MINNEAPOLIS — Philip Nelson would prefer not to be the featured attraction. When asked about his greatest strength, he simply describes himself as a team player.
But he’s going to have to get used to the attention.
Nelson was named the Minnesota Associated Press Player of the Year on Tuesday, culminating a remarkable career as Mankato West’s quarterback. He finished his senior season with 2,784 yards and 35 touchdowns passing in just 12 games, plus 1,243 yards and 20 more scores rushing for a team that averaged nearly 50 points per game.
“I’m the type of guy that likes to stay out of the spotlight. I’ll admit it,” Nelson said.
West coach Mark Esch has reminded him that he’ll have to learn even more how to handle that as he moves forward. He’s going to graduate early and enroll at the University of Minnesota in January so he can get an early start on his college career.
“There was a lot of pressure on him this year. We had that No. 1 ranking all year. Everybody knew he was going to the Gophers, but he’s such a humble and hard-working guy. Shoot, he was out there battling every game,” Esch said.
Fans, opponents and recruiters have watched West’s games with extra curiosity and fascination over the past three years as Nelson’s profile grew, but he did his best amid the scrutiny to stay focused on being a good teammate and helping the Scarlets win even though his passes to senior wide receiver Hunter Friesen turned heads all fall.
“That’s something I’m going to miss, just watching them ‘wow’ people,” Esch said. “Kids from other teams definitely knew about that and knew he was the real deal. He comes out and he performs at such a high level, I think it takes the steam out of a lot of teams.”
Nelson set the state career record with 135 total touchdowns. He helped lead the Scarlets to the Class 4A semifinals, where they lost to Bemidji and finished 11-1. But despite the missing state title, this was one of those special teams that comes along only once in a while, even for a powerhouse program like West’s.
“I’ve never seen a team so unified,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s father played at Wisconsin, and the family settled in Madison. But a move to Mankato in 2005 turned Nelson into a Minnesotan, sowing the seed for his eventual commitment to wear maroon and gold for his college career instead of the red and white he always envisioned.
“At the beginning of the recruiting process, I said there was no way I’d be a Gopher,” Nelson said.
But that was when Tim Brewster was the coach. When Jerry Kill was hired to replace him a year ago, he and his staff reached out to Nelson right away.
“I really hit it off with those guys. They’re so honest. They’re one of the most friendly coaching staffs I’ve ever met,” Nelson said.
And there was Kill, with quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, visiting Nelson in Mankato on Monday to talk about his season and what’s to come.
“It still hasn’t hit me that it’s over, but at the same time I’m starting to get excited to get up there and get settled in,” Nelson said.