Dave Nelson was born to coach. He comes from a family of coaches and players.
- His father Stan coached high school football and earned his place within the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall Of Fame.
- His sister Cheryl is a hall-of-fame tennis coach in Minnesota.
- His brother Steve played for the New England Patriots and coached football for 10 years at the college level.
- His uncle Edor, for whom the field is named at Augsburg College in Minnesota, led the Augsburg football and baseball teams over a four-decade span.
“I grew up in that environment, and it really was a blessing to grow up in the family I grew up in,” says Nelson, who retired after this past season from his head coaching position at Minnetonka (Minn.) High School. “I remember distinctly, I was a senior in high school and we’re up at the gym and I was playing basketball with my dad. He asked me what I wanted to do after high school, and I said, ‘Dad, I want to be a high school teacher and coach like you.’
“We laugh about it now, because he tried to talk me out of it. ‘Why don’t you become a dentist?’ he asked me, and I said, ‘Dad, nothing against dentists, but I really want to be a coach.’ When he asked me why, I said, ‘Well, I’ve seen the impact you had on your players and the community and I’d really like to try to do that. You look happy all the time.’ He couldn’t argue with that, and he blessed it, and I went on to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, majored in physical education, and went on to be a high school coach.”
Like his father before him, Nelson also went on to have a major impact on his community in both Blaine, Minn., and Minnetonka. His efforts and programs within these two schools are a major part of the reason he won the 2019 AFCA®/AFCF® Power Of Influence Award, which is the most prestigious high school coaching award given by the two organizations.
“It’s just great recognition to be singled out among your peers,” says Nelson. “It’s humbling. I’m blown away. I don’t know if I have words to really describe it. It means a lot, it really does. The players and my staff have probably sharpened me a lot more than I’ve sharpened them. When you’re out in front and you’re trying to bring a team from point A to point B, you have to make sure that your house is in order and that you are leading from a good spot. They have motivated me to become the best head coach I could possibly be.”
Power Of Influence
The Power of Influence award was created as a way for the AFCA and AFCF to honor a deserving high school football coach. Coaches who receive this award are recognized for their impact on their team, as well as the legacy they leave with the school and surrounding community. This award is not based on wins and losses; however, it should be noted that coaches of powerful influence have longevity and success. This is the first AFCA award specifically designed to honor a high school coach.
Nelson began his coaching career in 1978 at Blaine High School. He was an assistant football and baseball coach for seven years before being named head football coach in 1984. In his 18 years as head coach, Nelson led Blaine to 11 conference championships, eight section championships and one state title in 1988. After a fourth state title game appearance in 2001, Nelson took the head coaching job at Minnetonka High School in 2002 and would stay until his retirement after the 2019 season.
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In his 18 seasons at Minnetonka, Nelson would guide the Skippers to the program’s first state championship in 2004. He also added another state title game appearance in 2017, four section championships and two conference titles. When you include his 18 seasons at Blaine, Nelson’s overall record stands at 267-124, making him one of the winningest coaches in Minnesota High School history.
According to Nelson, he and his father Stan are one of two father/son duos to be inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The other two are Mike and Bud Grant. Nelson had his opportunities to coach at the college level, but the high school football field is where his heart is.
“I’ve just always really enjoyed it,” he says. “My friends are on the staff with me. I always love Friday nights, everything about it. I thought about the college level occasionally, but I have no regrets.”
The high schools and communities he served have no regrets either, because along with winning football programs, Nelson’s impact off the field was felt just as much.
In addition to coaching at a high level, Nelson has also served as president of the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Association, been on the selection committee for the Minnesota All-Star Football game since 1987 and served as chairman of the Minnesota Hall of Fame Banquet since 1989. He believes that taking an active leadership role with the appropriate organizations is necessary for football coaches who are serious about the profession.
“Part of it, I thought it was my duty, as a member of the profession, to stay involved and to try to make our profession better,” says Nelson. “The second thing is the relationships. I’ve made so many great friends, lifelong friends through the association, working on the banquet together or different committees together. It just really opened it all up, because sometimes in coaching, you build walls around your program when you’re competing against other guys. I really enjoyed meeting other coaches on the common ground and working together to promote the game of football, and to make football in Minnesota better.
“The Hall of Fame Banquet has been so cool, too. When we induct members into our hall of fame, just to get to know those families and to share that experience every year with the inductees is really great. And my wife, Maureen, helps me with the banquet, so that’s been fun, too.”
Men Of Character
In addition, Nelson started the “Men of Character” program at Minnetonka High School eight years ago, and it continues today. It was established through Minnetonka’s Booster Club and the concept is simple, yet powerful.
“We just tried to bring in speakers four or five times a year, and we invite our players’ dads to come in before school,” says Nelson. “Our day starts at 8:00 am, so we meet at 7:00 am. We’ve had [NFL center] Matt Birk, we’ve had Randy Shaver from KARE 11, we had the lead investigator on the Jacob Wetterling case, we’ve had Navy Seals, we’ve had Matt Hendricks when he was with the [NHL’s] Minnesota Wild. These are just different guys who have been successful, and they talked about their journey.”
The journey is what matters, and also what has instilled character into each of the speakers. Nelson believes that it’s important for his presenters to explain the obstacles they overcame and the adversity they went through.
“I think some of our players think that these successful people just woke up one day, and suddenly, they’re successful,” he says. “Matt Hendricks labored for eight years in the minors before he finally made it in the NHL. Randy Shavers started out at a little television station in Austin, Minnesota. These guys talk for a half hour, do questions and answers afterwards, and that’s it. We always do one in June in conjunction with our camp and one in August during two-a-days. Then, we try to do one or two or three — January, February, March — just to connect the dads to our program. I love the dads sitting next to their son. They get to share those stories they hear maybe around the dinner table that night to reaffirm what they heard. It’s really powerful.”
We Are One
Nelson also worked with Student Support Services at Minnetonka to organize the annual We Are One football camp that matches children with special needs with Minnetonka football players for a fun, inclusive event, focused on community. “We had a grandson, Reagan, who had a genetic disorder; he was in a wheelchair, fed through a tube, nonverbal,” says Nelson. “As he grew older, we became more aware of kids that aren’t as fortunate. My wife and I were talking one night, and we thought it might be great to give Reagan the opportunity to experience football.”
Nelson met with his school district’s special needs director Michelle Ferris and the two hit it off right away. They came up with the We Are One football camp, in which Minnetonka football invites every special needs student in their school district to the football field. Prior to the camp, players show up in their jerseys and listen as Ferris explains some of the challenges they might experience over the duration of the 90-minute camp. She goes through the do’s and don’ts, and then each player is buddied- up with special-needs athletes.
“We have eight stations, we turn the music on in the stadium, and the kids just have a blast,” says Nelson. “The touchdown dance is one station. What do you do after you score. We have a landing mat they dive on. We have a little net they throw a football into. We have a chase drill, a station where they get their picture taken with a helmet and shoulder pads, and our players are with them. We give them a little Minnetonka football at the end of the night, and we give them a ticket for our first game.”
Part of the experience is for student- athletes to develop some relationships they might not otherwise establish.
“When school starts, maybe they eat lunch together in the cafeteria, or they say hi to each other in the hallway, or maybe they become friends,” says Nelson. “The impact on our players has been unbelievable. You can almost see them change their views and their attitude from the start of the camp to the end. I’ve had parents come up to me crying afterwards. We’ve had special needs students that wouldn’t take the jersey off. They wanted to take it home with them. We’ve done it two years now, and I can’t believe we didn’t do it for the first 40 years I coached. I don’t know why we waited until the last couple of years, because it’s one of the best things we do.”
Nelson is also the founder and chairman of Tackle Cancer, which has raised over $2 million since its start in 2012. Tackle Cancer allows football teams of all levels in the state of Minnesota to set aside one game each fall to raise awareness and money to fund cancer research.
“I had prostate cancer in 2012, and when you live it, your awareness of cancer grows exponentially,” says Nelson.
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Nelson had the opportunity to work with the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund, an organization founded by former KARE-11 sports reporter Randy Shaver in Minneapolis. Shaver is the survivor of two bouts of cancer, and has played a major role in raising the awareness of fighting cancer in the Twin Cities.
“Randy invited my wife and I to his big gala, which is a fundraiser in June, and I’m sitting there during the program thinking, ‘What can our players do to give back to Randy’s foundation?’” says Nelson. “That summer, we were approached by a booster in town who needed all the rock shoveled out of their condominium complex because they were changing over to mulch. They were going to give us $5,000 to do it, so our players decided to do it and then donate the money to Randy. We called it Rock Cancer.”
Shaver came out to Minnetonka and was presented with a check for $5,000. After that season, Nelson was thinking, what if every high school program in Minnesota did something similar, and they donated the money to Shaver’s foundation. Nelson floated the idea by the executive committee of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association, recruited five or six other coaches as members, and launched Tackle Cancer.
“The first year, we raised $120,000 for cancer research,” says Nelson. “Randy was blown away; he thought if we would have raised $10,000, it would have been great. It’s grown every year. It jumped to $190,000, then to $230,000, then to $233,000, then to $281,000, then to $311,000, then to $348,000. This past year, we went over the $360,000 mark. Next year our goal is $400,000. The Minnesota Golden Gophers are involved. The Minnesota Vikings are involved, and the Northern Sun Conference colleges. We probably have 200 schools participating.
“It’s been probably the most meaningful thing that I’ve been able to do in my career. Winning games is great, and winning championships is great, but the longer I coach, it’s the We Are One Camp, it’s the raising money for cancer research, that have become really important.”
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor for AFCA Magazine, the official magazine of the American Football Coaches Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 608-423-2703.