Reggie Nelson's time has come
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Reggie Nelson was sick this week. He had a cold that made it tough to breathe, especially after running 70 yards in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game.
"It didn't help when Dallas Baker punched me in the ribs," Nelson said with a laugh.
It was a good night to laugh. Nelson had just made two of the biggest plays in a big game, leading Florida to a victory over Alabama. Interviews finished, it was time for a phone call he couldn't wait to make.
To mom back home in Palm Bay.
"I wish she could have been here," he said. "She's making me proud, and I'm making her proud."
Mary Lakes, Nelson's mother, couldn't make it to the Alabama game because it's difficult for her to make it anywhere. She did make it to one game - Central Florida - even though she knew her doctor would be less than thrilled. She had to see one game, see her baby play one time this season.
Boy, would she have loved this one.
Nelson's mom is battling breast cancer, going through her second bout with chemotherapy, fighting like a champ.
"She's hanging in there," Nelson said. "I got to call mom."
It was Mary who wouldn't let Nelson quit junior college when he was homesick, wouldn't let him give up on his dream to play in The Swamp for the Gators. She sent him back to Coffeyville, Kan., to get his degree and stay eligible when all he wanted to do was stay home and take care of his mother.
She had kept the cancer from him, putting a wig on when he surprised her with a Christmas visit almost three years ago. But when he noticed the wig, she had to spill the bad news. That's when he almost gave it up.
Instead, the courage she has displayed has become an inspiration to her son, who has had to deal with plenty of adversity on his way to Saturday.
"She helps me out all the time," Nelson said.
She is the reason he is here, the reason he was there in the right places at the right times against Alabama, and he is a really big reason Florida is still undefeated.
We've seen strong play all season from Nelson, including the two interceptions at Tennessee. But what he did Saturday will never be forgotten in Gator lore.
On a day when the defense had to win the game - or at least keep it within striking distance for the offense - Nelson came close to a pair of picks during the game. One of the huge plays he made wasn't highlight reel stuff, the other certainly was.
Midway through the fourth quarter with the Gators clinging to a 14-13 lead, Ryan Smith picked off a John Parker Wilson pass and was immediately stripped of the ball at the Alabama 34. Nelson was quick to jump on it, saving the day for the Gators.
"I've told everybody," said Smith, whose emergence at cornerback has allowed Nelson to play free safety this year. "The biggest play of the game was him recovering that fumble."
Not only did it keep the ball away from Alabama, it set the Gators up with great field position. Four plays later, Chris Leak found Dallas Baker in the end zone and Florida fans could breathe a little easier.
But it was Nelson's next play, which resulted in him struggling to breathe, that really let the wind out of the Tide.
Alabama was driving for the potential tying touchdown (if it got the two-point conversion) when Wilson overthrew a pass and Nelson grabbed it. He followed his blockers, made a cut back to elude Wilson and scored to put the game away.
"He's a great football player," Urban Meyer said after the 28-13 win. "You'd have to convince me of free safeties that are playing better than No. 1 right now. He's an All-SEC player."
No doubt about that. During the preseason, a couple of writers called about the All-SEC teams they were putting together for magazines. I told each of them that any all-conference team that didn't include Nelson was a joke.
A lot of people have been waiting for this, Reggie Nelson's season in the sun. It's finally here.
It's sad that his mother can't be.
Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or email@example.com. Dooley's columns appear Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
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