BYU football: BYU quarterback Riley Nelson shows mental toughness pays off
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Nelson grew up in a family fraught with athletes and competitors. The 6-foot-0, 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.”
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