Dundalk colored blue-collar ethic of Packers' Nelson

December 14, 1990|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

Bob Nelson is the ultimate blue-collar worker, playing the ultimate blue-collar position, working in the ultimate blue-collar football town. In what is no small coincidence, he comes by his blue-collaredness naturally.

Nelson was born in Baltimore. He grew up in the shadows of Bethlehem Steel, roamed the streets of southeast Baltimore, looked for -- and generally found -- trouble. But none of it was so serious that he was deemed a troublemaker.

Then, he was a fun-loving, free-spirited youth exercising his constitutional prerogative. Now, he is a battering-ram nose tackle for the Green Bay Packers who toes the line of scrimmage. At 6 feet 4 and 275 pounds, he is a stocky, steady, four-year NFL veteran.

He is the local hero you never heard about because blue-collar just doesn't make headlines.

"I run into friends who ask what he's doing these days," said Ron Nelson, Bob's younger brother, a blue-collar man himself as a tugboat mate in the harbor. "I tell them he's playing with the Packers. They say, 'Really?' "

It's the truth. You could look it up. Or you could go to Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium Sunday to see for yourself. The Packers wage wild-card war with the Eagles in a 4 p.m. brawl. Ron, along with a dozen other friends and family members, will be there.

Bob and Ron were two of four Nelson boys who grew up with sports and the outdoors in Dundalk. They lived in a rowhouse off Cavanaugh Road. Used to play two-on-two tackle football on the concrete in front of that rowhouse. In the summer, there were mean games of whiffleball. Sometimes there were just mean games.

"I remember one time a lady across the street blamed me for putting a hole in her chain-link fence with my ass playing football," Bob said. "Fact was, a neighbor put a hole in her fence with his car. But she bitched to my mother that I did it. I bet she still blames me."

Nelson, nicknamed "Fuzzy" by his grandmother because he was born with a full head of curly hair, was never far from trouble in those days.

"I got thrown off every team I played on back then," he said. "My senior year of football [at Patapsco], me and my brother got kicked off the team because we went to a dentist appointment.

"I wasn't a troublemaker. But if trouble was there, I wouldn't run away from it. I was being mischievous."

For all the mischief, he was a pretty good athlete in a family of athletes. His older brother Raymond, he says, could have played pro baseball if given half a chance. His younger brother Ron -- nicknamed "Rags" for his decidedly unimpressive wardrobe -- was good in football, baseball and basketball before blowing out a knee. When Bob wasn't doubling up at tight end and defensive end for Patapsco, he was known to beat Dundalk celebrity Mike Bielecki, now of the Cubs, in a high school pitcher's duel.

That Bob made it out of Dundalk on a football scholarship to the University of Miami in 1979 is one of Baltimore's more remarkable success stories.

"Where I am now is pure luck," said Nelson, 31. "There was only one team that came out to recruit me. There was only one guy who came to look at me.

"When he recruited me, he told me he never heard of Dundalk or Patapsco. There are probably other athletes in Dundalk who could be playing in the pros, but it's too blue-collar to look.

"People back there never give up no matter what. I was one of the fortunate ones who got out and made it."

In one sense, Nelson was lucky. In another, he has earned every square inch of success he's gotten. He has persevered through two pro leagues, including the USFL, and six different teams. He has been waived four times and traded twice. Once, in Tampa Bay, he was waived the day after Bucs coach Ray Perkins sent him home to bring back the rest of his clothes.

Yet he found a home in Green Bay in 1988. But even there, he was a casualty of the final cut, only to be re-signed in September when starting nose tackle Jerry Boyarsky broke his arm.

Since the end of the 1988 season, Nelson has started 35 of the Packers' last 36 games. He has led the defensive linemen in unassisted tackles and total tackles two years in a row. He is one of the league's better nose tackles.

"I'm consistent," he said. "That's why I'm in the league."

He is also a product of his environment. Even though he now makes his home in Miami, Baltimore remains a part of him. He is a survivor because he has a lot of that blue-collar, Dundalk blood in him.

"My position is as blue-collar as Bethlehem Steel," Nelson said. "I've always been a hard worker. It's where I come from. I've still got a lot of Baltimore in me."

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