PROVO — Being the BYU quarterback means always standing in the spotlight, doing countless interviews, and dealing with overwhelming scrutiny and pressure. It means meeting a high standard of excellence, with expectations of throwing for thousands of yards, and leading the Cougars to victories. It means being compared to the school's legends at the position.
Athletic director Tom Holmoe recently said being the BYU quarterback is the second-toughest job on campus, only after BYU president Cecil O. Samuelson's job.
Riley Nelson not only understands what it means to be BYU's quarterback, he embraces it. And to him, being the BYU quarterback has as much to do with what he does off the field as what he does on it.
While Nelson has worked tirelessly during the offseason to prepare for his senior campaign — which is just days away when BYU hosts Washington State on Aug. 30 — he has gone out of his way to find time to give back, too.
Since January, Nelson has spoken at nearly 40 functions around the state, from Cache Valley to Delta. He shares his message at Fathers and Sons outings. He does Sunday night firesides. He speaks to groups of troubled youth. Of course, his speaking schedule has slowed down since fall camp started in August, with the season looming on the horizon.
"It got to a point where I got bombarded with requests," Nelson said. "I had to say no to a couple of people."
Certainly, he doesn't have to take part in these speaking engagements — he does it willingly.
"Here's the way I look at it — it's not because I'm special," Nelson explained. "BYU is special and the position of quarterback is special. If I can influence someone for good because of that position, then I want to take full advantage of it. I feel like it would be a waste if I didn't. If I can encourage a kid to work harder in school, or to be a better son, or someone who's waffling on going on a mission, if I can share something from my mission that helps him get excited and go, then I have to take full advantage of that. It's been a rewarding experience. I like doing it. The most rewarding part about it is, I've gotten a few e-mails back from people who said, 'What you said really impacted me in this way and I'm going to make these changes.'"
What's his message to the audiences that he addresses?
"I'm a 24-year-old knucklehead college kid. I don't have any wisdom or anything like that," said Nelson, who took over as BYU's starting QB midway through last season. "But my experiences have been unique. If me sharing those can help provide maybe a different insight in a problem someone in a problem they have, that makes it all worth it. Half the time, the kids are on their cell phones anyway, and that's fine. But if there's one kid who listens and decides to change for the better, it's all worth it. It's not a responsibility, but it's an aspect of the job description that I've embraced because, again, it's not me. It's the position that people respect and are interested in. If I can provide a little bit of help, it makes the experience that much more enjoyable."
Two years ago, Nelson was named to the 2010 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which honors "college football student-athletes who demonstrate a unique commitment to serving their communities." During his time at BYU, Nelson has been involved in a number of programs like the Buff Don't Puff, and BYU Sports Hero Day.
At the annual Sports Hero Day on campus, Nelson befriended a troubled sixth-grader who didn't have any interest in the athletes, and hated BYU, according to an article in the recent issue of BYU Magazine, an alumni publication. During the event, Nelson pulled the boy aside, showed genuine interest in him, and offered words of encouragement. That conversation dramatically changed the boy's demeanor and attitude.
Later, the boy told a group leader he wanted to be just like Nelson — for reasons that had nothing to do with football.
Nelson read the article, and he was humbled to learn of the effect he had on the boy.
"It meant a lot because I'm not a guy who is going to make a living in this sport. I'm going to try, but the odds aren't in my favor," he said. "If you can somehow share an uplifting message and maybe lift someone up, that's what it's all about. It's about influencing people for good."
To Nelson, that's a big part of what it means to be the BYU quarterback.
"There is a time limit on it," he said. "It's a position that people look to and respect. After this season, I don't know if anyone will know who I am or care. I'll just be another BYU graduate. So I want to take advantage of that while I can."