by Jamey Bulloch
Cavalier senior safety Brenton Nelson has had a successful career in football since arriving at UVA four years ago. In 2017, he earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and tied for the team lead in interceptions. In 2018, he ranked second in the conference in pass defense and in 2019 has been part of the UVA defense that ranks No. 2 in ACC total defense.

All of that is remarkable considering, when he was accepted at UVA, it was not for football.

Nelson played to his strengths at the end of high school and earned a scholarship for the UVA track and field team. After his first couple of practices assistant track coach for jumps Mario Wilson noticed that his passion and focus was better suited to another sport.

“There’s something about [football] that just struck me,” Nelson said.

He credits Wilson for persuading his decision to walk onto the football team instead – a difficult decision as reiterated by his mother, whom Nelson admits had a preference that he remain in track.

“She didn’t like the contact part of football,” Nelson said.  

Nelson’s family has played a huge role in his success thus far and in his determination to get better. His four older brothers taught him the game in his younger years, and as the first of his family to go to college, Nelson bashfully admits that: “They all look at me like ‘you’re the one that made it’.”

When asked about his mother, Nelson smiles and puts his head in his hands. “Strong!” he states assertively, “Very strong …” indicating his admiration of her. During his transition, he admits to their disagreements regarding trading his scholarship for shoulder pads and a helmet, but nonetheless, he justifies his determination with a smile and a shrug, “I always thought football was going to be the key to my success.”

When he was younger, Nelson moved from Miami to Orlando. There he attended Winter Springs High School where he was a dual athlete – competing in both football and track. Nelson earned numerous honors in track, as well as breaking both the long jump (22.5) and triple jump (45.3) records. Before his senior year, he moved to DeMatha Catholic in Maryland. Thr change, however, did not affect his dedication, and he continued to break records in the long jump (23.05) and the triple jump (47.5), earning All-American in track.

In retrospect, Nelson is aware of the importance track in his life.

“Track is always going to have that special place in my heart,” Nelson said.

He remains a huge supporter of the Cavalier track and field team, keeping close relationships with the athletes and enjoying frequent conversations with coach Wilson. He attributes his jumps and speed as well as his individual focus and competitiveness to track, which he displays in the stadium every football game.

As a walk-on in 2017, Nelson’s priorities were different than any of the student-athletes that were recruited onto the team. He was determined to earn a scholarship. After the first couple of practices, however, he pulled a hamstring. This setback was not going to dictate his goals or his position on the team.

“That spring and summer I really just pushed to earn the scholarship. I didn’t really think about starting or getting into the two deep.” Nelson said.

Before his second year started, head coach Bronco Mendenhall awarded him a scholarship.

“I called my mom crying, and she was crying,” Nelson said. Later that same year, he earned the 2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Every team, especially larger teams like football, involves different personalities and relationships that rely on each other for strength. Nelson admits to being the level-headed, calmer teammate who manages to bring his teammates down to earth.

With his track background, he only relied on himself to prepare for competition, for football however, there are different methods he sticks to when hyping himself up before playing for the Cavaliers: his two separate music playlists of Hip-Hop/Rap to boost him or alternatively, calming R&B to flatten the nerves.

If it’s not the music, then he turns to his teammates.

“Zane is crazy,” Nelson said about teammate Zane Zandier. He also noted Charles Snowden and Joey Blount as two friends whom he can boost him up.

With a history in track that taught him speed, a proud family that taught him determination and the many inspiring people like coach Wilson that he’s worked with along the way, Nelson’s success has not yet reached its pinnacle. He hopes to compete in the NFL after he graduates in May 2020. In the distant future, the prospect of being involved in track as a coach or mentor is very possible. Whatever the future brings, Nelson only wants one thing: “I just want to take care of my mom.”