Halfway into his fifth and final season with the Rutgers football team, Derrick Nelson remembers when he arrived to Piscataway as an early enrollee.
As a wide-eyed freshman out of Washington (D.C.) Archbishop Carroll, Nelson recalls the culture shock when he jumped from high school to an out-of-state college in January 2012.
On the way, there was one important lesson he learned.
“College football is tougher than it looks — no matter where you are,” Nelson said. “I don’t care if you’re DI-AA, DII, DIII — college football is tougher than it looks and it really puts you in the face of adversity.
“And once you’re in the face of adversity, you realize who exactly you are as a person and whether you need to reevaluate your life. And here I am — and I think I’ve done pretty good with that.”
Before he signed and enrolled early at Rutgers, Nelson went through what was initially a slow recruiting process.
He earned an offer from the Scarlet Knights after a breakthrough performance in a Rutgers camp prior to his senior year.
“(The recruiting process) had a slow start to it, I’d definitely say,” Nelson said. “My junior year, I didn’t have the offers that I wanted and then I started to come on the scene more so around senior year, and everybody started to offer me.”
Nelson committed to Rutgers on July 18, 2011. Two months later, he said, Illinois offered.
Coincidentally, the Scarlet Knights (2-4, 0-3) host the Fighting Illini (1-4, 0-2) on Saturday.
“The thing is, I was committed to Rutgers,” Nelson said. “So actually … the last staff at Illinois offered me right before. It was, like, two months after Rutgers. … The thing is, I just really felt like Rutgers was the place to me.”
The experience molded Nelson through the years. During his fourth year in the program last fall, he earned the starting center job. Before the start of his senior season this year, Nelson was elected one of four team captains.
Fellow fifth-year senior and team captain Julian Pinnix-Odrick described Nelson’s persona as a leader.
“When it’s time to get fired up, Derrick gets very, very fired up,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “He gets very, very fired up. But at the same time, he’s not really all ‘rah rah’ all the time. He’s definitely a guy that leads by example, definitely takes his guys into the side and talks to them.”
For as fiery as Nelson is on the field, his personality off the field brings balance.
As Nelson’s housemate, Pinnix-Odrick knows that best.
“At one point, everybody was like, ‘Yeah, I had Derrick marrying my sister,’” Pinnix-Odrick said. “If you talk to the people around here … all the girls think he’s a big teddy bear. He’s just a big, smiley dude. He walks into the room, he smiles.
“But I’m really excited and proud of how Derrick has matured and come along as a player, man. He’s one of our best players, easily, and some of the stuff he does on film is great for us. But him growing, I think he’s matured immensely.”
Offensive line coach AJ Blazek summed up Nelson’s impact in the trenches.
As the leader at center, communication on the line starts with Nelson, Blazek said.
“It’s huge,” Blazek said. “That’s one of the staples we have is his communication, where he’s playing right now.”
From the offensive line across the team overall, leadership is an aspect that Nelson doesn’t take lightly.
Five years later, one quote from his favorite movie resonates with his growth in that role. During an adverse time for Rutgers on a three-game skid, its timing is relevant.
“Biggest thing is ‘Remember the Titans’ quote — attitude reflects leadership,” Nelson said. “It’s the biggest thing. My dad always tells me that.
“I didn’t realize what it meant until now — you have to have a positive attitude and always be an optimistic thinker because everybody else is going to see what has happened and then dwell on the past. But you have to be a forward thinker, and you have to make sure you re-instill those standards and work hard in practice and stuff like that.”