Karl Nelson was the blueprint for offensive line play while competing for Iowa State from 1979-82. One of its greatest offensive line talents in school history, Nelson was a two-time first-team all-Big Eight pick and an All-American in 1982. He also excelled in the classroom, earning academic all-Big Eight honors three times and District 5 academic All-America recognition twice.
The Dekalb, Ill., native was a skinny 215-pounder when he arrived on the ISU campus in the fall of 1978. At 6-6 with outstanding athletic ability, college recruiters came knocking on Nelson’s door in his last season as a prep. Both of his parents were Iowa State graduates, which helped him make an early commitment to the Cyclones. Nelson sat out his first year in order to gain weight and improve his strength. When the 1979 season rolled around, the redshirt freshman immediately earned a starting spot at right tackle, a position he did not relinquish for the next four years. Bluechip Magazine and Football News both selected Nelson as a freshman All-American in 1979.
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 New York hospital for what was supposed to be arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder. A routine chest X-ray revealed a mass on his upper chest. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. Nelson sat out the 1987 season battling the disease with surgeries and radiation, vowing to return to the game. He spent the summer of 1988 rehabilitating his injured shoulder and improving his strength. Nelson made a miraculous comeback, earning a starting spot for the Giants’ 1988 season opener on Monday Night Football. By now, the whole nation was captivated by Nelson’s courageous return and his defeat of Hodgkin’s disease. He was getting closer to his old form until he tore ligaments in his ankle that hindered him for the rest of the season.
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.