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.