The longtime Blaine and Minnetonka coach will join his father in the Minnesota Football Coaches Hall of Fame
Dave Nelson was humbled when he heard the news last month.
Former Blaine head football coach and current Minnetonka coach has devoted his life to teaching and coaching, and now he has earned his place in the Minnesota High School Football Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame.
Nelson is one of a handful of Minnesota football coaches who has won state championships at two high schools.
Under his leadership, the Blaine Bengals won in 1988 by beating Cretin-Derham Hall 25-24 in the Prep Bowl. The Minnetonka Skippers won the Prep Bowl in 2004 when they beat rival Wayzata 23-14.
This fall, Nelson will enter his 37th year as a high school football coach. Prior to becoming Blaine’s head coach in 1984, he was an assistant coach there for six seasons. He came to Minnetonka as head coach in 2002.
“It’s remarkable how fast the time goes by when you’re doing something you like,” said Nelson. “My dad [Anoka coaching legend Stan Nelson] coached high school football for 33 years. It’s hard to believe that I’ve coached longer than he did.”
Stan Nelson is also in the football coaches’ association hall of fame after serving as head coach at Anoka High School for 26 years.
Dave Nelson played for his dad and still remembers the Friday night lights of Anoka’s Goodrich Stadium, near his family’s home.
To say that Nelson comes from a football family would be an understatement. His dad, now 93, had a great career. His uncle, Edor Nelson, now 99, was head football and baseball coach at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. And Dave’s brother Steve was a legendary linebacker for the New England Patriots. Furthermore, Dave’s son Jesse was the starting quarterback on Minnetonka’s 2004 state-championship team.
When he was growing up in Anoka, Nelson had an inkling that he would become a football coach someday. His idol was his dad.
“I remember taking stats when I was in junior high,” he said. “And then I played for my dad for two years. My dad had a way of making every kid on the team feel special.”
Nelson earned a scholarship to play football at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He figured he would be a linebacker there, but head coach Jim Malosky had other ideas.
“I played offensive guard and started for the first time in the ninth game of my freshman year,” Nelson said. “I started every game for the next three years. I wasn’t very big (5-foot-11 and 210 pounds). I pulled a lot on sweeps, reverses and traps.”
Often, offensive linemen labor in obscurity. But that was not the case with Nelson, who was named all-conference three years in a row.
After he graduated from UMD, Nelson landed a job teaching driver’s education at Blaine High School. He joined the football staff as an unpaid assistant, and then was elevated to the rank of paid assistant the following season.
Guiding the Bengals
Blaine’s program was down when Nelson took the head coaching job in 1984.
“I was 28 at the time and still had a lot to learn,” Nelson admitted. “My first year the varsity was 0-9, the JV was 0-8 and the sophomore team was 1-7. We only scored three TDs all season, and I think our longest play from scrimmage was 12 yards. Later on, I realized I would never have a tougher year than that.”
Ironically, there might have been more talent on the sidelines than there was on the field.
One of Nelson’s assistants that year was Jeff Ferguson, who has led Totino-Grace High School to seven state football titles.
Another assistant was Shannon Gerrety, who led Blaine to the Prep Bowl finals in 2008 and the state tournament in 2010 before moving on to become Activities Director at Blaine after the 2011 season.
Gerrety and Nelson both coached on the sophomores team through varsity.
“In my mind he was a mentor and to coach with him for every varsity win at Blaine is special,” Gerrety said. “We had a lot of good times … [Nelson] definitely is a mentor and someone I tried to emulate along with Ferguson. They are both pretty doggone good coaches.”
Gerrety pointed to how strong Nelson is not only as an on-field coach but, “the other side of him being such a good person.”
When Gerrety interviewed for the laine head football coach opening, one question revolved around doing things different while they coached together (1985-2001). “I looked the interviewer in the eye and said ‘Never did a thing wrong. Never, ever, ever would I have second guessed him. Everything was for the kids and that’s what helped make it so special,” Gerrety added. “He made me be a better coach and helped me develop relationships with the students. It’s not about the wins and losses its about the process and the kids.”
That process and shedding the spotlight are traits that Gerrety knows something about. “Dave would never tell you about the awards of accolades. He’s just that type of guy even though he’s incredibly deserving and worthy of so much more based on the lives he’s impacted. You have to be around him to see the life-changer he is.”
Once Blaine began rolling, appearances in the state playoffs followed.
In Nelson’s final season at Blaine (2001), the team lost in the Prep Bowl to Hastings 28-9.
Nelson said the decision to leave Blaine and take the Minnetonka job was, “the hardest decision I ever made.”
The Minnetonka situation offered a new challenge because the Skippers’ won-lost records the four previous seasons had been 2-8, 3-6, 3-6 and 1-8.
“At the first Touchdown Club meeting, I told the group that I wanted to have the team banquet the week after the Prep Bowl,” Nelson recalled.
There were quizzical looks, but the Touchdown Club was fully on board two years later when the banquet audience clapped for the state champions.
As he reflects on his career, Nelson said his goal has always been “to make high school football a special experience for the players.”
235 career wins
Nelson has a 235-94 career record, which puts him in the upper echelon for victories.
When asked about scheduling a Blaine vs. Minnetonka game in the future, Gerrety was apprehensive at the thought.
“When it was me and Dave, neither of us wanted it,” Gerrety explained. “When you’re close to somebody like a brother, or closer, it would’ve been hard to do.”
While Nelson is one of the immortals in high school football coaching, there was a bout with mortality three years ago when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Luckily, he beat it, and he is now active on the board of the Tackle Cancer Foundation.
Nelson said his success would not have been possible without the support of his family, particularly his wife Maureen.
“Maureen is the best,” he said. “She has never missed a game that I’ve coached.”
Nelson’s daughters, Sarah and Ashley, were soccer and track athletes at Blaine High School, and they maintain an active interest in their dad’s coaching career.
Nothing pleases Nelson more than visiting with family members after his games.
There are usually four generations on the field between Stan, Dave, Dave and Maureen’s children and grandchildren. It is always a happy time for the coach. Football is his passion, but his first love is his family.
Editor’s note: Story was writen by John Sherman, Sun Sailor Sports Editor with contributions from Jason Olson, ABC Newspapers Sports Editor