Karl Nelson was the blueprint for offensive line play while competing for
Nelson was a second-team all-Big Eight pick as a sophomore (1980), helping the Cyclones win their first five games and earn a No. 19 spot in The Associated Press rankings. He paved the way for ISU All-American running back Dwayne Crutchfield, who ranked 10th nationally in rushing that season with 1,312 yards. Nelson was a first-team all-Big Eight pick the following year (1981) despite playing through nearly the entire season with chronic back pain. The Cyclones were 5-1-1 and ranked 11th nationally, tying No. 5 Oklahoma and defeating No. 8 Missouri, before losing their final four games of the season. Nelson and left guard Bruce Reimers anchored the line that ranked second in the Big Eight in passing offense and third in the conference in rushing. Crutchfield was the league’s top rusher for the second year in a row thanks to Nelson’s superb blocking.
Nelson highlighted his four-year career by garnering his second consecutive first-team all-Big Eight award and earning All-America honors, as the Cyclones ranked 30th nationally in rushing offense in 1982. Because there are no official statistics for offensive lineman, it is difficult to fully rate their effectiveness. The ISU coaching staff implemented a two-part grading system to determine the performances of offensive linemen, and Nelson was graded a “winning performance” in 36 of his 44 career games as a Cyclone. His collegiate gridiron achievements are even more amazing considering that he accomplished these goals while maintaining a 3.0 GPA in electrical engineering, one of the most demanding majors in ISU’s nationally acclaimed engineering school. In 1989, Nelson was the only Cyclone to earn a first-team spot on the AP Big Eight All-Decade Team for the 1980s.
Following the end of his senior season, Nelson was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game and he was honored with several awards at the team banquet. He won ISU’s Reuben J. Miller Award and the Arthur Floyd Scott Award for best offensive lineman. His skills did not get unnoticed by the pro scouts, as the New York Giants picked him in the third round of the 1983 NFL draft. He quickly developed into one of the Giants’ top offensive line prospects after missing his rookie season with a toe injury in 1983. Nelson forged his way into the starting lineup in 1984, starting all 55 games between 1984-86. The 1986 season was one of the greatest in Nelson’s career. The star lineman led the Giants with 111 key blocks and paced the Giants to its first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Nelson started at right tackle in Super Bowl XXI, helping the Giants pound the Denver Broncos 39-20. Nelson’s pass protection allowed Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms to complete 22-of-25 passes in the game.
Nelson and the Giants were on top of the world heading into the 1987 campaign. Things changed, however, in the summer of 1987. Nelson checked into a
Nelson’s NFL career ended in December of 1988 when doctors found a lump in his neck, revealing that the disease had returned and spread to his neck. Nelson won the battle against the disease again, becoming an inspiration to cancer survivors everywhere. The NFL honored him with the George Halas Award in 1988 as the overwhelming selection as the NFL comeback player of the year. In 1993, Nelson published a book “Life on the Line,” chronicling his football career and courageous battle with cancer.