Offensive Line, 1999-2002
Bruce Nelson never dreamed he’d play for the Iowa Hawkeyes. He just wanted to play varsity football at Emmetsburg high school.
He did that, leading the E-Hawks to a 2A state championship in 1997. When he got a letter from the University of Iowa, Nelson thought it was a mistake.
After deciding to walk on at Iowa, he just hoped to get a chance to play special teams by the time he was a junior or senior. But when Kirk Ferentz became head coach in 1999, he decided to have Nelson — then just a redshirt freshman — practice with the first-team offensive line.
He never left the starting lineup after that.
The former Hawkeye offensive lineman from 1999-2002 started 48 games in his collegiate career, was a finalist for the Rimington Award given to the nation’s best center, was a first team All-American, and eventually reached the NFL and played in a Super Bowl.
Not bad for a guy who just hoped to get an opportunity to play on special teams.
Through all the success on the football field, Nelson never lost sight of his roots and where he came from. After hanging up his cleats, he returned to his hometown, hopped on a tractor, and hasn’t hopped off since.
Nelson, 37, is a fifth-generation farmer on his dad’s side and fourth generation on his mom’s side. He’s married with four kids, ranging in age from one to nine.
“We grow corn, soybeans and kids here,” he joked.
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The former Hawkeye farms with his dad and uncle, and while all three have their own farming operations, they share equipment, time, and energy to get the job done. Nelson didn’t go into detail on the number of acres, but said he has enough to stay busy.
“I really enjoy what I do,” he said. “I love the challenge of trying to make our farm better and improve from year-to-year. It’s the same mentality I had when I was at Iowa. I was part of one of the worst teams in Hawkeye history and one of the best teams in Hawkeye history. We kept working and got better. That’s the same way it is on the farm. I’m still applying a lot of the things I learned at Iowa everyday. It’s really fun to be able to take the stuff I learned and adapt it to make those lessons work in my life and my career.”
When he isn’t farming or spending time with family, the former Hawkeye serves as a volunteer assistant football coach at Emmetsburg high school, sharing his knowledge of the game with a new cohort of football players.
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Nelson came to Iowa as a walk-on tight end, but became the Hawkeyes starting left tackle at the start of his redshirt freshman season. He endured the 1-10 season in 1999 and the 3-9 campaign in 2000, playing a pivotal role in turning around the Iowa football program in the early Ferentz years.
He started at center on Iowa’s 2002 squad that won a share of the Big Ten title and earned an invitation to the Orange Bowl. Nelson was a captain and Team MVP, and was also recognized with first team All-Big Ten and first team All-American honors.
“My senior year was the best part because nobody really expected us to have a great year,” he said. “We were the same guys that were supposedly bums, but we stuck with it. Hard work and determination will pay off if you stick with something long enough. Change can happen, and hard work can be the great equalizer in life. I’m grateful Iowa taught me those skills and lessons.”
Carolina selected Nelson with the 50th pick in 2003 NFL Draft. He saw action in 15 games for the Panthers in 2003, helping the franchise reach its first-ever Super Bowl. But after three hip surgeries, he decided to retire from football.
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Although his football career was cut short due to injury, the former Hawkeye looks back at his time on the gridiron fondly.
“I’m so grateful because I didn’t feel like I had any regrets,” he said. “I got drafted. I got to play in a Super Bowl, and do what a lot of people dream about. And I got to walk away with the health I had. I feel fortunate and grateful for those experiences.”
The former Hawkeye has now come full circle, back in Emmetsburg and hoping to take his children to high school football games just like his parents took him. Those experiences on Friday nights shaped him into the man he has become.
Nelson’s goals for the future aren’t all that different than when he was playing football for the Black & Gold — continue to work hard and get better at whatever it is he is doing each and every day.
“I want raise my kids to be respectful, I want to have a good marriage, I want to continue to grow my farm and I want to help the next generation of E-Hawks learn some life lessons,” he said.