The Bookends Interview: Karl Nelson
by: John J. Buro | Senior Writer - NY Sports Day | Wednesday, May 3, 2006

RIDGEWOOD, NJ -It’s hard to imagine that Karl Nelson was once an offensive lineman.

“Now, I’m just a skinny old retired guy,” he mused, while signing copies of “The Illustrated History of the New York Giants” [written by Richard Whittingham, with a foreword by Wellington Mara, Triumph Books, 336 pps, $29.95] at Bookends [232 E. Ridgewood Ave, www.book-ends.com].

Nelson, the team’s 3rd Round draft choice [No. 70 overall] from Iowa State in 1983, had played the line in the 275-285 range until his premature retirement in 1988. It was at that point that doctors noticed a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease.

“In June, it will be 17 years since my last treatment, and I feel great,” said Nelson, 45, who -by choice- had dropped 60 pounds off his 6’6” frame. “Every six months, I see my doctor and, every six months, he says that I look good and kicks my butt out the door.”

Though the former tackle was, physically, a mountain of a man, he benefited, psychologically, from his experience in the trenches.

“As a lineman, I dealt with adversity all the time. On every play, there was a guy across from me who tried to stop me from doing my job. When I had cancer, there was even more adversity.

“There are many analogies between the two. I told people with cancer that treatments are just like training camp. No football player wants to go through training camp but, if we wanted to play a regular season –and, hopefully, a Super Bowl- we needed to get through camp. Well, no one wants to go through these treatments but, if we get through them, then we’ll be able to live longer.

“I had to attack the problem. My coaches –in this case, my doctors- were gonna get me through this. So, I was gonna listen to them. Coaches put together a game plan, and so do doctors.”

Nelson also had the support of his teammates, who visited him whenever they could. “Several of them saw me in the hospital. Early on, it was during training camp. But, when I was out for the ’87 season, the team was very, very supportive of me.

“I’d prefer that people remember I was a good football player, but most remember me as being the cancer survivor. And that’s fine, too.”

After a broken foot had effectively ended his rookie season, Nelson forged a place onto the offensive line from 1984-86, as he started each of the team’s 55 games. It was, in part, due to his superb pass protection [which allowed MVP Phil Simms to complete 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns] that the Giants thumped the Denver Broncos, 39-20, in Super Bowl XXI.

However, the joy was short-lived. In the summer of 1987, Nelson was supposed to have arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder. But, when a routine chest X-ray revealed a mass on his upper chest, further testing was required. The diagnosis was Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer which hits the lymphatic system. It affects four of every 100,000 people per year, and accounts for less than 1% of all cancers worldwide.

As Nelson rehabilitated his injured shoulder, he absorbed 43 radiation treatments to rid himself of the cancer. Yet, there was one more obstacle to battle. Two games into the 1988 season, he tore ligaments in his left ankle. Then, the disease reappeared in the form of a lump in his neck. Seven months of chemotherapy awaited him.

Again, Nelson prevailed and further inspired cancer patients. That year, the NFL feted him with the George S. Halas Award [given annually to the player who displays courage and toughness under adverse conditions]. Five years later, he wrote “Life on the Line,” which chronicled his saga.

Nelson fondly recalled Mara, the recently-deceased team owner. “He was such a great man. He did so much for so many people; very few even knew about it. One example was what he did for me in 1987. It was the year of the strike –and the year I was sick.

“I was, probably, the only guy in the entire league who got 16 game checks that year. The team played only 15 games [a 24-day players’ strike had chewed one game off the schedule]. A game check was 1/16 of our salary. The Giants took care of me, and I got paid every single week. That’s something they didn’t have to do, but that’s just who they are. Wellington was the Giants.”

Nelson was once thought by George Young [the Giants’ Senior Vice President of Football Operations, who won NFL Executive of the Year an unprecedented five times] to be “too well-adjusted” to coach. Maybe, it’s for the better. Nelson doesn’t like what the trenches have become.

“Blocking is about balance and technique; the physical strength is only about 5-10% of it. There are a lot of guys in the league who have bad bodies, who are not that strong, who have great technique. And that gets them through.

“But, there are also a bunch of fat slobs on the line. Everyone is so big –so heavy- that they just lean on each other. They don’t use technique anymore. Blocking has become a lost art.” Again, the skinny old retired guy –a champion on and off the field- had protected his turf.