Jerry Kill was hired as the Gophers football coach in December 2010. Two months later, quarterback Philip Nelson, a junior at Mankato West, came to Kill’s office at the Gibson-Nagurski Building and announced he would sign with the Gophers.
This was basically the launching point for Kill’s program. Tom Lemming, the recruiting maven from Chicago, had Nelson rated as the fourth-best quarterback prospect in the country.
A message was sent the day Nelson committed: Kill and his veteran staff were coaches capable of selling a hopeful future to recruits — and particularly top Minnesota prospects who had options elsewhere.
In the fall of 2010, his junior season, Nelson carried the dream of playing for the Wisconsin Badgers. His father, Pat, had played for the Badgers. The family had lived in Madison until 2005, when Pat’s job as an engineer took the Nelsons to Mankato.
The legend now is that Bret Bielema’s staff did not make a big effort to sign Nelson, because it was solid with Bart Houston, a four-star quarterback from California. Perhaps, but there’s no doubt Nelson had plenty of excellent options beyond Wisconsin on that day he came into Kill’s office in February 2011 and said, “I want to be a Gopher.”
The numbers were sensational in the fall of 2011 for Nelson and Mankato West as the Scarlets steamrolled through the Big Nine, going 8-0 and averaging 49.6 points. They had a bye in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs and were playing Waconia in the second round on a Saturday afternoon in Mankato.
I had seen Nelson play a year earlier, when the Scarlets lost 23-14 to Mahtomedi’s fierce running game in the quarterfinals of the state tournament. Nelson was dynamic running the spread offense, but somewhat lanky as a junior.
He had a different frame when I saw him in the game against Waconia a year later. He was listed at 6-3 and 216 pounds, 20 pounds heavier and looking fully like a Big Ten quarterback.
Asked if the added weight did anything to his mobility, Nelson said: “I did so much work on my legs during the offseason. … I’m definitely faster than last year.”
On this afternoon, Nelson still was the smaller of the two quarterbacks. Waconia’s offense was being run by Maxx Williams, a massive young man and another recruit committed to the Gophers.
Nelson was tremendous, Williams was outstanding on offense and a force on defense, and the final was an entertaining 44-28 victory for West. When the game was over, Nelson and Williams stood on the field for several minutes and talked, including about their workout plans in getting ready to be Gophers.
“Maxx got plenty of hits on me today,” Nelson said. “I’m happy that he’s going to be a teammate of mine.”
You never know.
On that Saturday, Philip Nelson was the star of the Gophers’ future, and Williams was the big, mobile young man who could play linebacker, tight end, fullback or offensive line.
Thirty months later, Philip Nelson was enrolled as a transfer at Rutgers, hoping to become a better quarterback after a transfer season than was the case in a good share of the 16 starts he made for the Gophers. And Maxx Williams, after a redshirt year and a 2013 season as a tight end, had become a cinch (assuming good health) to follow his dad, Brian, to the NFL.
In a few seconds Sunday morning, all of that changed for Nelson. There’s a 24-year-old, Isaac Kolstad, in critical condition in a Mankato hospital, and Philip Nelson is charged in the assault.
A few seconds and lives ruined. Dang, almighty.