Seeking better exposure, Nelson transferred to North Dakota State at the end of his freshman year. No North Dakota State graduate had played pro football in 30 years, but under Coach Ron Erhardt the Bisons had just completed two undefeated seasons and had won two NCAA regional college division championships. They won another in Nelson's first year, but Nelson—being a transfer student—had to watch from the stands.
While waiting to become eligible, Nelson lifted weights and built himself up to his 225 pounds. "We had a mandatory weight program," says Erhardt, who joined the Patriots' coaching staff after Nelson's junior year and now is their offensive coordinator, "but Steve did most of it on his own. A lot of guys get in the weight room and just push weights around, but Steve works at it."
Nelson played defensive end as a sophomore, and shuttled between end and linebacker during his junior year, when he became a second-team Little All-America. Two days before Nelson reported for his senior season, he and Maria were married in Anoka. They spent a one-day honeymoon at Mankato, Minn., watching the Vikings scrimmage. "That ought to tell you how much Steve loves football," says Maria.
Nelson was used strictly as a linebacker during his senior year at North Dakota State. Pro scouts dropped by often enough to convince Nelson that he would be drafted. This was a welcome prospect, because the newlyweds could have wallpapered their apartment with all the checks they were bouncing around the upper Midwest. At Erhardt's urging, the Patriots picked Nelson in the second round of the 1974 draft. To celebrate, Nelson took the loving cup he had won as the Outstanding Bison Athlete to the Sports Bar in downtown Fargo and had it filled with beer. Fortunately for Nelson, it held only two beers.
When Nelson arrived in Foxboro to talk contract with the Patriots, Fairbanks told him he would have to be a big bust in training camp not to make the team. "After all the work I had put in, I wasn't about to be a bust," says Nelson. He started his first game as a rookie, and has been a starter ever since.
The question, then, is this: How does a small, slow, self-deprecating player from North Dakota State, Augsburg and Anoka become, as Shula calls him, "the complete middle linebacker"? Simple. Nelson has learned to outthink his opponents, and he can live with pain. "You can find plenty of guys who can play when they're well, but only a handful play well when they're injured," says Hank Bullough, the Patriots' defensive coordinator. "Most players get a nick and their efficiency goes down 50%. When I coached in Baltimore, I used to think Johnny Unitas was the most mentally tough player I'd ever known. I'd have to put Steve in Johnny U's class."
In the NFL, pain is a constant. Nelson remembers the time when veteran Linebacker George Webster told him, "Enjoy how you feel now because you won't feel this good again until the season is over." Nelson is now playing with a painful left shoulder, first dislocated in college, which may require surgery at the end of the season. In 1976 he dislocated his right knee cap in the 10th game of the season; hearing that Nelson was wearing a thigh-to-ankle cast, New York Coach Lou Holtz cracked, "Well, if Nelson plays against us next week, at least the cast will slow him down a little."
"The hardest thing in pro football," says Nelson, "is to watch from the sidelines. I'd rather play in pain. When I was a kid, my father used to take me ice fishing. Sometimes I couldn't use my gloves, and my hands would get cold. He always told me, 'It doesn't do any good to complain.' " Fairbanks appreciates Nelson's bravado. "Nelson sets a tone of toughness for the team," he says. "You can count on one hand the number of practices he's missed in his five years here."
Nelson rarely uses pain-killers, not wanting to show that he hurts while on the job, but occasionally he lets his defenses down at home. "Sometimes I'll just touch him lightly on the shoulder, and he'll cry out with pain. Oooooh," Maria says, imitating her husband's cry of agony. Cam Bam looks up from a game she is playing on the floor and says, "That's what my daddy says."
As for Daddy, he attributes much of his success to the fact that the Patriots use the 3-4, which is similar to the defense he played at North Dakota State. One advantage of the alignment is that everyone always lines up in the same place. Nelson, for instance, sets up opposite the strong-side guard. Consequently, every play he has ever seen in the NFL, he has seen from the exact same angle. As a result, he is quick to recognize a play, which allows him time to react before the offense can set up its blocking. This recognition process is known as "reading." "Steve is not overly big or overly fast," says Zabel, "but he is overly trained. His greatest ability is his reading ability."