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Female Franklin College Student Football Coach hopes to return as player
Indianapolis Star

FRANKLIN, Ind. — She’s on the field throwing passes, helping the defensive backs run different routes. She’s carrying around cards, getting the scout offense ready for the defense. On the clipboard, she looks at the script for practice, where she needs to go next.

Hope Nelson is a freshman student football coach for Franklin College. It’s a tremendous feat, a woman helping to lead a team that this season is 5-1 and undefeated in its conference.

But it’s not her dream. Not even close.

Coaching is the backup plan.

She’s in the weight room, squatting 245 pounds, getting her legs stronger — ready to make tackles. She’s running sprints, getting lightning fast — to cover receivers and defend against pass offenses. She’s watching the guys on the field, the cornerbacks in particular.

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That’s her position.  

Nelson was a high school defensive back.

“When I tell people, it’s always ‘Wow.’ And they’ll ask, ‘What position do you play? Kicker?'” Nelson said. “But that’s not the case. I’m out on the field making tackles. And I want to do that here. I know I can do it.”

Nelson’s goal is to play at Franklin next season as a sophomore. For spring practices, she will suit up with the guys.

She will prepare to make football history, as the first woman in the school’s 184-year existence to play the game.

But that is just the beginning of Nelson’s story of persistence and perseverance.

A lifelong dancer and cheerleader, Nelson is a fighter, a woman who overcomes obstacles every single day.

And she knows what is most daunting, should she take the college football field next year, is a right side hit that comes out of nowhere.

Nelson doesn’t have a chance to see it coming.

She is blind in her right eye.

‘It’s just made me who I am’

The night before, it had seemed like the best solution – at least the only solution for the short term.

Nelson’s babysitter had taken the doorknob off in the bathroom – because her own kids kept trying to lock themselves inside.

The next day, a 3-year-old Nelson was at the house playing hide-and-seek with the babysitter’s daughter.

When she darted into the bathroom, Nelson chased after. As she was just about to catch her, the door slammed shut.

The metal prong exposed by the missing doorknob stabbed Nelson in her right eye.

“I just remember my eye shriveled up like a raisin in my eye socket,” said Nelson.

Her mom was called, but the paramedics beat her to the house. They decided not to take Nelson in the ambulance.

She was tiny and scared and in severe pain. She needed her mom.

Once at the hospital, Nelson was rushed into surgery. Doctors filled her eye with saline and water. It plumped back up. The surgeon put 21 stitches in her ruptured eye.

Her eye looked better afterward, cosmetically. But it didn’t work. Doctors told her parents the devastating news. Nelson would be blind in her right eye.

Through the years, people have said things to Nelson – mean, rude, negative things.

“If I let it bother me, then I would be down on myself all the time. So, I just keep a positive outlook,” she said. “If I could go back and change it, I wouldn’t. It’s just made me who I am.” 

When it all started

That accident was traumatizing. And yet, instead of shrinking up, becoming introverted, something wonderful happened to the 3-year-old girl.

“That’s probably when it all started — her becoming this, ‘I can do anything,'” said her dad, John Nelson. “Before that, she was really laid back and quiet.Then, she got a little spunk.”

Nelson poured her heart and soul into dancing. She was going to be the best. She was a cheerleader in high school at Indian Creek in Trafalgar, Ind.

“I believe that everything happens for a reason, good and bad,” said John Nelson. “We’ve raised her that you have to overcome things in life and you’re going to fail more times than not.”

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But failing wasn’t an alternative for Nelson. Any time a hurdle popped up, she leaped right over it and moved on.

“She is very independent and if you tell her no, that’s not going to be an option,” her dad said. “That’s kind of the scenario we’re in now.”

Yes. The football scenario.

It was her junior year of high school when Nelson tore her ACL while cheerleading — twice.

She decided to move on to a new pursuit. The path had been cleared when doctors discovered that her retina had detached, which freed her to play contact sports.

“That is when I decided I want something to challenge me,” said Nelson. “And so I went to football and loved it ever since.”

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. First, she had to get onto the team and, before that, she had to persuade her dad and mom, Jennifer, to let her play. 

“I’m not going to deny I was a little scared,” said John Nelson. “At the end of the day, you only live once. I guess if that’s what you want to do, go for it.”

Equal treatment

Nelson and her dad set up a meeting with Indian Creek football coach Brett Cooper.

“When I met with coach Cooper, I said, ‘Here’s the deal. She gets no different treatment than a man if she is going to play football,” John Nelson said. “If she wants to play this sport, she needs to really play the sport.”

Cooper remembers that meeting and those words from Nelson’s dad. It was a relief to him. No need for special treatment. Nelson most certainly didn’t want that, either.

“She was one of the guys,” Cooper said. “The only thing that really separated her was she wasn’t allowed in our locker room in certain situations. Our guys saw her no differently. They didn’t bat an eye.”

Because she was inexperienced, Nelson played mostly junior varsity so she could get solid playing time. But she got into some varsity games, too.  

Nelson said she is taking everything she learned from that season of playing — as well as her time on the Franklin team as coach — and preparing for a college football career.

At 5-5 and 155 pounds, Nelson can hit.

There was the practice where one of the players didn’t recognize it was Nelson and she pummeled him.

“And he was like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t realize that was you and you could hit that hard,'” Nelson said. “I’m a lot stronger than a lot of people think I am.”

Like any good player, she knows her weakness, too. There was the game where a player came up on the right side of her and knocked her to the ground.

“And I didn’t see it, so I was completely blindsided,” she said. “Which, if I possibly play next year, that’s something that I really have to work on. Keep my head on a swivel.”

‘Chase after it’

Beyond the talent Nelson brings to the team, is her story. She interned as a high school senior for Franklin coach Mike Leonard last year and he was enamored with her tenacity.

“I would just brag on her all the time to the team, telling them how tough she is and what kind of perseverance she has,” Leonard said. “And then when she came to us, I just knew she would be an inspiration in a big way just because of her work ethic and what she’s been through.”

Defensive back Bryan Wells, a senior on the team, first met Nelson at this year’s training camp.

“I was like, ‘Man, is she playing football or is she coaching?’ I wasn’t really sure,” he said. “When coach Leonard told us she was coaching, I thought it was pretty cool. She is a great coach. She supports us all.”

Recently, Nelson confided in Wells that she’d like to play on the team.

“She loves the game,” he said. “It really opened my eyes.”

Nelson hopes her spirit and what she’s doing open a lot of people’s eyes.

She thinks often of young girls going through tough times, as she did. Children who might have a goal that seems unreachable, as she did.

“I’d tell them, ‘Chase after it,'” she said. “You have to go after your dreams.”