work out. I said that to my family. We didn’t know what to expect.”
So, you’re at Arizona Western. What schools recruited you?
“Arizona State offered me. UNLV. A lot of places came in late. New Mexico, Idaho.”
Why’d you pick UCLA?
“Well, this place is by far superior academically to those others. I don’t want to talk trash about them but I think UCLA’s academic reputation stands for itself. Plus, it was just a feeling. My dad went here back in the ‘60s. He didn’t play football. He graduated in 1968 in Political Science.”
How did UCLA find you?
“Actually I don’t know. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I was in Oregon with my fiancee. It was just a short break from Yuma and I got a message on my cell phone from Coach O’Mera. He said UCLA was trying to get a hold of me and he wanted to give them my personal number.”
So within a couple of months, you go from not being able to play, to playing as a freshman at Arizona Western, to getting recruited by UCLA by Thanksgiving?
“Yeah. Spring ball at Arizona Western had gone well. I think a few people started contacting my coach, trying to get a little look, having seen some of the spring ball tape. I think Coach O’Mera helped out with them. He was really positive with them.”
And now you’re going to start at the Rose Bowl?
“Yeah. There you go. It’s pretty amazing. But everything has been pretty amazing. To go from the Marines that quickly, and then to be in school, just to be there, was amazing. Then I started playing. And then the next fall when schools are calling it was great. I thought I was going to spend two years there. And it was less than one.”
How long did UCLA take before they offered?
“They recruited me for two or three weeks before. They wanted to meet me. They sent a coach there to see me. A coach that isn’t here anymore. Then I took the trip here. It was my last trip. I could have had one more, but after here I decided UCLA was the place for me. On my trip they offered me and I accepted.”
How do you think you’ve developed in your football skills since spring practice?
“I think – and hope – I’m pretty much a completely different player than I was in spring. In spring it wasn’t exactly a camp setting. There was school going on and other things. I kind of got thrown into it my first day. They’re telling me the defense and I had no idea what I was doing. That was a really steep learning curve for me. I didn’t perform very well during the spring. I think in a way maybe I was intimidated. It wasn’t so much like, ‘I’m at UCLA and these guys are so much bigger.’ It wasn’t anything like that. It was more, ‘I don’t know anybody.’ I was the new guy. I was kind of intimidated to come in and just play like myself. And I lacked the confidence in the system, because I didn’t know the system. Now I know the system. I still make mistakes but I feel like it’s not even comparable to spring.”
So you know the scheme well enough now that it’s not hindering you?
“Yeah. I’m actually able to play now. That’s nice. It doesn’t usually work when you have to think about what you’re doing and the plays only last a few seconds.”
So you’re being far more aggressive now, being more comfortable?
“Definitely. The middle linebacker position is the quarterback of the defense. It’s really impossible to take that role unless you know the defense yourself. You can’t tell everyone what to do if they look at you and are like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ Now I think that’s changed. I know my role. I’m the replacement guy. But in that replacement I’m replacing a leader, so I might as well try to take over as much leadership as I can.”
What is that like? Taking over not only the position but the role of leadership?
“That’s not a problem. In the Marine Corps, I was 19-years-old and I was in charge of guys who were 32-years-old. And it’s not even a comparable situation because people’s lives were at stake. That’s pressure. This is just...well, easier. It’s football. Plus, everyone on the defense knows the system pretty well. It’s not like I have to teach them anything because they’re all pretty comfortable.”
What are your goals for the season?
“I want to win. I know everyone says that, but it’s true for me. I’ve been lucky enough never to be on a losing team. And I don’t think I’m going to be on one this year. That’s what I’m here for. They brought me here to bring some maturity. I’m a 21-year-old true sophomore, so they’re looking to me for that. I think I’m doing exactly what they brought me here to do, even if it’s just by accident how it now has happened that I’m starting at middle linebacker. They brought me here to play in case someone got hurt, and they got hurt.”
Are your parents coming to the game?
“My mom will come to the game. My dad is a pilot for the Forest Service. So he’ll be working, flying. Retired Navy pilot. But my mom’s coming from Boise. They’re both pretty excited. They’re both huge UCLA fans. So I grew up in a Bruin family, and at the very least, hating USC. I’ve always hated ‘SC.”
So do you see your future in football?
“I now don’t see myself ever leaving the game. There are other things that I like to do. I boxed in high school, in the Junior Olympics. And I really loved that. I played rugby, too. But yeah, I’ll be involved with football, and coach football, as long as I can.”
Do you take notes on how the coaches coach?
“Of course. I really do. It’s funny you say that because when I first got to Yuma, that was pretty much all I was doing. That became a problem for a little bit because I just watched the coaches. I kept thinking, ‘That’s a great idea. That’s a great idea.’ It took me a while to get back in player mode. I’m completely in player mode now. But I do watch the coaches, Coach Dorrell, Coach Cable, Coach Schneider, Coach Kerr, and I take all of things I can from those guys. Everyone does that I think. Players are all really proteges of their coaches.”
How will it feel to play in the Rose Bowl, after not thinking you’d be able to even play football just a short time ago?
“I don’t know. I’ve never even seen a game in the Rose Bowl before. Not even as a spectator. I’m not from here. I’ve heard about it, and heard stories about it from my mom and dad. I really don’t know. I think usually I’m pretty focused. I don’t usually notice things like that, what’s around me. But I think I’ll pretty much notice this. I mean, I’ve been to the Rose Bowl before but not with 80,000 people there. So that might make a difference.”
Does the war in Iraq keep things in perspective for you?
“Yes. It’s very easy to keep things in perspective. I remember when I first went down to Yuma I was just amazed I was there. It was right at the beginning of Iraq. I was watching it on TV. Everyone else I knew was there, and I was now playing football. It keeps everything in perspective for me every time I go home and I turn on the TV. Or every time I get a call from somebody or get an e-mail from someone overseas. Or when I call home and check with my friends’ families. I don’t forget about the guys. A lot of the guys I know are still over there. I went home this summer and saw some of their families. That very easily could be my family. It’s pretty scary for them. And it keeps everything in your life – like football – in perspective.”