By: Steve Balestrieri
About a week ago, I spoke with Patriots great and team HOFer Steve Nelson to wish him a Happy Holiday’s message. I had the pleasure to meet “Nellie” 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 we’ve 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, “Hey Steve, uh…you do know I have to get home tonight…”
I had hoped to get Steve’s 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 wasn’t 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 Foxboro’s 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 “Nellie” as he is known to his friends played Inside Linebacker (ILB) for 14 years for the Patriots. The 6’2 235 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 team’s 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. “It was a much different game and era back then” he said. “Training camp would start at the end of June; we had 6 pre-season games back then”. “Chuck Fairbanks really wanted to see who wanted to play football, and our season wouldn’t even begin until mid-September”.
He added, “Chuck Fairbanks was a no-nonsense kind of coach, brilliant always seemed to be ahead of the game”. “He had a great deal of confidence in his assistant coaches and gave them a great deal of responsibility”.
We spoke about how innovative Fairbanks was and how he brought the then “Oklahoma 3-4 Defense to the NFL. “Chuck Fairbanks was one of the best talent evaluators ever” he said. “He knew what would work and always could pick out great players to fit the team”. “Bill Parcells would bring him in to training camps in Dallas to give his opinion on players” Nelson added. “He is still a great talent evaluator”. “Our practices were always physical and intense under Fairbanks”.
“We 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!”. He laughed and pointed over at the Patriots modern facility in the background, “Just a little different now”.
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. “I didn’t know that” he said “but it wouldn’t surprise me. I loved playing for him” (Fairbanks) he added.
I him asked him who the toughest RB he ever had to face. “Earl Campbell, he was an absolute horse, you could have him wrapped up with two or three guys and he just refused to go down”. When he hit you, it was full on and you knew it”. “Franco 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, Campbell… never, he’d still try to run over you”.
“Back 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 pile”. “He was very tough to bring down, another horse”. “We had Sam Cunningham who was another big tough guy and we had Mack Herron (Mini-Mack) who was the other side of the spectrum”.
Who was the best QB you ever had to face? I asked him. “Dan Marino”, he replied almost immediately. “You could get an interception on him on one play, and he’d come right back the very next time and complete that same play time and again.” “He could get rid of it so fast, it was hard to get a hand on him” he said. “But there were others that stand out”. “Bert Jones with the Colts was tough and could really throw the ball, Joe Ferguson for the Bills back then was really good”. “There were other guys but we didn’t see them as much as guys in our own division”.
We then turned to teammates, Who was your favorite teammate I asked him. “Whoa, so many, I’d have to say Sam Hunt, (ILB Sam Houston St. ’74-79) Sam and I were really good friends”. “We got drafted together and came up at the same time, he was a great football player”. “Sam was really big”, he laughed “but by the 4th quarter, he wasn’t hitting “em nearly as hard as he did in the 1st”. “But Sam could really bring it”.
Russ Francis– “Russ 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 position”. When Russ would get ticked off, he could just flat dominate out there”. “We’d laugh on the bench when Russ would get mad, which he rarely ever did, and we’d tell Steve Grogan, ‘just run the ball to Russ’ side’. He could do it all, a great player and a great teammate”.
Michael Haynes/Tim Fox – “Those guys were more examples of great drafting by Fairbanks, they came in and played as rookies and did real well”. Haynes went to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1997.
Clayton Weishun (ILB,82-84,86) “Clayton was a helluva football player and just a great guy” he said. “He was a real good LB, I remember he got 3 bits of really bad news on the same day”. “He got cut”( when he couldn’t return from an injury), “he found out his wife was really sick and his daughter nearly cut her finger off all on the same day!”. “But today, he a cotton farmer in San Angelo, Texas and doing well and his daughter is now a doctor” he said.
He commented on the sad end to the life of LB Rod Shoate, “Rod was a great, great college football player and just got caught up in the trappings of the big city. And the late Leon Gray, “Leon was a heck of football player” 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, “A few years ago, Don Shula was talking to some guests at the grand opening of one of his “Shula Restaurants”, a few of us were invited down there”. “And 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 here” he said.
“Shula 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 FG”. Nelson then added, “Shula then said, to add insult to injury, this convict as he goes by our (Dolphins) bench, gives me the finger!” 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. “I don’t what it was, but our two teams absolutely hated each other and every game was an event.” “Back then, they had Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko, Klecko was a great player and just a great guy as well “ 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, “It could be, but all I remember was that we just hated those guys and couldn’t wait to play them”.
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. “That was a crazy night” Nelson explained, “They were fighting in the stands, and even on the field”, and some people were arrested and chained to the fence.
What game was the one he most remembers? “Well other than the Super Bowl, probably my first game as a pro, which we won over Miami”. “But there are so many it’s tough”.
I then asked him about a sore subject, “Let’s talk about the ’76 Playoff game” 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. “There was panic in the streets” said TE Russ Francis “So I went surfing”
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 Francis’ 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 “phantom roughing the QB” call on Sugar Bear Ray Hamilton which gave the Raiders the ball with a first down and set up Stabler’s 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. “Everyone knows it wasn’t” So while today’s Raiders fans lament about the “Tuck Rule Game”, they can thank Ben Dreith for a playoff win.
So I asked Nelson what he would share from that game, “Well, Francis got mugged by Villapiano” he said. “But there was more, once they got the ball back, we all had a feeling that the refs were going to make sure we didn’t win, but they were, a really great team”. “If you remember, the rules back then, you were able to hit the QB a lot more than you are allowed to today ”. “That wouldn’t have been roughing the QB today, never mind back then”.
“The toughest part was after that, the Raiders went to Pittsburgh and beat them to go to the Super Bowl against Minnesota” he said. “The 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.” He shrugged his shoulders, “who knows how it would have turned out”. “But that year we might have won the Super Bowl”.
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 didn’t 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, “Maybe you guys should have turned it off at halftime”.
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. “This place is really special now, they’ve done a great job with the place, what a big difference it is now, isn’t it”? he said . Indeed.