Today, the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will stand in the tunnel of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, and wait to be announced before Super Bowl LIV. One of the most important players, who could figure largely in the outcome of this game, will be Kyle Nelson — a New Mexico State University product and 49ers’ long-snapper.
For the eight-year veteran, the fact he’s in the Super Bowl is a testament to mastering a skill he didn’t want to do. He was smart enough to change his path to fulfilling his dream. Nelson felt that at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he would make his impact in the NFL as a tight end. After all, he had a breakout senior season at New Mexico State University with 41 receptions, with 371 yards and one touchdown.
Nelson was disappointed not to be invited to any bowl games, nor did he receive an invitation to the NFL Combine. Nelson’s only hope was to shine on Senior Day. That’s when NFL scouts went to New Mexico State’s campus and had players work out at Pro Day.
Nelson had a good Pro Day. The scouts were there to look at the safety Davon House. He was highly rated and was selected in the third round of the 2011 draft by the Green Bay Packers. The scout from the New Orleans Saints liked Nelson, and after the draft, called him and offered him a free-agent tryout.
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Kyle came to be a long-snapper because of his father, Mark, who played seven seasons in the Canadian Football League. Kyle says his dad, Mark, was tired after a tough practice and saw a teammate who was a long-snapper going into his 10th season. Mark Nelson said to himself, “If I ever have a son, I’m going to make sure he’s a long-snapper.” Mark Nelson felt that if he had been a long-snapper, it would have prolonged his career.
“My dad, Mark, started making me long-snap,” Kyle says. “I didn’t want to do it, but he made me do it. I wanted to run and catch the ball and hit people, but my dad was adamant I learn how to long-snap. I credit my dad and my snapping coach, Ben Bernard, who I practice with in the off-season in Phoenix, Arizona, for putting me in this position.”
Nelson, 33, has been with the 49ers since 2014. He took the long and winding road to the team. Nelson was an undrafted free agent out of New Mexico State University.
In his four seasons at State (2007-2010), Nelson played fullback, tight end and long-snapped his first two years under offensive genius, Hal Mumme. He’s currently the offensive coordinator for the XFL’s Dallas Renegades. In his last two seasons at State, he played for DeWayne Walker, now the defensive backs’ coach for the Cleveland Browns.
Nelson feels his college career was the best time in his life. He loved playing football and hanging out on campus. He relished the games and competing against the highest level of football. Nelson remembers playing in historic stadiums, such as at Ohio State, Auburn. During his travels through the NFL, the one thing that has never come close to New Mexico is the food. He says New Mexico has the best food anywhere. Nelson fell in love with Andele’s Restaurant, where he could build his own burrito.
Nelson was proud of the Aggies for winning two straight games against rival, the University of New Mexico in Mumme’s last two years. He credits those games as the best, throwing in the University of Texas-El Paso as well.
“Playing in my last home game,” Nelson said, “was the most memorable because it was the last time I’d get to play in that stadium.”
Nelson makes it
For Nelson, it has been a testament to his work ethic and perseverance. In 2011, he was signed and cut by the New Orleans Saints. In the space of three days, Nelson was cut, signed to the practice squad and then released from the practice squad.
On Jan. 11, Nelson signed a contract with the Kansas City Chiefs to be on the practice squad. He was later cut. In September, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles to their practice squad and was cut. In November, he signed with the San Diego Chargers after their long-snapper, Mike Windt, was placed on season-ending injured reserve due to a wrist injury. During the 2012 season, Nelson played in six games and was released in May.
Nelson was once again called back to play, with the 49ers, in 2013. He was cut out of training camp. He was then called by the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and was cut. The Washington Redskins signed him in October 2013 and he played 11 games for them before being waived on July 21, 2014.
Finally, after winning a spot in camp with the 49ers for the third time, he’s been a mainstay as the team’s long-snapper. He signed a four-year contract extension through 2022.
His career has not been without conflict. In 2018, Nelson was suspended by the NFL for 10 games for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. He missed the last four games of the 2018 season and the first six games of this season. Nelson returned to the team in week seven against the Carolina Panthers.
“I have been made aware by the NFL that I tested positive for a banned substance,” Nelson said at the time, “and as a result, will be suspended. I have been taking the same supplements for my entire time with the 49ers while undergoing often simultaneous testing by the NFL with no issues.
“I do not deviate from my nutrition routine, and I would never knowingly take a banned substance. I am currently having the supplements tested, and I hope to uncover the cause of the positive test. When the product is identified, I fully intend to seek legal action against the manufacturer to protect against this happening to other players in the future.”
Before the suspension, Nelson had played in 76 consecutive games. Outside of left tackle Joe Staley (12th year) and tight end Garrett Celek (seventh year), Nelson is the longest-tenured member of the team.
“Being in the Super Bowl means everything,” Nelson said. “Hopefully, we can play well and come out on top. Winning means, we can say we’re the best in the world, but the Super Bowl is just the name of the game. It’s still just a game, we’re playing the Kansas City Chiefs.”
One of the differences between long-snapping in the pros and college is Nelson has to block very athletic and big guys. He also noted the ball is different. His goal each season is to be better, faster and accurate on his snaps.
In the last three seasons with 49ers, no matter what their record has been, the team has never felt like they were rebuilding, after going 4-12 last season. Nelson says the team’s purpose is to get better every day and to work once they’re inside the building.
“Every day I come in and work,” Nelson said. “If I did well, the 49ers will give me a call the next day to tell me I can come back. Sometimes you get that call that ‘Hey, we don’t need you anymore.’”
One of the things the 49ers have stressed is that everyone on the team is always competing. Nelson feels like someone is always waiting to take his job, and that every day is a job interview.
“I don’t want to get sucked into the hype about the Super Bowl,” Nelson said. “It’s just a game. I know these games don’t come around too often, but it’s still another game. I think it will sink in afterward. We’re trying to treat it like we’re coming in off a bye week. We’ll celebrate afterward.”
Nelson offered this advice for anyone that wants to play in the NFL. He notes everyone is so specialized now. He didn’t start playing football until his junior year in high school. He played hockey and soccer growing up and feels being diverse has helped him as an athlete.
“I tell athletes,” Nelson said, “they have to work. If anything comes easy … great, but the thing you struggle with, that’s hard, is the thing you have to work on. Keep fine-tuning what you can do.”
Nelson and his 49ers teammates have 60 minutes to try and win a world championship, as he plays against the team that once cut him: the Kansas City Chiefs.
Sports editor J.T. Keith can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 304, or firstname.lastname@example.org.