A fifth-year senior, Andrew Nelson has been around the Penn State football program long enough to draw from a wide-ranging pool of inspiration in his final season as a Nittany Lion.
Saturday afternoon, returning to game action for the first time since exiting last October’s Maryland game with an unspecified injury, Nelson leaned back on an old mantra of former head coach Bill O’Brien.
“He always used to say, ‘Don't dip your toe in the water,’ and that's something I was trying to do; not be hesitant, not wondering how I'm going to do. Just go out there and play every play like it's my last,” said Nelson. “Fortunately or unfortunately, I know what that's like, that any play can be your last for that season. So that was my plan was to just go out there and have fun, enjoy it and play every play like it could be my last play.”
Filling in intermittently at right tackle behind starter Chasz Wright, Nelson came away from the Nittany Lions’ 33-14 win against Pittsburgh feeling as though he had done exactly that.
Noting his second series of action as being the most fun, a 6-play, 62-yard touchdown drive midway through the first quarter that saw the hosts take a 14-0 lead, Nelson said he relished the opportunity to be back out on the field, part of a drive that punched in a touchdown at the end. “That’s when I was like, ‘Man. I miss this a lot,’” he said.
Certainly, Nelson had time to reflect on his appreciation for the game.
Having missed four games with an injury during his redshirt sophomore season in 2015, Nelson had experience in having to take in games from the sideline previously. But coming in the midst of the Nittany Lions’ remarkable run to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth, Nelson’s absence from the Ohio State clash through the Lions’ final eight games of the season was one that prompted new levels of personal comprehension regarding his relationship with the game.
“I had a lot of fun (today), and that's something that you lose sight of when you're playing every single down for three straight seasons, you can lose sight of how much fun it is,” said Nelson. “But when you're watching from the sidelines for a long time and you finally get back out there, you realize how fun that is.”
Of course, the very notion of fun was something which required countless months of grinding.
Citing the toll that an injury can have on a player, not necessarily for the physical pain or rehabilitation demands required, Nelson said he considered the mental aspect to be the most taxing part of a process that ultimately took 11 months to see come to fruition.
“I’ve had tons of injuries throughout by career and it’s just that mental aspect of always putting in so much work, not feeling like you’re getting the fruits of your labor. Just knowing everyday there’s going to be ups and downs,” said Nelson. “It’s something Coach Limegrover stressed to me a lot. ‘Take it day by day and eventually you’ll be back out there.’ So, it felt great to be back out there.”
Acknowledging that he likely could have returned to action in the Lions’ home opener against Akron on Sept. 2, Nelson said he was confident with the coaching staff’s plans to gradually work him back into a rotation whenever he felt up to it.
For his return to the field on Saturday, that meant a frank discussion with Limegrover after the Sunday practice post-Akron. Upon Nelson’s go-ahead, the coaching staff put a plan into place, found the right series to put Nelson in the game and let the rest take care of itself.
“I gotta give it to the training staff and to Coach Limegrover and the coaches, their plan put in place to kind of ease me back in, and I really appreciate the way Coach Franklin has handled this; that he trusts me enough that he can throw me back out there and rotate me in some series and not skip a beat,” said Nelson. “So I appreciate that and the way they've handled me coming back.”