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The Nelson family focuses on doing their best — not besting others

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 9:03 a.m. MDT

Nelson brothers D.J., left, Riley, middle and Chase, right. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family) Nelson brothers D.J., left, Riley, middle and Chase, right. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family)

LOGAN — Only one thing was more talked about than BYU quarterback Riley Nelson's 96-yard touchdown drive that capped the Cougars dramatic, come-from-behind win against Utah State two weeks ago — his long, wavy hair.

It was a brief controversy though, as Nelson received a haircut the very next day. (And it wasn't because of the Facebook page devoted to his hair.)

"We saw him (Saturday) afternoon," said his father, Keith Nelson, "that next afternoon, and his hair was already taken care of."

But, for the record, it wasn't vanity — or rebellion — that caused Nelson to grow his locks a little longer than BYU's honor code allows.

It was brotherly love.

Logan High School vs. Cottonwood High School football played in Murray, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Logan High School vs. Cottonwood High School football played in Murray, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"I don't really know where any of it began," said Nelson's younger brother D.J., who is a senior and quarterback of the Logan High football team. "(I) and a couple of the football players just started growing out our hair in the spring and over the summer. We took on a thing where the hair gives you power, like Samson in the bible and Porter Rockwell. …The hair gives us power."

And then his mom, Joni Nelson, who does not approve of the long locks on any of the boys, adds, "Riley pushed the limits in solidarity with his brothers."

D.J. laughs as he confirms this.

"He was growing it out with us," he said smiling at the youngest of the three Nelson boys, Chase, a sophomore, as both of them still sport the longer hairstyle.

The long hair was just a tangible example of how the Nelson boys share more than just a surname. Keith and Joni Nelson managed to raise four children marinated in the perfect blend of competitiveness and cohesiveness. They are driven in their personal goals, while also fiercely supportive of the endeavors of their siblings.

D.J. Nelson of Logan, right, pitches out to John Schmidt of Logan, left. Logan High School vs. Cottonwood High School football played in Murray, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) D.J. Nelson of Logan, right, pitches out to John Schmidt of Logan, left. Logan High School vs. Cottonwood High School football played in Murray, Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"Riley talks to each one of them two or three times a day," said Keith Nelson. "They bounce things off each other."

Adds Joni, "He really works hard at staying a part of their lives. He calls them, encourages them and calls them before and after their games."

D.J. said having his brother on the sideline of his games gives him an extra edge.

"The couple of games that Riley's been on the sideline, it's like having another coach there," said D.J. "One that, well, it's like watching yourself play from the sideline. We both play football the same way; we run the same offense in high school. It's like having yourself evaluate your play."

Part of their synergy comes from their shared experiences — including growing up in a family that's passion for athletics has to be in the DNA.

The Nelson family children from left, Riley, Jordan, Chase and D.J., have shared a competitive streak while growing up. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family) The Nelson family children from left, Riley, Jordan, Chase and D.J., have shared a competitive streak while growing up. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family)

Life for the Nelsons doesn't revolve around athletics, but it certainly permeates most of what they do. In addition to football, all of the boys play baseball, while the Nelson's only daughter, Jordan, danced and was a cheerleader at Logan High and at Utah State.

"I came from an athletic family," said Joni Nelson, who is a USU alum. "My father was a coach and an athletic director at Utah State, and dancing is a competitive thing, and that's just what I was raised in."

A passion for sports was established long before Riley Nelson became one of the state's best high school quarterbacks. The junior at BYU first gained notoriety as Logan High's quarterback, where he led the Grizzlies to a 3A state title in 2005 and shattered nine state high school records. He earned about every accolade a prep star can earn including, Gatorade Player of the Year, Parade All-American and Deseret News Mr. Football.

BYU's No. 13 Riley Nelson zigs and zags his way past USU players as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) BYU's No. 13 Riley Nelson zigs and zags his way past USU players as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

But in reality, Riley was just one in a long line of Nelsons, and Tuellers, who flourished on the football field.

Keith Nelson won a state football title at Logan High, along with an uncle, and Joni's father played for a state title.

So what was it like for D.J. to try and follow generations of successful football players at Logan High? And was it difficult to be known as Riley's little brother?

"When I first walked into high school, that's what I was known as," said D.J. with a smile. "I didn't mind at all. I like Riley and I know it's nothing personal. I knew eventually I was going to have a chance to make a name for myself, and I took advantage of it. It didn't bother me at all because Riley is a good ball player and I consider that a compliment. Second, it's just I've always been known as that."

DJ Nelson is following in his brother's footsteps as QB at Logan.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) DJ Nelson is following in his brother's footsteps as QB at Logan. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

D.J. and Riley Nelson share more than just a similar playing style.

They both shared the starting quarterback job with a teammate last season. While D.J. shared time with Luke Falk (who transferred to a school in California but is now back in Logan), Riley and Jake Heaps shared BYU's starting job until an injury sidelined Riley for the remainder of the season.

As Logan's sole starter this year, D.J. is making a name for himself. He leads the state in touchdowns — 17 rushing and 28 passing — and the Grizzlies are undefeated and ranked No. 2 in 4A.

The same week that D.J. Nelson accepted a scholarship offer to USU, Riley, who began the year as a back up to Heaps, was inserted into the game in the third quarter with BYU trailing USU by 13 points.

BYU's No. 13 Riley Nelson dives forward as he is tackled by USU's No. 29 Alfred Bowden as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) BYU's No. 13 Riley Nelson dives forward as he is tackled by USU's No. 29 Alfred Bowden as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The same night D.J. Nelson scored eight touchdowns in a rout of cross-town rival Sky View, Riley Nelson led that two-minute, 96-yard drive that meant another heartbreaking defeat for the Aggies.

Joni and Keith were in the stands watching D.J. and Chase play, but all around them people gave them updates about the BYU game and Riley's heroics.

Because Riley Nelson attended USU his freshman year, but then transferred to BYU after his mission, it might seem that many in Logan would harbor resentment toward Riley and or his family.

But most of the feedback the family gets is that people are generally happy to see a native son succeed.

"Riley is a Cache Valley boy," said Keith Nelson. "He's from here; he's a hometown boy. He'll always have a spot in his heart for Cache Valley and Utah State. We get a little out of hand with these rivalries. I'd like to think, in general, the valley feels that same way."

San Jose State' Anthony Larceval, right, tackles BYU quarterback Riley Nelson during the first half of an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011, in Provo, Utah. (Associated Press) San Jose State' Anthony Larceval, right, tackles BYU quarterback Riley Nelson during the first half of an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011, in Provo, Utah. (Associated Press)

D.J. and his family were happy for Riley's success, but a little saddened that it came at the Aggies' expense.

"It was a weird feeling," said Chase. "He threw the touchdown pass to Marcus Matthews, and we love Marcus. I was happy for Riley, but I was gut-wrenchingly disappointed because I know the Aggies are amazing."

When Riley Nelson was criticized in the media and on message boards after announcing the transfer, the family made the decision not to read articles or comment boards without the endorsement of a trusted friends or family.

All of them have had moments of wanting to publicly defend Riley, but it's at his urging that they let it go. After all, his brothers point out, the people writing negative things about his brother do not know the real Riley Nelson.

Jordan, the only girl in the Nelson clan, shares the same athletic streak as her brothers. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family) Jordan, the only girl in the Nelson clan, shares the same athletic streak as her brothers. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family)

In fact, it's knowing their brother that keeps them from shying away from comparisons. In fact, they both relish being linked to both him and their sister.

"I've always been proud of it," said Chase. "I'm proud of my brothers and my sister and looked at what they did and follow their examples."

Still, the expectations can feel less like flattery and more like pressure at times, right? Not at all D.J. and Chase insist. In fact, if they can't manage to live up to the expectations of those outside the family, they don't worry because they know how exactly how those inside the clan will react.

"No pressure because I think if something doesn't go my way, they're still going to be there for me," said Chase. In fact, what others see as pressure, he sees as something to aspire to.

Chase Nelson is the youngest of the three Nelson boys. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family) Chase Nelson is the youngest of the three Nelson boys. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family)

Part of the reason Chase and D.J. don't mind being measured against their brother's accomplishments is their affection for him outweighs their need to break free from his reputation.

And while sports is a integral part of Nelson family life, it is not the only, or even the most significant, shared passion.

Their commitment to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is something that binds them in ways that other things cannot. Last summer, the entire family traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to walk the same streets, sit in the same pews and enjoy the same people that Riley "fell in love with" while serving the church as a missionary for two years.

The experience, said Joni Nelson, was most moving to Chase and D.J., both of whom say they plan to serve missions of their own.

Chase Nelson is the youngest of the three Nelson boys. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family) Chase Nelson is the youngest of the three Nelson boys. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family)

"For these boys to see how much you can fall in love with people through service was really wonderful," said Joni Nelson. "Riley really opened up to them."

The Nelson boys also have a deep affection for baseball (Chase's best sport), everything Cache Valley, quoting lines from movies like 'Madagascar' and television shows like 'The Office', their only sister, the hugs of their mother and the advice of their father.

All four children play the piano, and while D.J. is probably the most musical, the family agreed, that Riley's mission gave him an edge on the instrument.

Riley and Jordan were always a little closer growing up, while the two younger boys were inseparable.

"The family called them the bear cubs because they wrestled non-stop," said Joni laughing. "They just rolled around for so many years we didn't know who was D.J. and who was Chase. Riley was older, so he kind of broke it up."

Jordan Nelson, left, Riley Nelson, right. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family) Jordan Nelson, left, Riley Nelson, right. (Photo courtesy of Nelson family)

Jordan Nelson Farmer, who married a Logan High teammate of Riley's, Cole Farmer, a year ago, said she enjoyed growing up among rough and rowdy boys. (Even if Riley did make her chase down baseballs that he hit off a tee.)

"It was a lot of Ninja Turtles, a lot of baseball and a lot of football," said Farmer, who attends Utah State. "I can't imagine life with sisters — or life without my brothers."

The siblings say they push each other, but only in the best ways. In fact, mom bristles at the suggestion that her children are competitive.

"I don't think of it as competitiveness as much as the fact that they work hard," she said. "We've always taught them to work hard and do their best. I always look at it as they're just trying to do their best. Their dad taught them to do their best from beginning of the game to the end of the game. And so I think of it more as just hard work and a good work ethic."

Riley Nelson earned the Deseret News Mr. Football award in 2005. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Riley Nelson earned the Deseret News Mr. Football award in 2005. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

But then someone brings up the ping-pong table, and amid laughter, she concedes she might be realizing that they're a little competitive.

"There definitely needs to be a parent there to monitor it."

And Chase admits it's not just ping-pong.

"Chess has been taken away," he said grinning.

Still, Keith Nelson draws the distinction this way. He and his wife teach their children to do their best — not try and best other people.

"We want them to do their best, not try and be better than someone else," he said. "Whether you can teach competitiveness or not, I don't know. But if there is a tendency for it, I think it can be developed. As tight as we are, it seems kind of natural that we push each other, as well as help each other."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com, Twitter: adonsports

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