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 where 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 Nelson learned a greater lesson from his father that 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 might 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.”
Mason Porter is a Sports Information Director for BYU Athletic Communications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.