MANKATO – A football cradled under his left arm and a smile radiating behind his facemask, Philip Nelson pumped his fist and picked his way through a swarming, jubilant crowd on a crisp sun-kissed, autumn Saturday.
One of Minnesota’s most prolific prep passers ever, Nelson had just quarterbacked the Gophers past a football powerhouse, Nebraska no less, for the second of four straight victories last fall — their longest Big Ten winning streak in 40 years. His father and girlfriend, decked out in maroon and gold, elbowed through the throng to share the euphoria.
Less than seven months later, on a rainy spring Monday in Mankato, Nelson bowed his head and avoided eye contact with his parents, who sat behind him in a Blue Earth County courtroom in their hometown. His ankles and wrists shackled, he faced assault charges in orange jail garb for allegedly kicking Isaac Kolstad, a defenseless and unconscious young father, in the head when a scuffle erupted into violence at closing time in a downtown area known as the Bar-muda Triangle.
Nelson, 20, was promptly cut from his new college team, Rutgers, as people in Mankato spent a stunned week trying to make sense of a senseless twist of events that left Kolstad, 24, struggling to survive brain injuries and Nelson’s once-storybook career in shambles.
A story of a nasty fight outside a bar, which might have attracted scant attention, mushroomed into a national story with a well-known quarterback thrust into the glare of a different kind of spotlight. All for decisions, clouded by alcohol, made in a span of seconds.
“These are the last two guys you’d ever expect to get involved in anything like this,” said Casey Lloyd, a football announcer on Radio Mankato for decades. “Both families are just top-notch, good people.”
Lloyd said bartenders insist “they just never saw Isaac downtown any time at night, let alone at that hour.” Kolstad earned a business degree from Minnesota State, Mankato, and landed a sales job at Fastenal, an industrial supplier. He and his wife, Molly, have a 3-year-old daughter and are expecting a second daughter by month’s end. He’s been in critical condition all week with a fractured skull and brain swelling.
Kolstad has undergone a series of surgeries, including one on Friday, and procedures that have gone well, according to family members.
His family, which has asked for privacy and refrained from granting interviews, said they’re overwhelmed by an outpouring of community support. A Youcaring.com fund-raising site has already quadrupled original goals, pulling in about $40,000. Fastenal, his employer, is holding a silent auction Thursday, according to Kolstad’s CaringBridge page, which has topped 80,000 views.
On Saturday night, the Kolstad family posted this message on the CaringBridge page: "We want to thank everyone for their support and ongoing efforts to help our family. We cannot begin to express our gratitude. As Mankato natives, we are so proud of our community and are incredibly inspired by the things going on around us. Your continued prayers and encouragement are needed and greatly appreciated."
Nelson, meanwhile, has assumed the role of pariah. Former coaches and teammates declined to talk about him, but close friends say Nelson is a soft-spoken, limelight-dodging shy guy, considering his ballyhooed stature as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks ever produced in Minnesota. Nelson, like Kolstad, has no history of fighting or run-ins with police.
“Everyone says the same thing: ‘This is the only thing that’s been on my mind since it happened,’ ” said Lloyd, who joined about 300 people at a Sunday night prayer vigil for Kolstad at MSU, where Kolstad started for three years.
“You looked at these football players,” Lloyd said. “They’re big, they’re tough, they’re athletic — and tears were streaming down their faces.”
Landon Brown choked back emotions as he talked about Nelson and Kolstad. He’s been buddies with Nelson since the would-be quarterback moved from Wisconsin to Mankato in 2005 when he was 11. Brown’s recent roommates are among Kolstad’s best friends.
“These are two of the best, most amazing people I know, and they got caught up in the worst possible situation,” Brown said. “You worry about everybody involved.”
According to court documents, Nelson’s girlfriend since Mankato West High School, Malorie Veroeven, 19, said he became upset when a bouncer at the Blue Bricks bar kissed her hand.
Outside after the bars closed, Nelson ran into Kolstad and a heated argument followed. City surveillance cameras show Kolstad punching Nelson in the back, knocking him and another man over.
A second man charged with assault, Trevor Shelley, then allegedly punched Kolstad, whose head hit the pavement with a thud as he collapsed, witnesses said. Nelson pushed past others and kicked Kolstad, who was limp and defenseless, according to the complaint.
Nelson told police that he thought the man on the ground who punched him was the bouncer who had earlier “hit on” his girlfriend. He said he didn’t recall kicking Kolstad, but one witness said he “just kicked him in the head like it was a soccer ball.”
Brown and Jack Mages, another longtime friend of Nelson’s, have listened to the chatter in town all week and watched the story go national, from ESPN to “Good Morning America.”
“If you don’t know Phil and you just see all these stories, you’re going to think he’s some big thug walking around,” Mages said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“He never got into a fight before,” Brown said. “We joked that that was why he played quarterback — because he didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
Alcohol, friends concede, was a factor. Nelson can’t legally drink until he turns 21 next Sept. 11. While the hotshot quarterback in town getting served underage might anger some, it would shock no one.
Police reports said Nelson’s eyes were bloodshot and he smelled of alcohol.
Said Todd Miller, Mankato’s public safety director: “Anytime young people and alcohol get mixed together, common sense goes out the window and bad decisions get made that can impact many, many lives for a good many years.”
Nelson’s friends flash back to Oct. 26, the day Nelson helped beat Nebraska.
“I’m sure it was the highest point in his life,” Mages said. “It was one of the highest points in my life just seeing him succeed like that.”
Nelson thrived throughout a historic four-game winning streak, racking up 10 touchdowns — seven passing, three rushing — without a turnover. Mankato fans weren’t surprised. After all, Nelson scored a state-record 135 touchdowns at Mankato West and recruiting expert Tom Lemming ranked him the No. 2 pro-style passer in the nation in 2011.
When Nelson picked Minnesota over Wisconsin, where his father played, it gave new Gophers coach Jerry Kill his first marquee recruit and proved he could keep Minnesota talent.
But despite starting 16 games the last two seasons, the storybook roll didn’t last. Nelson and the entire offense sputtered in season-ending losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse.
The Texas Bowl was particularly humiliating. Nelson misfired badly and got benched after two series in favor of Mitch Leidner.
Three weeks after the bowl game, Nelson went to Kill’s office seeking answers. According to people familiar with the discussion, Nelson asked for assurance that he’d be the clear No. 1 quarterback heading into his junior year. Kill shook his head and told him he’d have to win the job.
Instead, Nelson announced he was transferring, looking for a more pass-centered offense. Pat Nelson, who tightly manages his son’s career, said they were contemplating the move long before the bowl game.
“I wish him all the best as he continues his education and football career elsewhere,” Kill said when Nelson announced his departure, showing no animosity about the transfer.
Privately, the coaching staff felt Leidner’s blue-collar style better fit their offense. They liked Nelson and never had any problems with him, but they weren’t crushed, even when he landed at Rutgers, a future Big Ten opponent.
Before Nelson selected Rutgers, his father took him to Phoenix for a week of instruction from Terry Shea, who has worked with NFL quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III.
“He was extremely coachable,” Shea said. “We would meet in classrooms twice a day, and it seemed like he was right on top of it. He’s a very bright young man.”
Nelson picked Rutgers just in time to enroll in class so he could go through spring practice. Under NCAA transfer rules, he knew he’d have to sit out this fall, but he was widely expected to be Rutgers’ starting quarterback in 2015 and 2016.
“I love his attitude,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood told reporters during spring practice. “I’m excited for his future.”
When details of the assault emerged last Sunday, former Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray reacted on Twitter.
“Hope the news I just read on my timeline about my young buck isn’t true!” Gray tweeted, later adding: “I’m shocked. Never thought this amazing kid was capable of this.”
Gray switched from quarterback to receiver for the last seven games of his senior season in 2012, making room for Nelson to start.
When reached by phone last week, Gray declined further comment. He was among 13 former players contacted who either didn’t respond to messages or declined to talk. The Gophers kept their current players off limits. Even Nelson’s high school coach, and another prep coach who knows him well, backed out of scheduled interviews.
Nelson, through his lawyer, and his father both declined interview requests.
“I desperately wish we could tell you the details and the comments that were said,” said Kimberly Veroeven, mother of Nelson’s girlfriend. “No way are we going to do anything that would potentially jeopardize this incredible kid any more.”
Kill issued a statement four days after the arrest, saying simply: “What happened was a tragic situation, and I am sending my thoughts and prayers to all the families involved.”
Jamel Harbison, a wide receiver who had come to Minnesota with Nelson before transferring himself, said he couldn’t believe Nelson had been charged with assault.
“I basically dropped to my knees because this is a life-changing situation,” he said. “As soon as I found out, I called a couple [former] teammates, and they were basically shocked themselves, saying, ‘What? That’s not Phil.’ It’s just a situation where alcohol probably got the best of him.”
Back in Mankato, Nelson’s closest friends “still have his back,” according to Landon Brown, but many of last fall’s well-wishers have turned on his friend.
“All his No. 1 fans when Phil’s on top, everybody who wanted to be his best buddy, those people can’t stop bashing him now that he’s on the bottom,” Brown said.
He said he can’t look at Facebook and Twitter, angered about one post that claimed the fight was some kind of fallout between Mankato West and East, the two high schools Nelson and Kolstad attended.
“It’s ridiculous,” Brown said. “And I can’t name one person on the west side of town that is not praying as hard as the people on the east side of town for Isaac to recover.”