About a week ago, I spoke with Patriots great and team HOFer Steve Nelson to wish him a Happy Holidayâs message. I had the pleasure to meet âNellieâ as he is known to many in Patriots Nations, a few years ago at a Red Sox game when my son was the Honorary Batboy that evening. We spoke at length, and later would meet for lunch at Foxboro with another friend of ours Doug McPherson who is the VP for HMEA who we both help raise funds for.
Through Doug and the great folks at HMEA, I had gotten to know Nelson pretty well and weâve talked about football on many occasions, including him doing a weekly Pats pre-game column with me that I did with another site a few years ago. We did a Public Service announcement radio spot for HMEA last spring and it was hilarious. Steve did his bit in one take, mine took about 15. Nellie in his deadpanned way said, âHey Steve, uhâŠyou do know I have to get home tonightâŠâ
I had hoped to get Steveâs impression on the 2011 Patriots team, but he was on the mend, and in some discomfort from his hip, a by-product of playing ILB in the NFL for so many years. But unfortunately, that wasnât to be. So, this is the interview I did with him at that time, when he talked about his Patriots career. Pats fans from that or any other era, should enjoy some of his comments. So Happy New Year Nellie and get well soon.
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Nelson, great LB of the New England Patriots at of all places, a Boston Red Sox game. He was there doing an appearance at the Red Sox Disability Awareness Day, one of many public service events he supports year round.
He graciously agreed to talk about some of his playing days with us, and we met for lunch on Friday at the new CBS Scene Restaurant at Foxboroâs Patriot Place. Patriot Place is the shopping and entertainment extravaganza constructed by Pats owner Bob Kraft in the stadium complex.
For those either too young to remember or not big Patriots fans, Nelson was drafted by the Pats with 2nd pick in the 2nd round, the 34th overall pick in the 1974 NFL Draft. He played his college ball at North Dakota State for then coach Ron Erhardt. He was the team captain in 1973 and team MVP for both 72-73 at both DE and OLB. Times were changing in New England, after a decade of frustration and losing, Chuck Fairbanks was brought in from Oklahoma to right the ship. Always a great judge of talent, Fairbanks drafted Nelson and other players that quickly turned the Patriots from a door mat into Super Bowl contenders.
Nelson or âNellieâ as he is known to his friends played Inside Linebacker (ILB) for 14 years for the Patriots. The 6â2 235 lb ILB played in 174 career games, with 173 starts all with New England, still ninth best in team history. He made 1776 tackles (a nice number for a Patriots player) in his career, an average of 10.2 per game, an extraordinary number for a 14 yr career. A tremendous run stuffer, he anchored the defense in the middle and led the team in tackles for 8 out of his 14 seasons. His 207 tackles in 1984 remain the teamâs record as is his 22 tackle effort against the Jets on 9/19/82. He was named to the Pro-Bowl three times, the Patriots 35th Anniversary Team in 1994, and the Patriots Team of the Century in 2000. His number 57 was retired and he was named to the Patriots Hall of Fame in 1993.
He appears virtually the same sans the beard even after being retired now for many years. After some small talk about families and mutual friends, I asked him about what it was like when he broke in back in 1974. âIt was a much different game and era back thenâ he said. âTraining camp would start at the end of June; we had 6 pre-season games back thenâ. Â âChuck Fairbanks really wanted to see who wanted to play football, and our season wouldnât even begin until mid-Septemberâ.
He added, âChuck Fairbanks was a no-nonsense kind of coach, brilliant always seemed to be ahead of the gameâ. âHe had a great deal of confidence in his assistant coaches and gave them a great deal of responsibilityâ.
We spoke about how innovative Fairbanks was and how he brought the then âOklahoma 3-4 Defense to the NFL. Â âChuck Fairbanks was one of the best talent evaluators everâ he said. âHe knew what would work and always could pick out great players to fit the teamâ. âBill Parcells would bring him in to training camps in Dallas to give his opinion on playersâ Nelson added. âHe is still a great talent evaluatorâ. âOur practices were always physical and intense under Fairbanksâ.
âWe used to practice at a high school field in Foxboro near the Wrentham line and we would have to get dressed and drive our own cars over to the practice field!â. He laughed and pointed over at the Patriots modern facility in the background, âJust a little different nowâ.
I told him that I recently read where Bill Belichick had spoken about Fairbanks and had said that the Patriots terminology for the 3-4 Defense they run today was virtually the same as he had run 35 years ago and that Fairbanks could come in today and make all the defensive calls with little difficulty. âI didnât know thatâ he said âbut it wouldnât surprise me. I loved playing for himâ (Fairbanks) he added.
I him asked him who the toughest RB he ever had to face. âEarl Campbell, he was an absolute horse, you could have him wrapped up with two or three guys and he just refused to go downâ. When he hit you, it was full on and you knew itâ. âFranco Harris, Rocky Bleier, OJ Simpson, Tony Dorsett all of those guys were great, but brought different things to the table, but if you had them, they would go down or run out of bounds, CampbellâŠ never, heâd still try to run over youâ.
âBack then the Dolphins were still in their prime, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick were very good but Larry Csonka was another guy that could really move the pileâ. âHe was very tough to bring down, another horseâ. âWe had Sam Cunningham who was another big tough guy and we had Mack Herron (Mini-Mack) who was the other side of the spectrumâ.
Who was the best QB you ever had to face? I asked him. âDan Marinoâ, he replied almost immediately. âYou could get an interception on him on one play, and heâd come right back the very next time and complete that same play time and again.â âHe could get rid of it so fast, it was hard to get a hand on himâ he said. âBut there were others that stand outâ. âBert Jones with the Colts was tough and could really throw the ball, Joe Ferguson for the Bills back then was really goodâ. âThere were other guys but we didnât see them as much as guys in our own divisionâ.
We then turned to teammates, Who was your favorite teammate I asked him. âWhoa, so many, Iâd have to say Sam Hunt, (ILB Sam Houston St. â74-79) Sam and I were really good friendsâ. âWe got drafted together and came up at the same time, he was a great football playerâ. âSam was really bigâ, he laughed âbut by the 4th quarter, he wasnât hitting âem nearly as hard as he did in the 1stâ. âBut Sam could really bring itâ.
Russ Francis- âRuss was a great football player, he and Casper (Dave TE for Oakland) changed the way TEs play, they were the first guys who were true deep threats at the positionâ. When Russ would get ticked off, he could just flat dominate out thereâ. âWeâd laugh on the bench when Russ would get mad, which he rarely ever did, and weâd tell Steve Grogan, âjust run the ball to Russâ sideâ. He could do it all, a great player and a great teammateâ.
Michael Haynes/Tim Fox â âThose guys were more examples of great drafting by Fairbanks, they came in and played as rookies and did real wellâ. Haynes went to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1997.
Clayton Weishun (ILB,82-84,86) âClayton was a helluva football player and just a great guyâ he said. âHe was a real good LB, I remember he got 3 bits of really bad news on the same dayâ. âHe got cutâ( when he couldnât return from an injury), âhe found out his wife was really sick and his daughter nearly cut her finger off all on the same day!â. âBut today, he a cotton farmer in San Angelo, Texas and doing well and his daughter is now a doctorâ he said.
He commented on the sad end to the life of LB Rod Shoate, âRod was a great, great college football player and just got caught up in the trappings of the big city. And the late Leon Gray, âLeon was a heck of football playerâ I mentioned Gray and Pete Brock to him and the enduring image of them clapping the arrival of the John Deare tractor during the Snow Plow Game of 1982. During a blizzard at Foxboro, conditions were terrible, and 0-0 game with 3 minutes left seemed headed for a tie but the Patriots drove deep and just before attempting a 33 yard FG,
Mark Henderson a convict on work release was driving a tractor with a broom rather than a plow to clear off the yard markers. But at the last moment he veered into the path where Kicker John Smith would attempt the FG, clearing a perfect path for him. Smith drilled it with ease and Dolphins coach Don Shula was livid. Nelson remembers, âA few years ago, Don Shula was talking to some guests at the grand opening of one of his âShula Restaurantsâ, a few of us were invited down thereâ. âAnd Don was going on and on about how the fans of Boston and New England had always been very nice to him and how he enjoyed it up hereâ he said.
âShula then started talking about the Snow Plow Game and how at the end of the game, all of this good will disappears as they plow the field right before the FGâ. Nelson then added, âShula then said, to add insult to injury, this convict as he goes by our (Dolphins) bench, gives me the finger!â We then laughed at how the John Deare tractor now sits in a place of honor, forever suspended from the ceiling at The Hall at Patriots Place, the Patriots Hall of Fame next door from where we sat.
We spoke about the great rivalry the Patriots had then and now with the Jets. âI donât what it was, but our two teams absolutely hated each other and every game was an event.â âBack then, they had Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko, Klecko was a great player and just a great guy as well â he said. When I mentioned the rivalry just might be a continuation of the Boston-New York feud, like the Yankees and Red Sox, he said, âIt could be, but all I remember was that we just hated those guys and couldnât wait to play themâ.
He mentioned the infamous Monday Night Football game against the Jets where the Patriots dominated 41-7 but the game turned in to Monday Night Madness, when scores of fans were arrested and drunken brawls were all over the stadium. âThat was a crazy nightâ Nelson explained, âThey were fighting in the stands, and even on the fieldâ, and some people were arrested and chained to the fence.
What game was the one he most remembers? âWell other than the Super Bowl, probably my first game as a pro, which we won over Miamiâ. âBut there are so many itâs toughâ.
I then asked him about a sore subject, âLetâs talk about the â76 Playoff gameâ I said. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders as if to say ask away. A little bit of background on the game for anyone not knowing about this, the Patriots of 1975 had ended the season miserably again, decimated by injuries, a season with so much hope had again turned sour. âThere was panic in the streetsâ said TE Russ Francis âSo I went surfingâ
The 1976 Patriots came out healthy and loaded for bear, after dropping the opener to the Colts, the Pats went on a roll going 11-2 the rest of the way with the highlights of the year the back to back beat down of the Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium and then the 48-17 thrashing of the Raiders in Foxboro. The only defeat the Raiders suffered all season. That set the stage for the playoff game in Oakland.
The Patriots were ahead, 21-10 in the fourth quarter, the Raiders scored on a good drive by Ken Stabler to make it 21-17. The Patriots got the ball back and all Steve Grogan had to do was run out the clock. Up to the plate steps Referee Ben Dreith, who was admittedly a Raiders fan, Dreith mysteriously misses a key third down pass interference play on Phil Villiapiano defending Russ Francis, where Villapiano pinned Francisâ arms well before the pass got there.
That play would have sealed the game, instead the Patriots had to punt. Stabler started to move the Raiders again, but the Patriots defense stiffened. On fourth and 18 from the Patriots 27, Dreith called the âphantom roughing the QBâ call on Sugar Bear Ray Hamilton which gave the Raiders the ball with a first down and set up Stablerâs roll out TD from 1 yard out with 10 seconds to go. Stabler has admitted that there was no roughing the QB. Hamilton, now a coach with the Jaguars is still livid. âEveryone knows it wasnâtâ So while todayâs Raiders fans lament about the âTuck Rule Gameâ, they can thank Ben Dreith for a playoff win.
So I asked Nelson what he would share from that game, âWell, Francis got mugged by Villapianoâ he said. âBut there was more, once they got the ball back, we all had a feeling that the refs were going to make sure we didnât win, but they were, a really great teamâ. âIf you remember, the rules back then, you were able to hit the QB a lot more than you are allowed to today â. âThat wouldnât have been roughing the QB today, never mind back thenâ.
âThe toughest part was after that, the Raiders went to Pittsburgh and beat them to go to the Super Bowl against Minnesotaâ he said. âThe Steelers were beat up bad that year, no Franco Harris, no Rocky Bleier for the playoffs, we had already beaten them up there that season, and when they were healthy.â He shrugged his shoulders, âwho knows how it would have turned outâ. âBut that year we might have won the Super Bowlâ.
Nelson remains active within the Patriots organization he was a regular on the Patriots All-Access television show and still does some radio spots for the team and many charities in the area as well.
We didnât touch much upon Andre Tippett the Hall of Fame LB, John Hannah or the Super Bowl that he did appear in, Super Bowl XX against the Bears, other to mention the vast lengths some overzealous Special Forces soldiers overseas who just happened to be Patriots fans, went to set a satellite feed in Central America to watch the game. He was laughing and said, âMaybe you guys should have turned it off at halftimeâ.
I left those and some other topics for another time and place. We walked down the stairs to the parking lot next to the Hall and the stadium. âThis place is really special now, theyâve done a great job with the place, what a big difference it is now, isnât itâ? he said .Â Indeed.