By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a gym filled with friends and family, his twin brother, mother, father, sister and baby nephew among them, Matt Nelson stepped onto the mat Nov. 5. Some forty pounds lighter than a year earlier, he was about to wrestle in his first official match in more than 57 months.
In the stands, his father, one of the UVa program’s most fervent fans, watched nervously as Matt took on Campbell University 133-pounder Tanner Bidelspach.
“It was killer,” Mike Nelson said. “The only thing that saved me was my grandson, who was 3 months old. I was able to have him sit on my lap so I wouldn’t jump through the roof.”
Elsewhere inside Memorial Gymnasium, Matt’s twin brother focused on preparing for his match at 141 pounds, ignoring the action on the main mat. Then Nick Nelson heard the crowd roar. Matt’s match was over.
“As soon as he stepped off the mat and got his hand raised, I was stepping on the mat to go into battle myself,” Nick recalled. “So it didn’t really sink in [what Matt had done] until after my match and after the adrenaline kind of calmed down.”
More than four years after graduating from high school, Matt Nelson had finally begun his college wrestling career, realizing a dream he’d clutched through the darkest periods of his life, the days when he experienced headaches so debilitating that he couldn’t get out of bed.
His start was straight out of Hollywood. After pinning Bidelspach in 2 minutes, 30 seconds in the morning, Matt pinned Anderson University’s Dan Haines in 4:24 that afternoon.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like that in my life,” UVa coach Steve Garland said. “I don’t know if other sports have miracle stories like that, but in my opinion it’s a miracle that he was on the mat.”
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IT WAS AT LEAST A SMALL MIRACLE that Matthew Paul and Nicholas Francis Nelson made it to manhood. They were born Aug. 1, 1988, at Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, three months premature. Nick emerged first, two minutes ahead of Matt. Nick weighed 3 pounds; Matt, 2. They stayed in the hospital for three months.
“We didn’t know if they were going to live or die for a long period,” Mike Nelson said. “They’d quit breathing, and the nurse would go over and shake them, and I’d be having, like, six heart attacks. The nurses would be like, ‘No, that’s common, they just forget to breathe.’ And I’d say, ‘No, it shouldn’t be common.’ “
After finally being released, the twins grew into stellar athletes known more for their doggedness than for their size — each stands 5-foot-6 — or natural ability.
“It’s funny, because I sometimes think about what sets us apart,” Nick said. “How are we actually good at wrestling? How are we actually successful? Because we’re not fast, we’re not quick, we’re not stronger than anybody.
“I think the thing that sets us apart is we do all the little things right. We’re determined to succeed. And that work ethic doesn’t start just on Saturdays. It starts in the beginning of the week, making sure your weight’s good, training all summer, getting extra lifts in, doing the extra running, staying after practice 20 minutes longer than everyone else.”
In November 2006, the twins, then seniors at Shaler Area High School in Pittsburgh, signed to wrestle at UVa. When the calendar flipped to 2007, each was chasing the same goal, a state championship — Matt at 135 pounds and Nick at 145.
Then came Feb. 12, 2007, the day that changed Matt’s life, the day he suffered the concussion that would sideline him for four years.
The twins were at practice at Shaler. Matt was in the middle of a group, working against teammates who rotated in against him. When it was Nick’s turn, he tried a shot on his brother.
“The front part of my head hit the side of his head, and we both kind of went down,” Nick recalled. “I got up a lot quicker than he did. And I remember his eyes being real big, and I remember looking at him like, ‘Are you all right?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m good.’ So I said, ‘All right, well get back in there then. Let’s go. You’re still in.’ And then as time went on, he got taken down, and he just looked terrible. He was getting taken down by one of the freshmen on the team who would never even come close to taking us down. Our coach stopped him right there and said, ‘Whoa, Matt, just relax for a little bit. Take some time off.’ “
That was the last thing Matt wanted to hear. As an 11th-grader, he had lost in the state quarterfinals to the eventual champion in a close match. “I choked,” Matt said. The loss haunted him, and he had vowed to redeem himself as a senior. So he ignored his concussion and continued practicing.
“I did everything wrong afterwards: not drinking, not eating right,” Matt recalled. “In the immediate aftermath, I kept working out. I was in the group of four, and I kept going. So that was bad, No. 1. What made it much worse was the week afterwards, when your brain needs the recovery, I wasn’t eating, I was still working out on my own. Because I wanted to win a state title. That was my dream since I was 4 years old and I started wrestling. That was the worst thing you could do, and from there it was post-concussion syndrome.”
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NICK WOULD GO ON TO CAPTURE a state title that season. Matt’s high school career was over after 140 matches — 125 of them victories — though he didn’t know it at the time. The sectional tournament was only a week away, and he was determined to compete.
At home that first night, Matt vomited after eating chicken alfredo and drinking orange juice. His father decided Matt needed immediate medical attention.
“He said, ‘No, I’m not going to the hospital. If I go to the hospital, it’ll be registered, and I won’t be able to wrestle,’ ” Mike Nelson recalled. “I said, ‘We’re worried about you,’ and he said, ‘No, I’m not going.’ He’s never been defiant, but he was to the defiant point. He was almost getting physical.”
Matt said: “I was completely irrational. I remember fighting with my dad. I guess [the concussion] affected the emotional part of my brain. I was sitting there crying, [cursing] my dad and my coach. My coach was this big, burly man with a beard, kind of an outdoorsman who’s like this judo champion, Greco-Roman guy, kind of a scary dude. And I’m yelling at him, ‘No, you’re not going to tell me what to do. Who do you think you are?’ “
After his symptoms persisted for more than a week, Matt was sent to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to see Micky Collins, a doctor renowned for his work with concussion and sports-related brain injuries. Matt knew Collins would have him take the ImPACT, an acronym for immediate post-concussion assessment and cognitive test. Still, with the sectional tournament looming, Matt recalled, “I wasn’t going to let him tell me no. Only God himself could tell me no.”
But he performed poorly on the test, after which Collins rendered his verdict: Matt would not wrestle again that season. However, Collins told him, if they worked together and trusted one another, perhaps Matt could compete again one day.
“And that’s kind of when our relationship started,” Matt said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m putting myself in your hands, Doc.’ I was completely broken at that time. To this day, him telling me originally I couldn’t wrestle was one of the lowest points of my life.”
Matt knew football players at Shaler who had suffered concussions, and they were usually allowed to return to competition after a week or so. “That’s kind of what I was expecting,” he said. “Next thing you know it’s a month, and after about three months, I knew something was up.”
Ultimately, Matt recalled, his doctors “were like, ‘Listen, your brain doesn’t know what it’s like not to have headaches. That’s like default mode right now. Let’s get you on medicine to get off that.’ So they started putting me on medicine to get rid of the headaches, and that started getting a little better.”
Nick said: “I remember his pill collection that he had. It was like 30 different pills he had to take every day.”
Matt recovered enough to enroll at UVa as scheduled with Nick in 2007. Once the fall semester began, however, his health began to deteriorate.
“Using my brain hard academically for the first time in a long time, being away from home, trying to work out again, things just didn’t go well,” Matt said. “I ended up getting crushed in my classes. Which was extremely frustrating. In wrestling, I can do anything if I work harder. With a brain injury, it’s the complete opposite. You don’t want to work harder, because then that makes it worse.”
Wrestling offered no relief. His doctors would not clear him to join the team at UVa. Matt ended up helping then-coach Donnell Hopkins at nearby Albemarle High School, but that didn’t last long. Matt had to medically withdraw from the University before final exams in the fall of 2007. His long-term memory was failing him, and his headaches were persisting.
“I just didn’t know which way was up,” Matt said. “So I go back to Pittsburgh, kind of defeated. It was one of those things where you just feel so bad for yourself: ‘What am I doing with my life? I have no memory of more than two weeks. I can’t work out. I can’t wrestle. What do I have?’ “
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HE WANTED TO BE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE with Nick. Matt found himself instead at ReMed, a rehabilitation center in Pittsburgh for people with brain injuries. Many of its patients had been seriously injured in car crashes.
“I had to sit in meetings with these people,” Matt recalled. “They were all older, and I didn’t feel like I could relate to any of them. I was depressed.”
He remembers another patient at ReMed, a woman who needed a walker to get around. She held a picture of her 4-year-old daughter, a child the woman didn’t remember. “And that just punches you right in the gut,” Matt said. “It’s like, ‘What am I doing here?’ “
In the spring of 2008, Matt audited a class at Community College of Allegheny County to test himself in an academic setting again. His health improved enough for him to return to UVa that fall, and he earned close to a 3.8 grade-point average in his first two semesters back, during which he also helped coach the wrestling team at Albemarle High. Before long, however, he was taking seven Xanax a day.
“I wasn’t a junkie,” Matt said. “I wasn’t doing it for the buzz. I did it because to me it was, ‘Take a pill, stay in school.’ “
His doctors had told Matt to take no more than three or four Xanax a day, but whenever he felt a headache coming on, he would pop another pill. “He would say, ‘I want to go to class today, I gotta take this,’ ” Nick said.
Xanax “is a relaxer, and it makes you focus more,” Matt said. He was getting good grades, but “I’d still have headaches two or three days a week where I couldn’t open my eyes, I couldn’t go outside. There was no relief. Ever. It’s like you were just trapped.”
Three or four times a year, Matt would see Collins in Pittsburgh. During one appointment, Collins expressed concern about Matt’s headaches and dependency on Xanax. Matt wanted to discuss something else.
“I’m like, ‘So, can I come back and wrestle now?’ ” Matt said, smiling at the memory. “And he said, ‘You still have headaches two to three days a week where you can’t even get out of bed, and you’re asking me if you can come back and wrestle?’
“He thought I was nuts. Seriously, I think he thought I was out of my mind. He sat me and down and laughed and said, ‘Matt, this is my promise to you: If you’re symptom-free, and you’re working out, I will clear you. How about that? But until that day, we just talk about bettering your life.’ “
It took Matt three months to break his dependency on Xanax — “the hardest three months of my life,” he said. He met with a psychiatrist, a psychologist and medicine specialists. He cut his daily intake from seven pills to five to 4½, Matt said, “and then eventually they put me on this Quanapin and Xanax cocktail, and, man, that sucked. My kidneys hurt, and I’d throw up every day for almost three months.”
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BY THE START OF THE 2009-10 SCHOOL YEAR at UVa, Matt was feeling better. He wasn’t wrestling, but he stayed involved in the sport as an assistant at Albemarle High. His headaches had abated, and his grades were excellent. The year passed uneventfully, and the summer of 2010 found him working at Arch’s Frozen Yogurt on Emmet Street, in good health and good spirits.
“For the first time, I started to get my feet on the ground, I was off the medicine, I was decently headache-free, and it just hit me,” Matt recalled. “One of the times was in church, another time was when I was talking with my friends, and I was like, ‘I gotta come back to wrestling. Life’s too easy.’ “
With his doctors’ permission, Matt started running and lifting weights, taking it slowly, and he was allowed to rejoin UVa’s wrestling team in the fall of 2010. Luke Donovan, Virginia’s athletic trainer for wrestling, watched him carefully, and Matt wasn’t cleared to do non-contact wrestling drills until January of this year.
His headaches were gone. Matt’s biggest physical challenge was shedding the extra weight he was carrying. He’d ballooned to 175 pounds during his years of inactivity, becoming, as Garland likes to say with affection, “a tub of goo.” Matt met regularly with UVa’s sports nutritionist, Randy Bird, but the pounds did not come off easily.
In March, Matt finally was cleared for contact, more than four years after he’d suffered the concussion at Shaler High. But his weight was around 160 — still well above his target — and his prospects for representing the Wahoos on the mat looked dim.
“That was the big thing everybody said: ‘There is no way that you’re making 133,’ ” Matt said.
What accelerated his comeback was a summer internship in Beaverton, Ore., with Nike’s global trading company. In Beaverton, Matt ran and lifted and swam with other college athletes, including Andrew Wasserman (North Carolina football) and Grayson Patten (Florida diving).
“At Nike I kind of gained this mindset and culture where I wanted to win everything,” Matt said. He worked out twice a day and watched his diet closely, and the extra pounds began to melt away.
Garland recalls a text messsage he received from Matt over the summer. “It said, ‘Coach, I weigh 143.’ And I’m like, ‘What? You’re only 10 over?’ And he said, “I told you I was going to do it.’ “
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MATT’S DETERMINATION TO COMPETE AGAIN did not thrill his brother, or their father, at least not at first.
“I tell him all the time, ‘I need a son, I don’t need a wrestler,’ ” Mike Nelson said.
Nick said: “Initially, I think, I was worried about how his body and his head were going to respond to the physical demand and mental demand of college athletics in general. When he made that decision to come back, I was nervous, because that’s my twin brother, and I look at him as my baby brother. Being two minutes older, I’m still older than him.
“I thought about how important he is to me in my life, and if something were to happen to him, especially from wrestling, it would be hard to keep wrestling and live my life. What happens if he gets brain damaged?”
Once Collins cleared Matt to compete, however, “I was 100 percent for him jumping in with both feet,” Nick said.
Matt has taken shots to the head since he returned to the mat, with no ill effects. One noteworthy blow came from his roommate and best friend.
“The first time we came back and wrestled, I gave him a club to the head,” Nick said. “I don’t know if it was four years of him in my ear all the time, every match bickering at me, four years of not doing the dishes, four years of not taking out the trash, but that first time back, I gave him a club from hell, man, and he took it, and we just kept wrestling.”
Like many others, Garland was skeptical when Matt told him he would one day wrestle for the Cavaliers. He knows better now than to doubt the Nelson brothers.
“If they say they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it,” said Garland, who has a twin brother himself.
Even when he couldn’t wrestle, Matt stayed around the UVa program, supporting Nick and talking regularly with Garland. “I started to realize, this kid’s a little different than most of the kids I’ve ever worked with,” Garland said. “He is a little nutty. When he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to go all out, and that’s the same way Nick is. The bottom line is, when those guys set out to do anything, they want to be the absolute best they can be. They’re not just going in to get a B or a C in a class. And that I love, because that’s contagious.”
On the first day of preseason practice this fall, Garland put his wrestlers through a two-mile run in which each had to carry a 45-pound plate. Matt embraced the challenge.
“He goes, ‘Coach, I’m going to win this run,’ ” Garland recalled. “I hadn’t seen him compete against the team in anything ever since I’d known him, and I was like, ‘OK, well, let’s see.’ Not only did he win it, he started last and then won it. And then every preseason workout, any workout he was in, he won. Look, he doesn’t have the most God-given speed or agility or all those things. But when you watch him compete at anything, whether it be weightlifting, running, sprinting, wrestling, he’s on another planet when it comes to focus and mental toughness.”
Matt said: “Don’t tell me I can’t do something.”
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NICK, WHO REDSHIRTED IN 2009-10, graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in economics, and he’s in a master’s program in the McIntire School of Commerce.
Matt, still an undergraduate, is majoring in economics, with a minor in leadership. Like his brother, Matt is considered a fifth-year senior. Matt, however, is likely to be granted another year of eligibility, so he might compete for UVa again in 2012-13.
Final exams start Thursday at UVa, and Garland’s team won’t compete again until Dec. 18, against Drexel in Philadelphia. Nick is 10-1. Matt is 10-3, with two of his defeats by decision to Virginia Tech’s Devin Carter, who’s ranked No. 5 nationally.
“I always knew how good he was,” said Nick, who advanced to the NCAA championships at 141 last season. “I come out in my college career and have all these accomplishments and everything like that, and I knew my brother, with how determined and how hard a worker he is, he could have the same results.
“There was never a question of how good he was going to be when he did come back. It was just kind of, when is he going to come back?”
His coach believes Matt can be an All-American this year. “He’s got to develop some more offense. but he’s just a good wrestler,” Garland said. “Regardless of the years lost, he’s a good wrestler.”
Matt knows he has much rust to scrape off after so much time away from the mat. Still, he’s convinced he has three advantages over anyone he’ll face.
“No. 1, I’m 23 years old,” Matt said. “There’s a big difference between being 18 years old and 23, strength-wise. No. 2, I cut from 175 pounds from a year ago. I better be one of the strongest kids. Somebody’s on steroids if they’re that much stronger than me. And with that is the cardio I do to make the weight and what I’ve done. There’s not much harder work that you can do to beat me, and if you do, you deserve it.”
No. 3, and most important, Matt believes, is his mindset.
“People just haven’t been through what I’ve been through, to be honest,” he said. “You don’t really know what pain is until you wake up with what I had to go through. I know that [Oklahoma State’s] Jordan Oliver is a better wrestler than I am. [Ohio State’s] Logan Stieber is a better wrestler than I am. But when it comes down to it, when you have to wrestle one match, one day, and someone punches you in the mouth and you’re going through pain and it’s 3-3 in overtime, man, I know I’m not losing that match. I can’t.
“When we’re running sprints, the pain that people feel that might make them stop, that’s not pain for me. That’s the fun stuff that I came back for.”
To all who supported him during his darkest hours — from Nick to Micky Collins to Steve Garland to Luke Donovan, to name only a few — Matt will be forever grateful. If his story is indeed a miracle, he said, the miracle is not that he’s wrestling again.
“The miracle in my life are the people who got me here,” Matt said. “The miracle in my life are the people who cared.”