Before Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson was a household name in Wisconsin, he was the middle child of three, growing up in a tiny town in Kansas, trying to get through the list of farm chores as quickly as possible so he could play four sports year-round in high school.
This upbringing of hard work and camaraderie served as the foundation for his unexpected success in college and a springboard to the NFL.
It also begins to tell us a lot more about who Nelson really is underneath the No. 87 jersey.
On the evening of May 17, Nelson will be the guest speaker at the Journal Sentinel’s inaugural High School Sports Awards at the Pabst Theater. Following is his story, as told to reporter Lori Nickel, about what he learned from high school sports. It’s a story he’s happy to pass on to high school athletes today.
I used to go speak at schools for the Wisconsin Dairy Association, for a program trying to get kids to be active and eat healthy, and the first thing I’d ask was: How many of you play video games? And all the kids would get all excited and raise their hands. And I say … that is the incorrect answer.
Get off the video games and go play outside.
I did not have video games. Ever. I grew up on a farm, so we were either working – or playing outside. Any sport.
I am from Leonardville, Kan., a city of roughly 500 people, and when I was in high school a cool thing to do in town would be to cruise Main Street and park along the side of the road and just hang out. Out in the country, you can go camping, you can shoot some guns, you can play basketball in the backyard, or ride some four-wheelers. Or ride some horses. Everybody always asks me, What did you do? And I say, you do whatever you want!
We always went to high school football games, home or away, Friday night. It was the thing to do. I remember when I was in grade school, playing football on our own, on the side, between the end zone and the track. We’d get yelled at when our ball would somehow end up on the football field.
But we were constantly playing.
Both of my parents, Alan and Kim, were athletes, so my older brother Mike, my younger sister Kelsey and I grew up around sports. My parents played in local recreation league slow-pitch softball and we were always playing catch on the side, or we’d sit in the outfield, beyond the fence, to catch home run balls. That’s why I love hosting the Packer player softball game in Appleton to this day; I love slow-pitch softball. (It’s now the Jordy Nelson Charity Softball Game; it used to be headlined by Donald Driver, Brett Favre and others. This year’s game is June 3.) My brother plays it back home and when we went home for Easter, my wife and sons and I played his family and his four daughters. We were out in the front yard with a little plastic ball and bat.
I grew up three and a half miles east of Riley County High School. It is a big building in the middle of the country. It’s not like we were cramped in a little school house. I remember in 1992 or ’93 they added on a really big nice gym. My freshman year we still had a gravel track, and then they put in the normal rubber track.
I played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, ran track in the spring and played baseball in the summer. I never played just one sport year round – I would have hated doing that.
I wore No. 15 my freshman year and then my coach said I would look better and faster if I wore No. 2, so I switched. It worked out. Mike, a grade older than me and a running back, wore No. 1. I wore No. 2 and played quarterback and my younger sister wore No. 3 in volleyball. So when Mike was a senior, I was a junior and Kelsey was a freshman, we were 1, 2 and 3.
For the most part, sports came fairly easy to me – I’m very fortunate and blessed to be gifted that way – but I worked at them all the time. And I really had to work on getting bigger.
When I was a freshman and sophomore, I wasn’t really big. My draft measurements would have only been around 5 foot 10 and 130 pounds. I look back and watch film from when I was the starting quarterback as a sophomore, and it looks extremely unsafe. I’m like, why did my parents put me out there? That looks scary!
So I put a lot of time in the weight room in the summers. Every day, my brother and I would wake up and go work the farm and then at 4:30 p.m. we’d drop everything and we’d go work out, lift and run. My dad understood it – and he wanted us to do it.
I was really fortunate that our coaches were incredible. They were very competitive and made us work hard but they also encouraged us. They expected us to win. They taught us the fundamentals of the game. But they kept it all in perspective. I didn’t have the coach cussing us out and going crazy. They related a lot of what we learned playing sports as dealing with adversity in life, too.
My favorite subject was probably math. I really enjoy numbers. (When I got to college and took calculus – and they took the numbers out and replaced them with letters, I didn’t enjoy math very much anymore.) But math was my best subject in high school.
I was probably a B-average student. I was definitely not a straight-A student. I also never flirted with being ineligible. I didn’t love English. I hated writing papers.
But school always came before sports because I knew without good grades I wouldn’t be able to play sports.
My first car was a two-door Chevy Monte Carlo. We had a Blazer until my mom rolled that one and we got rid of that. I also drove some farm trucks.
I never got in trouble with the cops or anything but I definitely got in trouble with my parents. I’m a boy. I disobeyed a lot! (That’s the thing about raising my boys now. It’s like, my oldest son will do something. You start to get mad. And then you’re like, ohhhh you’re acting so much like I did. And then you can’t get too mad.)
I got an allowance every month for working on our farm — 1,000 acres of pastureland for the cattle that we breed and corn, bean and alfalfa crops. I don’t exactly remember what they paid us. We were probably extremely underpaid in the summer and extremely overpaid in the winter.
It’s the only part-time job I ever had in high school. That was nice because we had to pay for our gas for whatever vehicle we drove to school. We paid for our basketball shoes. We got pretty much anything we wanted – but we were never spoiled with the fancy stuff. We started building up the responsibility.
I was talking to someone the other day and their kid loves shoes, but they don’t pay attention to the fact that they are $100-150 a pair. Well, once that starts coming out of your own pocket … you realize that’s not cheap.
I never owned Air Jordans in high school. I still have yet to buy a pair of Jordans. The only Jordans I ever got in my life were a bowl gift from the Texas Bowl at the end of the 2006 season.
We were 8-2 my senior year of high school football but the best game I probably ever played was my junior year, the opening game of the year. We were playing a good team, we ended up winning. I couldn’t tell my numbers but we were very productive on offense, both running and passing the ball. I also played defensive back and intercepted the ball at the 1-yard-line and returned it for a touchdown.
That’s when things kind of got crazy. I became national player of the week. Which was really weird. I got a lot of recruiting letters that week – and then I never heard from those colleges again.
The most heartbreaking losses I ever had, in every sport that I did, was the last one. The last loss of your high school career. That’s never fun. It’s come to an end. I loved high school sports and I loved playing with my friends that I grew up with.
I did not get any Division I college football scholarship offers. I had two Division II offers, to Emporia State and Washburn University in Topeka, about an hour away. Washburn offered me to play football and basketball – which was very enticing because I loved playing basketball.
Kansas State did recruit me a little bit. They tried to put it in a good light and say, you are a preferred walk on – we just don’t want to give you money. They fed me the great recruiting line that they didn’t have any scholarships left for me – they needed to give them to someone else.
For me it wasn’t too surprising. It was part of being from a small town. I grew up going to K-State games and I held that program in very high regard. Right before I went there, they were No. 1 in the country. They were constantly going to bowl games. In a way, it was hard for me to believe that I could play there or would play there.
Walking on there was a tough decision honestly. But I just knew if I was going to have an opportunity to go professional – which was way, way in the back of my mind – I knew football was the best opportunity, even though basketball is, by far, my favorite sport.
I decided to give K-State a shot – and I’m glad I did.
I had to pay for school myself for two years. Again, that came from my savings from working the farm. Also my grandpa gave each of us kids a cow.
Like, this is your cow; he bought it for us. So we got to keep the calves and we grew our own little herd. By the time I was headed to college, I had about 10 cows. We would sell the bulls and the calf. Back then the bulls were probably worth around $1,500 to $2,000. That was crazy money for us. So I had some money to get through college.
My wife Emily and I did go to our high school 10-year reunion in 2013. She was the class president and she pretty much organized the majority of it. Both of my parents are still there in Leonardville. My sister teaches third grade at the elementary school we went to. My brother farms right there still. I go back in the summers and work out in the high school weight room and help around the family farm.
Now my oldest son is finishing the first grade. One of the things I’ve always said, and my wife and I have agreed, is that we will move back to Kansas one day because I want my sons to experience what I did. I liked the way I grew up. I like the way I turned out so I want my boys to be raised the same way, on the farm, to have an appreciation for what they have.
My oldest knows what I do for a living but he definitely doesn’t understand the money we make. I don’t want him to think, “Oh everyone has this” or it was easy to get.
Also, I enjoyed playing all four sports in high school.
And being an athlete.
Whenever I go to football camps, that’s one thing I always encourage the kids and the parents: Don’t specialize in one sport. If I did that, honestly, I would have probably never played football – because at first I was very small. I finally grew my junior, senior year. If, at that age, I had to pick one sport, well, I was gifted at track, I loved basketball more than any of it, and football would obviously end up being my best sport.
So many sports overlap. What you learn in football will help you with basketball.
And that’s why I want to go back, because Riley County High is small enough that you have to play all the sports. If we didn’t, we didn’t have enough kids to put into all the sports. I feel bad for the kids that go to big schools.
My oldest plays baseball in the summer and the greatest thing for him was finally getting old enough where when he got out at first, he actually got out. No more tee-ball rules of, keep running. You could see the competitive vibe kick in. You could see him think, “I want to get on base – I don’t want to get out.” If he gets out and has to go to the dugout, he is disappointed. I think that’s great. We all have to learn how to deal with that stuff.
I still don’t have video games in my house. Never will. I think they can just become addicting.
I think there’s better things to do.