MANKATO – Former University of Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson was facing up to 20 years in prison and a ruined athletic career after he took part in a drunken fight last May that nearly killed another man. On Wednesday, he got his future back.
Nelson, 21, pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor that comes with a maximum of 90 days in jail, for his role in a brawl at bar closing time in Mankato that left Isaac Kolstad with serious brain injuries. Felony charges were dropped.
The somber 20-minute hearing in a second-floor courtroom here was the coda to eight months of struggle for Nelson to return to his celebrated life. The Mankato native smiled and hugged his relatives and friends outside the chambers.
Nelson and his family are “relieved that this part is behind him,” his attorney, Jim Fleming, told reporters afterward.
“From a parent’s point of view, this is a hard case to watch,” he said. “You have your children that you love, that … are capable of making mistakes, and things happen, and you just — I don’t think there isn’t a parent in the world that … hears these facts and does not have some compassion for all the people involved.”
Nelson will be sentenced on Feb. 25. In addition to the possibility of three months in jail, he also could face a $1,000 fine.
He pleaded to a lesser charge after a prosecutor’s medical expert said Nelson’s kick did not lead to Kolstad’s severe brain injury. The expert said the victim’s injuries were mainly, if not all, from being punched in the head by a third man and hitting his head when he fell. Trevor Shelley, of St. Peter, also faces charges in the attack.
Dozens of family members and friends mulled outside the courtroom in Blue Earth County Wednesday morning, some looking hopeful, others with strained faces. Nelson strode in with Fleming just before 8 a.m., his supporters filling up the benches behind him.
Nelson answered affirmatively to all of Judge Bradley C. Walker’s questions, acknowledging that he had gone to a bar in Mankato on May 11 to meet friends when an argument began with Kolstad around 2 a.m. on the downtown streets. He confirmed that he’d been struck in the back of the head, was treated for a concussion, and didn’t remember everything that happened that night but had seen surveillance video showing that after Kolstad struck him, he fell to the ground. A third man then knocked Kolstad to the ground.
“The video shows you approaching Mr. Kolstad and making a motion to kick Mr. Kolstad, do you know that?” Walker asked.
“Yes,” Nelson said.
“You are not contesting that those facts show you attempting to inflict bodily harm upon Mr. Kolstad?”
At Fleming’s request, Walker also lifted a prohibition on Nelson talking to witnesses — some of whom are his friends — associated with the case.
Asked afterward about Nelson and his family’s interest in talking to reporters, Fleming said he didn’t think the family wanted to “say anything that inflames any situation … I think they’re just being cautious.”
On Tuesday, Nelson said in statement that he was saddened by what happened:
“I offer my sincere apologies to everyone involved, and I wish Isaac Kolstad the best as he continues in his recovery.”
Kenneth White, an attorney for the Kolstad family, said this week that they were disappointed that the county attorney’s office agreed to the lesser charges. White said the family is pursuing other experts to counter the prosecution’s expert, in anticipation of filing a civil suit.
It all changed in 10 seconds
The fight began in downtown Mankato around 2 a.m. on May 11, when an angered Nelson shoved Kolstad, a former football player at Minnesota State, Mankato, after mistaking him for a bouncer who had kissed his girlfriend, according to a witness interview. Kolstad then knocked Nelson to the ground, but as he walked away, a third man punched Kolstad in the head. Video shows Kolstad falling and smacking his head on the pavement. Nelson then kicked Kolstad’s head.
Nelson and Shelley, then 20 and 21 and former high school classmates, were charged with first- and third-degree assault and Nelson was kicked off the football team at Rutgers University, to which he had transferred from the U.
Nelson’s father this week said his son is eager to resume his college football career.
A prosecution expert, pathologist Michael B. McGee, said this month that Kolstad’s injuries were mainly, if not all, due to being punched in the head and hitting his head when he fell, rather than due to Nelson’s kick.
Kolstad, a husband and father, graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2013. His second child was born while he was in critical condition. He is still in intense physical and occupational therapy, including for his speech. His wife posted on CaringBridge last week that they are now able to “have conversations, have discussions on things.”
County Attorney Pat McDermott said after the morning hearing that he’s said from the beginning the case would proceed based on medical evidence.
“We ask jurors to do their job without passion and prejudice, therefore as a prosecutor that’s what I must do as well. … It’s my job to look at this from an objective standpoint.”
Like Fleming, he acknowledged the tragedy of the case.
“Decisions made by three people in 10 seconds have changed the course of their lives for years to come,” he said.