Sadly, John “Nellie” Nelson passed away on August 31, 2009. He was 44.
Nellie was an inspiration to many. He was a coach at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU).
I first got to hear about and even meet Nellie in February 2009 when I attended the ELCA’s Extravagvanza, a workshop for those who do Youth Ministry. Anybody can attend if they pay and would like to learn more. They do not even have to attend every workshop, but being that payment is made, it is a good idea to attend a workshop during every slot where workshops are offered.
Anyway, it was not in a workshop where I met him. Nellie spoke to the 500 or so people gathered in a big ballroom in the Sheraton New Orleans for what was known as a general session.
He spoke about how he grew up and his parents told him that he would not amount to anything. This was very sad. You would think that even though he was born with Arthrogryposis, which caused all of his joints from his neck down to be locked.
He found purpose in PLU’s football program. In recent years, he served as an assistant volunteer coach. He could often be found motoring up and down the sidelines during PLU football games, being a great coach and cheerleader for all of the football players.
I can remember that I saw him in the lobby of the hotel when I was down there as well. No matter what, there was something that attracted people towards him and made them want to talk to him. I did not get to say much, but at least I did get to at lest tell him hello. I’m sure I said more. I know my sister kept telling jokes to him, so now I do remember that I said more because it made him groan. All of her other jokes also made the football players groan and sometimes even wince because she can have a very dirty mind at times.
Perhaps the reason people were always so attracted to come talk to and spend time with Nellie was because he never did see himself as disabled. The things he needed were just tools like all of us need food and water to live, we need cars to drive. Those extras were not Nellie.
He found a purpose for his life and the fact that he knew he had a purpose for his life attracted others to want to know why he did not feel so bad about himself after what he went though in childhood.
However, it was never a mystery to the PLU football players or the people who attended that Extravaganza.
You can watch the video of Nellie’s speech at the Extravaganza by visiting the video that the ELCA Youth Ministry has made public.
Extravaganza 2009 Keynote Speaker: John “Nellie” Nelson, ELCA Youth Ministry Network
John “Nellie” Nelson Passes Away at 44, Pacific Lutheran Athletics