Bright Future: Vidalia senior reaches for sports, academic dreams

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2017


NATCHEZ — Zachary Nelson has been a first-string player since he was a freshman. He made a 30 on his ACT. He dreams of playing football in college and of taking on grueling biomedical engineering courses.

As scholarships and offers to play ball come sailing in, Nelson, Vidalia High School’s left tackle, finds himself facing a difficult question.

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Can he chase both dreams?

The 6-foot, 3-inch senior towers over his classmates. His mother, Karen Nelson, said he has always been that way.

“He weighed almost 11 pounds when he was born and he has always been big,” she said. “The size has really helped him.”

He started playing football in fifth grade but soon became the only freshman to play first string as he got older.

This year, Vidalia High School nominated him for the Wendy’s High School Heisman Award. Applicants must maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA, have proven leadership skills and play at least one sport to qualify for the scholarships.

In part, his love for the sport mirrors that of his grandfather, John Daniel Peterson. His grandchildren called him Jay.

When Zachary Nelson was young, he always watched football with his grandfather.

Even after Hurricane Katrina, when his grandparents lost everything in the storm, Zachary Nelson said he would go to Jay’s temporary FEMA trailer to watch games.

Even after his grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia and became too ill to leave the bed Zachary Nelson would come to the hospital and write down scores of all the games his grandfather watched.

After his grandfather died in 2010, Zachary Nelson said he wanted to do something in tribute to his grandfather.

On his right arm is an incomplete half-sleeve of tattoos. The images, he said, represent what his grandfather loved and the tattoos Jay had gotten while in the Marines.

Among the images are a fish and a coffee cup, hot peppers and playing cards, a four-leaf clover and a hammer, a cancer ribbon and a white dove.

Soon he wants to add a rosary to symbolize his grandfather’s faith.

Besides the love of football, Zachary Nelson said he inherited his Jay’s work ethic, too.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve thought if you can make a 100 on something, make a 100,” he said. “If you can be the best at something, be the best.”

In what does Zachary Nelson want to be the best?

“Everything I can be,” he said.

That ethic, he said, is why he pushes himself to make top grades.

“The teachers used to say, ‘You put too much pressure on him,’” Karen Nelson said. “But it wasn’t me. It’s him. I’ve been lucky as a parent.”

Zachary Nelson said his real proclivity is math. He like the stability of the formulas — how they always work, no matter what values you substitute.

He wants to use that love of math to help people, specifically through prosthetics.

“I like the idea of prosthetics and designing them,” he said. “I always thought it was interesting. The idea of building a limb for somebody and designing it to function right, that’s really cool.”

Maybe, Karen Nelson said, he does not have to choose.

“He went to a lot of football camps this summer,” she said, turning to her son. “And one coach asked him what he made on his ACT and the coach told him — what did he tell you?”

Zachary Nelson picked up: “He said, ‘You don’t see too many 30s walking through the door.’”

It might be easier to choose one dream or the other, but Karen Nelson said that would not fit his character.

“If he doesn’t get a scholarship for football, we know he’ll have his academic scholarship,” she said. “If he doesn’t play football, it’s not a disaster. But he wants to. We’re shooting for that.”