Jan. 3, 2007
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -Reggie Nelson protected Florida all season, making big plays in crucial situations and serving as the team's last line of defense.
Now, the Gators are protecting him.
Teammates and coaches are shielding the All-American safety from having to deal with what could be difficult questions regarding his mother's death two weeks ago.
"I think it's very important," said Gators coach Urban Meyer, whose mother died of cancer in 2000. "I was really worried about that. ... I went through the same thing seven years ago. If anybody's gone through that, the last thing you want to do is deal with other people asking how you're doing. He's doing much better."
Nelson hasn't spoken publicly since his mother's death Dec. 21. He was scheduled to be available for interviews Wednesday - five days before No. 2 Florida plays top-ranked Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series title game - but he was pulled from the lineup and declined several requests following practice.
When will he talk?
"That certainly will be up to him," Meyer said. "He's a grown man and he can handle those kind of things."
In the meantime, his teammates and coaches are doing all they can to support Nelson, a hard-hitting safety who makes touchdown-saving tackles, comeback-ending interceptions and momentum-turning hits look routine.
"It really has been a rough week for Reggie," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "What has helped him the most is getting back around his teammates and just going through (practice). Any time you lose your mama, it doesn't matter what age you are - you can be 20, 30, 40 - still the pain is there."
Nelson's mother, Mary Lakes, battled breast cancer for more than three years. She discovered it three months after Nelson failed to qualify for Florida and enrolled at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. She tried to hide her disease from him by wearing a wig after chemotherapy had robbed her of her hair.
It didn't work. He figured it out and committed himself to taking care of her - even while he was more than a thousand miles away.
Lakes felt better at times and even attended a game in early September despite having to carry an oxygen tank. Nelson later said doctors told her she had to stay out of the sun and couldn't go to any more games.
"She tells me to pray every day and that's what I've been doing," Nelson said in November. "She can't do too much but be strong."
Teammates said Nelson remained strong following his mother's death and during her Dec. 30 funeral, which several of them attended along with some coaches.
"We're just trying to help him through everything," cornerback Ryan Smith said. "He's kind of quiet, but he's doing fine. He's going to be all right. He'll make it through this. It's tough on him, but he'll be all right. When you have a team like this that's a family and he feels like he has comfort in a situation like this, I'm sure that helps.
"He's a strong guy. I look up to him for fighting through something like this."
Strong said Nelson was "getting back to his old self," which could be huge for the Gators against the Buckeyes on Monday night.
The junior from Melbourne, Fla. - expected to forgo his senior season and be a first-round pick in the NFL draft - has made a significant impact in wins against Southeastern Conference opponents Tennessee, Alabama, LSU and Georgia and might be the biggest reason the Gators are playing in the national championship game.
Each Monday following games, the Gators play a highlight video of big hits.
They call it "Hit City," and some would say Nelson runs the town. He's on it every week, laying out receivers and running backs, breaking up passes and causing fumbles.
"He has more (hits) than anyone I've ever seen," Smith said.
Now - following his mother's death - Nelson might have even more motivation.
"I told him probably the toughest thing is making that phone call that you always make (to family) before you play the game or that phone call after the game," Strong said. "But once we get through that, the pain is going to be there. Every day you will think about her. If you ever want to talk to somebody, you have your teammates, you have your coaching staff. ... She was a special lady, and that's the reason why the pain and the hurt is there."