Star quarterbacks are people, too: There is more to Riley Nelson than meets the eye

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It is 10:04 on a Friday morning. An unassuming BYU student sits at a table in Legend’s Grille with a plate of scrambled eggs and ham, two hard-boiled eggs, a bowl of yogurt and granola and two pieces of toast in front of him.

He wears a gray cardigan over a white and blue-striped shirt. A female student walks by and tells him how classy he looks.

“I know, I look so dapper! I dressed for success today,” the student replies.

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BYU quarterback Riley Nelson signs a poster for a fan during the Cougar kickoff at Haws Field.
The student eating the abnormally large breakfast is, in fact, Riley Nelson, the starting quarterback of the BYU football team. But this is Nelson without the infamous long hair, the fandom, the lights, the cameras and the hype.

While Nelson is perhaps one of the most well-known names throughout the BYU community, he said that aside from his prominent role on the football field, he really is just another face in the crowd.

“I’m a normal guy, I guess that’s the No. 1 thing,” Nelson said. “It’s really weird, and I’m flattered, but BYU fans, when they finally meet the quarterback and want to take pictures and stuff, it’s like, ‘dude we’re in the same class!’ We’re just peers. I’m just like them. I’ve got the same struggles as everyone else – I can’t hold down a girlfriend, I can’t get A’s in any of my classes.”

According to Nelson, his school and football schedule keep him extremely busy, allowing him little free time. When he does have free time, he likes to relax as much as possible.

“I’m really boring. I’ve always been fascinated by people who do social activities on weeknights. It’s weird to me,” Nelson said. “I don’t do much socializing during the week. On weekends, I’m so worn out by doing so much during the week that I just kind of chill. My hobbies are Redboxing, napping and chilling with my teammates.”

Teammates senior Preston Hadley and junior Cody Hoffman both attested to Nelson’s laid-back nature.

“He’s just a humble guy,” Hadley said. “Even after all the success he’s been having, he’s still the same Riley. His success on the field hasn’t changed the way he carries himself. A lot of my friends who meet him don’t even know it’s him.”

David Laraway, a Spanish professor who taught Nelson in Spanish 339, expressed a similar sentiment.

“He’s pretty normal. To be honest, if you didn’t know he was a high-profile football player, you wouldn’t guess it,” Laraway said. “He’s very unpretentious in that regard and just a normal person. I’m sure there were students in the class that didn’t know he was that Riley Nelson.”

But according to BYU service representatives Bob and Cindy Wakefield, Nelson is better than normal.

“His greatest gift and his greatest strength is helping others,” Cindy Wakefield said. “When there’s someone that might need to be pulled up a little bit, Riley is the man for that.”

When Nelson isn’t on the field or in the classroom, he immerses himself in service. In 2011, Nelson was the runner-up for the Y-Service Athlete of the Year Award and has been nominated again this year. He has participated in over 23 hours of service this school year, and that is only counting what he has done through BYU.

Nelson recently spoke to a group of 84 “at risk” students from the Nebo School District about never giving up. According to Ron Clark, Director of BYU Public Affairs, in a statement to the Wakefields, those in attendance witnessed a miracle as Nelson spoke to the students.

“He healed and nurtured them,” Clark said. “You are never too young to teach and never too old to learn. The Lord was pleased. We witnessed a miracle as he gave disadvantaged children hope.”

Nelson said service is one of the things in which he finds the most joy.

“I absolutely love serving. My remedy for anytime I do find myself feeling overwhelmed is to serve people,” Nelson said. “The thing I’ve learned from service is if you think you have struggles, look to serve someone else and you’ll find your struggles really aren’t that bad. I basically have a testimony that service is one of the deciding factors in your happiness.”

Nelson said the position he occupies allows him to reach out to those around him.

“I’m nothing special, but the position I occupy is,” Nelson said. “Because I’m the BYU quarterback, I can help people with their lives and help people who have real struggles. There’s always someone who has bigger, worse problems than you. I’ve got it pretty good … I don’t have much to worry about, so I try to help and lift those who do have things to worry about.”

Hadley transferred to BYU in 2011 from Snow College. He said upon arrival in Provo, Nelson was one of the first to reach out to him and make him feel welcome.

“When I came here last year, he was one of the first guys to go out of his way and welcome me and make me feel comfortable,” Hadley said. “He’s a good guy. You know he’s the guy you can count on to be an example. He’s a guy a lot of people can turn to not just because he’s the quarterback but just because of who he is.”

Peel back the layers of football, Spanish and chemistry classes and the misconception of star athletes as shallow individuals, and, the Wakefields said, you will find an extremely grounded, humble individual.

“Riley is one we can count on. He is very grounded, responsible and dependable,” Bob Wakefield said. “He’s very humble for being the star quarterback. He’s very approachable and he’s willing to go the extra mile for people who need a little extra love and attention.”

 

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