Photos by the New England Patriots
Before North Dakota State could claim Carson Wentz as one of its own and even before Joe Mays, Lamar Gordon and Phil Hansen, one former Bison represented the talent Fargo could produce in the NFL. Steve Nelson played for NDSU in the early 1970s and by the late 80s, he was one of the best Patriots linebackers to ever play the game. His plaque is in the Bison and Patriot Hall of Fame and his No. 57 is retired along with the other Patriot greats. Now living in Massachusetts, Nelson catches up with us to talk about his time at NDSU, in the NFL, what he thinks of Wentz and tries to explain what’s in the water at NDSU that’s creating a flood of talent in the NFL.
Bison Illustrated – When you came to NDSU, they had won three national championships in five years. What was the culture like for a young kid like yourself?
Steve Nelson – My freshman year, my first year at North Dakota State, they were undefeated and a great team. I practiced against the varsity. I was one of the practice squad guys. Even though I was an outsider, so to speak, being a freshman and not playing, I could tell just how important football was to the players and how important it was to the college and area. It really kind of reinforced why I wanted to go to North Dakota State because those things were important. Football was important.
I get a chance to follow them now. I could not be more proud of the recent success they’ve had. It’s a great thing, but it doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of work. I think it’s a tradition that my class came into with. We were expected to win. We’re always expected to win. That’s the ultimate type of feeling a team should have. You should win every game and at North Dakota State, you have an opportunity to do that.
You went on to have a long career in the NFL. How did NDSU prepare you to become a professional football player?
It was a big jump. I had a couple tests, though. I played in the All-American game. My team was Lynn Swann and Mike Webster, and a lot of guys that were first round draft choices so I got to compare myself to them before I even went to an NFL camp.
The one thing I realized was how the coaching I had was, not only in high school, but in college, and how technique- wise, I was probably more advanced than the guys from Nebraska or any place else. That was a real tribute to the coaching at North Dakota State. It goes back to when you do things right, every part of the team is exceptional and the coaching was just exceptional. When I went in there (NFL), I knew how to play and I knew how to cover players and knew how to take on blocks, tackle and everything else as well as anybody so that gave me some confidence going into my rookie season.
That year happened to be a strike year (1974) so I got a chance to play right away because the veterans weren’t in camp. That gave me more confidence. Football is such a confidence game. You gotta have confidence that you can do the job and I think with all that opportunity to play, it really gave me the confidence that I belonged, even though I came from a Division II school.
I don’t really consider North Dakota State a Division II school at that time or now, it’s 1-AA (FCS) now, but it’s a great program and it happens to be in a conference that isn’t a Division I-level. I was ready to go and I got the opportunity and it was a team, which was just starting up. Coach (Chuck) Fairbanks came from Oklahoma and he was a great coach and Coach (Ron) Erhardt who was my college coach was the running back coach, so I had somebody that I knew so that helped. I could have somebody I could talk to. Football is football, you just go out there and compete and get yourself ready to practice every day, make it the best practice of your life. If you have that type of attitude, you’re going to improve.
Are there similarities with the relationship between the fan base and the team in New England and NDSU?
Absolutely. I think that’s something every successful program has. The great thing about football is that the team is always greater than the individual and I think when you get a chance to play at North Dakota State, the town supports you so much and you play for more than just yourself or teammates. You play for the state, the city, the university, you play for your teammates, your coaches and you have more invested. You want to do better.
I think the more investment you have, the more you can lose but the more you can win and it’s up to the talent on the team to decide if you’re going to be winners or losers. The team I played on my senior year, we had really great players. Pat Simmers was a great player. Probably the best player on defense was Jerry Dahl. He was drafted the next year. Guys like Greg Bentson, Sanford Qvale, Lee Gunlikson, I still think Lee, Stanford and Pat will be friends for life because of football at North Dakota State.
You know, I tell you what, the Patriots are a lot like the Bison. The Patriots have only done it over the past 12 years, but the combination of coaching and great players and they go on the field and win by a lot of different ways. They might win on defense, they win on special teams. Obviously, they have the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, but they go out there and they’re supposed to win every game. And if they don’t win every game, something is wrong.
You know you were the highest Bison to ever be drafted until someone named Carson Wentz came along.
I was. Carson blew me out of the water (laughs). There’s only one spot now that Carson can get beat at. He had a great career, great player. He’s a great ambassador for the university. He’s a smart, nice, humble kid and he’s just awesome. He’ll be successful. It’s not going to be easy and the town he plays in demands that you win, but he’ll do fine because he’s got a lot of talent and he’s really, although I’ve never met him, he seems like a really well-rounded kid and knows what’s important and he’ll do fine.
He’s going to have a lot on his plate in terms of expectations. How did you handle that going to the professional level?
You’re still representing the university, even though you’re playing professional football and what you do on the field and off the field is a reflection of the university. I think you can get good publicity or bad publicity, and you look at the schools who have had a lot of guys who had character issues, a lot of them went to the same program and people look at that program differently.
North Dakota State is a program that didn’t have a lot of players in the league so I was one of the few and then Phil Hansen played and we got some other guys. Absolutely, you play and I think your program is just fine, not only what you do on the field but how you relate to the community, how you volunteer with things in the community and I’m sure, Carson–just reading about him–I have some people that I know that are around him and they say that he’ll be a great ambassador for the Eagles and North Dakota State.
How do you feel when you see these former Bison excelling at the pro level?
It gives me bragging rights. It’s funny, one of my best friends playing, and I still see him every year, is John Hannah. John went to the University of Alabama and he was the best offensive lineman I’d ever seen in my life. He’s so Bear Bryant and University of Alabama and rightfully so. They have an incredible tradition and history and he’ll always say, “You and I understand things more than all these other players because of where we came from.” North Dakota State almost demands that you win, as Alabama does. Again, it’s not the size of the program. It’s the commitment and the size of the character of the players and coaches in the division you play in. I brag about it. (Billy) Turner is a starting guard for the Dolphins and it’s awesome. The corner that played for Denver (Tyrone Braxton), he had a great run. Phil Hansen was obviously an important player for the Buffalo Bills. I brag about it. There’s a lot of really great football players that go to that program. Like I said before, Jerry Dahl was the best defensive player I ever saw in college. For whatever reason, he got drafted by San Diego and decided not to play, but he was a little older and all that stuff, but he was unblockable.
Are you still following the Bison in Massachusetts?
I do through Pat Simmers. Again, Pat Simmers is one of my buddies and I keep up with him and we talk every couple months. We talk about things and, obviously, he’s been around North Dakota State and the football program and how they’re doing on a national basis or how they’re recruiting or whatever. Right now, because of the technology, people know about North Dakota State. Plus the success they’ve had against Big 12 teams, Big 10 teams, people know North Dakota State and they don’t want to play them.
I think even the casual college fan has an idea of what a program North Dakota State has. You have to be something special when you win five times in a row. That’s nuts. It’s a tribute to the players. I coached college football and it’s like that old saying: a horse never rides a jockey across the finish line. A football player is never on top of a coach. Coaches are always on top of the players. The players are the foundation of whatever you have that’s special and I think with all the success that North Dakota State has, it fuels the fire.
People want to go to winning programs. People want to play for championships, that’s what you play football for–to play in a championship. It was my 12th year in the League when I finally went to the Super Bowl (1985) and when I played, I realized, how much I had missed by not playing in a game that was going to decide who was the best football team on the planet. It was just so cool. I’m glad I had the experience because I know how it feels to go out on the field and if you won the game, you’re absolutely the best. We didn’t win, but I had that experience and I think if you go to North Dakota State, you go to win championships.
How are you staying busy in Massachusetts?
Right now, I work for a company called Lighthouse Computer Services and we’re business partner of IBM. We’re a 100-person company. We’re a combined Microsoft, business analytics and an IBM software, middleware, hardware, services company.
What’s your role?
I’m a business development and public relations. It’s a great job and great company. I’m asked to do things through the Patriots so it’s a good conduit to meet people who are involved in different businesses.
When’s the last time you made it back to Fargo to watch the Bison?
I went there about three years ago, they played Northern Iowa. It was a really good game. We had a little reunion of our 1973 team. I think it was 2013. The 40th anniversary. Are you going to bring me back there, is that why you’re asking me? (Laughs) I’d love to come back again. Pat needs to be in the Hall of Fame. The next time I go back to North Dakota State is when Pat gets inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s a long ways. Three years ago, it was great. Went up there, Greg Bentson, who just passed away, I sat with Greg at the game. A lot of great memories came back. I loved it. It’s what all the good things about football, you know? It’s the friendships, it’s the relationships, the support, the winning, the losing, the crying, the laughing all that stuff.