Nelson chip off hard-nosed block

Blast: Coach Tim Wittman is grateful for a player who fits the mold of Mike Curtis, Mike Stankovic, Cal Ripken and Ray Lewis.

Pro Soccer

March 05, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Two weeks ago, the Blast was losing to the Cleveland Force 4-1, with much of the damage being done by Force forward Adauto Neto, when coach Tim Wittman took defenseman Billy Nelson aside.

"Billy, I want you to chew him up," Wittman told him.

And Nelson chewed him up. Neto didn't score again. And Nelson not only closed down the Cleveland forward, but also helped open up the Blast's offense. He blocked a season-high five shots and produced two assists. One of them brought the Blast to within a goal and the second assured a 9-7 victory.

Nelson, 5 feet 11 and 186 pounds, may not look exactly like an old-time Baltimore athlete - he has two small gold earrings in each ear - but he plays the kind of game local sports fans can relate to.

"That guy," said Wittman, "will sacrifice his body, his time and his position. He'll do whatever it takes. He gets hit in the head or kicked at every practice and he always just gets back up and goes at it again. I love it in a player. Heart is hard to teach."

Nelson brings back memories of Baltimore Colts linebacker Mike Curtis, Blast defender Mike Stankovic and Oriole Cal Ripken. They made their names with hard-nosed play and by seldom giving in to pain or injury.

Now, the Ravens' Ray Lewis plays with ferocity at middle linebacker. And Nelson, though in a smaller, less-noticed arena, puts his body in harm's way daily to get his job done.

"It started when I was in high school," said Nelson, who played basketball, hockey, tennis and soccer for Bel Air High School. "I remember the first story that was written about me said I was a hard-nosed player. I didn't dislike being called that. It describes me well. At the time, I felt like I was a bully on the field."

He made the varsity soccer team as a 13-year-old freshman and realized he couldn't afford to play scared. So he got tough. It is a trait he took to UMBC, where he played for longtime coach Pete Caringi.

"Billy will do whatever it takes to win," said Caringi after Nelson was voted the Blast's Player of the Month for February this week. "But saying he's an old-style Baltimore defender, I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that he is also very skillful ... and since he joined the Blast, he has gotten stronger and matured."

Nelson, 24 and in his third season with the Blast, takes elbows to the head, gets bruised by the balls and feet he dives in front of and is quite familiar with the boards surrounding the playing field, as he crashes into them frequently.

"But I'm not so crazy that I would intentionally run into them," he said, smiling. "It's just that I take a lot of shots off my face and body and do whatever I have to do to win the ball. Sometimes, that means crashing into the boards."

But Nelson said anyone who believes he doesn't experience fear on the field is wrong. It's not that he's afraid of the hits, but he's always fearful of making a mistake that might cost his team a game.

"This season alone, I've scored three own goals [inadvertently putting the ball into his own team's net]," Nelson said. "Twice, it cost us the game. There's nothing I can say about it. I'm in the right spot marking my man, but in the wrong spot when the ball comes off the boards. Sometimes it's just hard to get out of the way."

Wittman couldn't care less. Over the last 1 1/2 years he's seen Nelson bloom into a thinking man's soccer player.

"It's no longer just instinct with him," Wittman said. "He's reached a higher level and I think he's going to go to yet another level. He's got a lot of room to grow and because he's a bit of a risk taker he's willing to do what it takes to get there."

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