MANKATO – Last spring, Philip Nelson and Isaac Kolstad were young men with plans and careers, their futures wide open and promising. Nelson was a college quarterback headed to Rutgers after two years with the Gophers; Kolstad was gainfully employed in his hometown and expecting a second daughter with his wife of one year, Molly.
In seconds last May, all of it was upended when they fought on a downtown Mankato street.
They met again Monday, this time in a tense and crowded Blue Earth County courtroom, to see Nelson sentenced to 100 hours of community service for his role in the fight. Fifteen of those hours must be spent speaking to youth groups about how life can change in an instant.
Nelson had faced a potential 90-day jail term after he plead guilty to fifth-degree misdemeanor assault for kicking Kolstad in the head as he lay unconscious on the street. Judge Bradley C. Walker gave Nelson two days of jail, with credit for the two days he already served.
Nelson stood when the hearing adjourned and hugged his parents while Kolstad’s family mostly sat, disappointed that the man they blame for Kolstad’s near-fatal injuries would go free.
Isaac Kolstad spoke haltingly in the packed courtroom, evidence of his brain injury.
“I can’t hold my own children without someone else watching me,” said Kolstad, a former football player for Minnesota State University, Mankato. “My doctors are afraid I will have another seizure and drop them. I can’t drive. I can’t work. I can’t cook my family dinner.”
Even though a prosecution expert concluded that the kick did not lead to the severe brain injury, Kolstad said, “Philip Nelson made decisions that night that left me with permanent brain damage.”
Before the sentence came down, Nelson apologized in court to Kolstad, saying that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about that May night. Nelson maintained not remembering kicking Kolstad in the head, which was his original statement to police, and he said he wants to take responsibility for his actions.
“I’m sorry to Isaac and the Kolstads,” he said. “I’m sorry to my friends and family for letting them down.”
Nelson and Kolstad passed each other in the hall outside the courtroom after the hearing. They did not speak.
The Kolstads’ family attorney, Kenneth White, said his clients are disappointed with the sentence and will likely sue the 21-year-old Nelson.
Kolstad, a 25-year-old husband and father, graduated from college in 2013. His second child was born while he was in critical condition. He is undergoing physical and occupational therapy, including for his speech and motor skills. A recent video posted online shows him trying to run sprints in a gym with a therapist.
Molly Kolstad said in her court statement that she has forgiven Nelson and also talked about her husband’s lengthy recovery, saying Nelson should thank her family. “It’s through our hard work that Mr. Nelson is not faced with murder charges today,” she said.
She said she was awakened by a soft knock on her bedroom door at 2 a.m. on May 11. A friend of her husband was there to tell her that he had been hurt, and that she should go to the hospital.
“Nothing could have ever prepared me for the conversation I then had with the neurosurgeon to explain to me what we couldn’t see,” she said. “I was eight months pregnant, had just celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary, and was now being asked if I knew what my husband’s last wishes were.”
A push and a kick
Nelson pleaded guilty on Jan. 21 to fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Felony charges that could have sent him to prison for 20 years were dropped.
Nelson admitted to the lesser charge after a prosecutor’s medical expert said that his 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 Trevor Shelley, of St. Peter, Minn., and hitting his head when he fell.
Shelley, a high school classmate of Nelson’s at Mankato West, faces felony charges.
The fight began in downtown Mankato around 2 a.m. when an angry Nelson shoved Kolstad 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 Kolstad walked away, Shelley allegedly punched Kolstad in the head. Video shows Kolstad falling and smacking his head on the pavement. Nelson then kicked a prone Kolstad in the head.
Soon after the brawl, Nelson was removed from the football team at Rutgers University. He had transferred there from the University of Minnesota, where he had played for two years. His lawyer said Monday that Nelson has spent the past 10 months living at home with his parents. His football future remains unclear.