McNeese’s Austin Nelson records KO in biggest fight of his young life, returns to competition
LAKE CHARLES – It was this time last year when McNeese two-sport student-athlete Austin Nelson received the scare of his life, a birthday he’ll never forget.
“My birthday is August 12,” said Nelson. “You don’t expect to hear you have a brain tumor on your birthday. And not knowing if you’ll be able to play the sport again, or any sport, and the lifetime effects.”
Nelson, a native of Sulphur, began having sight issues during the 2016 baseball season and while going through football drills in the spring, he realized something wasn’t right when he had trouble with his vision out of his right eye.
“I started seeing double but didn’t really think much about it,” he said. “Then in football practice, I couldn’t catch a pass going to my right. At first I wasn’t going to tell anybody but it was affecting me bad. So I finally asked to get my eyes checked and everything checked out fine. That’s when the MRI was done and the tumor was found.”
On his 20th birthday, Nelson was told he had a rare case of Optic Nerve Schwannoma, a non-cancerous tumor with a very low risk of reoccurring after extraction.
Surgery was done in January to remove the tumor and physical therapy followed shortly after. That’s when he began the biggest fight of his life, a fight he won with a powerful knock out.
“To take the tumor out, they had to cut about five inches into my skull from my right ear towards the middle of my head near my hairline,” said Nelson. “It was tough for a while (after surgery). I couldn’t lift a gallon of milk for about a month and my face stayed swollen for a couple months. I also wasn’t able to lift weights for a while because the straining would force blood into my head that would create pain.
“It (rehab) was slow and aggravating. You know you physically can do it, it’s just your head is stopping you.”
“He’s quite an inspiration,” said head football coach Lance Guidry. “To see him out here right now, doing the things he’s doing and knowing where he was not even a year ago is quite amazing.”
“I don’t know if anyone thought Austin would be able to play at such a high level after going through was he did,” said baseball head coach Justin Hill. “The only person who probably believed it was Austin, and that’s the only person that matters.”
In less than four months after having brain surgery, Nelson was back on the baseball field in a starting role at designated hitter. And in his first start back, in his first at-bat, he ripped a single in the top of the second inning in a game at Abilene Christian.
But the best was yet to come.
In his next at-bat, the player who always has a smile on his face and a beanie on his head, belted a solo home run down the left field line. It was a movie script come to life.
“That was pretty special,” said Nelson.
He went on to help the Cowboys win their first Southland Conference baseball championship in 11 years while hitting .291 with four home runs and playing in 24 games.
But his biggest concern was on the horizon – spring football and contact.
“I knew I would be able to do the physical part and everything would be okay,” he said. “The main concern was my head. You don’t really have that much contact in baseball. That was the only thing that was making me iffy about everything.”
Nelson, who made five catches for 60 yards in six games played last season, eased into spring drills as a precaution. Now four months later and eight months since the removal of the tumor, he’s back in full pads and at full speed.
“It feels great to be back in this football atmosphere,” he said. “Everything is going good so I’m just going to keep on rolling with it.”
His journey over the past year has inspired many, including his football teammates.
“They’ve seen me in pain,” said Nelson of his teammates. “Half of the workouts I couldn’t get through. If I didn’t finish them at that time, I’d finish after. I’d just have to take a little time and rest. I just want to show them to never quit. Never give up.”
“I look at Austin as a walking miracle,” said senior linebacker and team captain Ashari Goins. “He’s a testament to what God can do in your life. He’s a strong individual to be able to go through what he went through and be able to come back strong and produce.
“It’s wonderful. You look at him and you light up inside because he’s a great guy with a great personality. Anybody that’s been through something like that is an inspiration. It’s beautiful.”
Nelson has grasped this experience as a chance to see life in a different way and to never take one second for granted.
“I appreciate every second that I’m living,” he said. “You never know what can happen. You can see one person one day, then get a phone call, and everything changes. I really appreciate every little thing.
“Something that may seem so little to others as opening a door, I’m like, ‘thank you very much’ all of the time now. I look at life and appreciate it even more, especially to be able to do this (football and baseball) and to actually play two sports at the college level.”
McNeese’s motto this season is “The Last Ride” meaning to treat every moment like it’s your last ride whether it be practice, game, a test, whatever. That motto is a perfect description of Austin Nelson.
“I’m blessed to be able to keep doing the thing that I love and hopefully I can be an inspiration to little kids; be able to tell them anything can happen, just don’t ever quit,” he said. “I guess I could be a great example of ‘The Last Ride’.”
Nelson will celebrate his monumental 21st birthday on Saturday but it’s no doubt his 20th will stick with him forever as the one that changed his life. To celebrate, he’ll compete in the team’s first preseason scrimmage of fall camp.
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