Nothing strikes more fear into the New England Patriots than the Half Eye. That is what they call the glare which dominates the face of Coach Chuck Fairbanks when he is, to put it mildly, unhappy. When a Patriot does something to earn Fairbanks' wrath, the coach will glower at him—and then, slowly and quiveringly, one of Fairbanks' eyes will close to half-mast. The Half Eye has sometimes signaled the end of a player's career with the Patriots.
So consider how New England Linebacker Steve Nelson must have felt that day in 1975 when he suddenly realized that Fairbanks was giving him not a Half Eye but a Double Half Eye. It happened before an exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers. In his excellent rookie season of 1974, Nelson had hit everyone and everything in sight, but in the summer of '75 the only thing Nelson had been hitting was a pillow. Now Fairbanks was standing over his young linebacker in the dressing room, both eyes half shut. "Nelson," Fairbanks muttered darkly, "you better hit someone today."
Nelson began hitting people again almost immediately and has been hitting them ever since. In 1975 he set a team record by making 18 tackles in a game against the New York Jets, and that season he was voted the Patriots' MVP. In 1976 Nelson helped lead New England into the playoffs for the first time since 1963, when the team was in the AFL. And in 1977 he took part in more plays (704) and made more tackles (97) than any other Patriot, even though he missed one game because of an injury.
This season Nelson is the player representative, the defensive captain and the defensive signal-caller for New England, which beat Baltimore 35-14 last Sunday and increased its margin over Miami in the AFC East to two games. The Patriots lead the AFC in stopping the run—and Nelson leads that defense with 118 tackles, 33 more than any teammate. He also tops the Patriots in fumble recoveries (4) and shares the lead in interceptions (5).
Nelson's feats have hardly gone unnoticed among New England opponents. "He has developed into the complete linebacker," says Dolphin Coach Don Shula. "He's got the savvy and the intensity. He's good against the pass and the run. He's very intelligent, aggressive and emotional." Oakland Coach John Madden says, "Nelson's a hard guy, and he makes the plays. For a while they never mentioned his name when they talked about great linebackers, but we always mentioned him in scouting reports and staff meetings. We mentioned Steve Nelson's name more than he'll ever know." Adds Miami All-Pro Center Jim Langer, who meets Nelson head-on twice each year, "Nelson's all over the field."
Despite such praise, Nelson has never been named to a major All-Pro team, nor has he played in the Pro Bowl. Cleveland Browns General Manager Peter Hadhazy says, "Steve Nelson is the most underrated player in the NFL."
Underrated or not, Nelson may well be the best of the NFL's outstanding young middle linebackers—a crew that includes Harry Carson of the New York Giants, Bob Breunig of Dallas, Jack Lambert of Pittsburgh and Randy Gradishar of Denver. Technically, Nelson is not actually a middle linebacker. He plays the position called inside linebacker, the designation that the terminology-crazy NFL applies to the two middle men among the four linebackers employed in a 3-4 defense. However, it is a distinction that the people who play the game don't bother with. To them, Nelson is a middle linebacker. On the other hand, to those who vote for All-Pro teams, Nelson is an inside linebacker—and an inside linebacker is a curiosity, not a position.
Nelson doesn't really fit the mold of the classic middle linebacker. Middle linebackers are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap a tall offensive lineman by putting one cleated foot in his stomach and the other in his mouth. They have no front teeth, a Halloween mask for a face and a name that has the sound of a head-on collision—Nitschke, Bednarik, Buoniconti, Butkus. When Hollywood wants a stereotyped running back, it gets Burt Reynolds. When it wants a middle linebacker, it calls on The Incredible Hulk. Even Nelson's name is wrong—and his nickname is worse. Ozzie Nelson may ring a bell, but Steve Nelson? And could the NFL have survived a TV documentary entitled The Violent World of Nellie?
This Nellie has an open, friendly face topped by a mop of blond hair that suggests his Norwegian heritage. From Halloween to Easter, he looks somewhat like a football player—or at least today's football player—because he sports a festive red beard, which he first wore at North Dakota State to get him through the freezing winter. However, he has all his teeth. There is a slight chip in one of his incisors, but that makes him look more boyish than sinister; the tooth was chipped on his 16th birthday when he failed to clear a high-jump bar and got a mouthful of the bar for his efforts.
The 6'2", 225-pound Nelson is also slow for a middle linebacker. In fact, he can't run 40 yards in less than five seconds. Sam Hunt, New England's other inside—or middle—linebacker, stands 6'1" and weighs 268, down from 280, but he is faster than Nelson.