The inked skin wrapping Jake Nelson’s calves stretched with every step. The lights of Ainsworth’s gym highlighted the changes of black and red among his natural pigmentation. Years ago, a time far enough from his memory, he decided to get his name tattooed on his leg. Because he likes his tattoos to hold double meanings, he figured the “e-l-s-o-n” portion would be in a black Gothic font reminiscent of olden times. The first “N,” however, had to be the block N in bold red. Last week, as he watched his son proudly commit to play football at Nebraska, he’s glad he did that so many years ago.
“Figured since I’ve got my Star Wars and Chiefs,” the self-described lifelong Husker fan reasoned of the tattoos on his right leg, “so I got my Husker one too.”
Jake proudly sat next to his son during the brief commitment ceremony last Wednesday. Sandi, Carter’s mother, sat there too along with Kaitlyn, Carter’s sister. The man of the hour, 4-star recruit Carter, is the highest-rated in-state recruit Nebraska’s seen in over a decade. He also comes from Class D-2, where they play on an abbreviated field with 8 at a time, in an Ainsworth community that had never won a playoff game until this past fall. With a promising, hard working young man came hope and the community came alive. Carter decided he wanted to hold a ceremony instead of just a tweet. He’s a humble, mild-mannered teen who typically diverts attention. But he recognized the importance of the moment for not himself but his teammates behind him and the town itself.
The soon-to-be senior at Ainsworth told his coach he wanted to hold a ceremony. Jessi Owen grabbed an Ainsworth Bulldogs backdrop to place behind a table, covered in cloth decorated in school colors and mascot. Carter tweeted a date and time for the announcement last Monday (he also set his phone up to broadcast the short ceremony on Instagram Live for those who couldn’t make it). He wondered to Owen if 20 people would show up. “As soon as you tweet that out you know people are coming, right?” Owen responded. Well over 100 spectators and community members, including mayor Joel Klammer, arrived in the gym to watch one of their own become a Husker. It was a brief ceremony most couldn’t have seen coming.
“I didn’t know if there were going to be 20 people here or how many,” Carter said. “The outcome, filling one side of the bleachers, is amazing. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Nelson’s announcement necessitates context. And this case is a complex one. The Huskers historically didn’t shy from recruiting small-town in-state kids. The Makovicka family, Sam Foltz, Brian Shaw, Dean Steinkuhler, Terry Connealy and a multitude of others paved the path before Nelson. It’s part of Nebraska’s storied history. Ainsworth’s program history isn’t so storied. The high school was founded in 1922 and never won a playoff football game until last fall, a full century later. The school’s gym holds banners as early as runner-up and even champions in 1938, 1949, 1956, 1964 and 1965. Ainsworth’s volleyball team finished second in 1969. Then came a significant drought. The only team that earned banner space until a second-place boys’ track finish in 2000 was when the school’s mock trial team became a brief dynasty.
Then came a turnaround. Owen has led Ainsworth starting with Nelson’s freshman season. The Bulldogs didn’t win a game that year. At that time, Nelson thought basketball might hold his future. He considered Sean Sterkel, the Ainsworth basketball coach at the time, a second father. Then Sterkel moved to Bridgeport and took over at his old high school. Nelson then started growing into his body. He told Owen he felt a brighter future within basketball. Owen informed Carter of his potential. Carter needed reassurance in it.
“You’ve got to understand you’re the biggest kid out there, you’re the fastest kid, just go,” Owen told him. “As soon as he learned that, I don’t want to say he’s unstoppable, but he’s tough to take down.”
Despite the sporadic run of competitive trophies in the school, sports also meant something to the Nelson family. Jake and Sandi are both teachers and their children were raised with sports. They loved the activity, the freedom and competition of athletics. And sometimes they carried those traits off the field into the home. “We even get pretty intense at games of cards too,” Jake chuckled. “Lot of competitiveness there.”
Ainsworth won a single game in Carter’s sophomore football season. The community saw past the record and to the potential. The young Bulldogs were building something the community hadn’t seen before. Internally, Nelson admitted to having doubts. By that time he turned his focus to football. And he wanted to play “big-time college football.” Could he do that at Ainsworth? He received his answer in April 2022 when Matt Campbell and Iowa State offered. Nebraska extended his second off a month later.
“It was a crazy moment because I realized I was doing more than things for myself,” Nelson remembered of that time. “I was pointing out to kids that you can do it where you’re at. It’s about how much work you put in and how much you believe in yourself. It was really crazy too because I have little kids DM me on Instagram or something saying how ‘I’m from a small school too’ It’s not ‘I want to go to a big school,’ it’s ‘I’m from a small school too.’ So that is special that I’m kind of setting an example for them.”
He continued to receive offers, including blue-blood programs. Oklahoma offered him in October. Then Penn State and Notre Dame two weeks later. Michigan offered him in January. Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees went to Alabama and told Nick Saban of Nelson’s potential. One of college football’s greatest coaches then watched his tape and agreed to offer him in February. Two-time defending national champion Georgia offered him a scholarship that same month. Nelson visited Colorado, Auburn, Tennessee and Alabama before official visits to Georgia, Penn State, Notre Dame and Nebraska. Each time, Nelson posed with an extra jersey in honor of Hunter Palmer, a Wisner-Pilger student who passed away in May. A memory and a symbol of those who grew up around Nelson who’d never get the same opportunity he was living.
Nelson called the recruiting process a blessing. He met countless high-quality football coaches who offered him mentorship he hopes to maintain beyond the recruiting process. At the same time, he felt the pressures of his decision becoming imminent.
“It’s good to be over because it was definitely a lot on my shoulders,” Nelson said. “But I didn’t want to take it for granted because I knew a lot of people would die to be in my shoes and God blessed me for it. My teammates helped me get there, my parents helped me get there, so I wanted to use what I have and my opportunities.”
Jake called his son’s announcement a big relief. He felt the same pressures as his son but beamed with pride as the teenager stood tall through it. Carter answered every question, agreed to each interview with poise and consideration. The lights and attention never became a distraction, Jake said. Others noticed Carter’s maturity as well. While on official visits in June, Jake shared that parents for other recruits leaned over to him and complimented Carter for his character. Clearly a great athlete, they said, but what a great kid, too. The family awaited their flight following Carter’s visit to Penn State. It was Father’s Day. Jake thought about those comments and how it was the last official visit on Carter’s schedule before Nebraska. “I’m more proud of those comments than any of the sports comments,” Jake smiled.
Carter’s commitment truly came during breakfast in the Haymarket. That’s when he knew. He was still on his official visit and shared his news with Matt Rhule. The new staff landed two top in-state recruits before coaching a game. Then Rhule offered Nelson to share the announcement with the rest of the group. He told them that Saturday afternoon.
That following Wednesday came the announcement. Carter shared the news with his community, the one that started parking their cars around the football field on Tuesday nights to ensure they had a good seat for Friday’s game. The commitment was made in the same gym Rhule stepped into back in January during a basketball game. He was there for Carter. Room quickly spread across the bleachers, Ainsworth and Ogallala fans alike. The gym broke into a “Go Big Red” chant. Pete Thamel of ESPN reported Rhule and his staff then went to Elks Lodge 1790 where they encountered a baby shower. A celebration of new life.
Carter comes from not just 8-man football but a perennially unsuccessful program. He doubted if his home could provide an opportunity for his dreams. A home that was almost entirely Husker fans at a time when being a Husker fan is the most unrewarding its been in 60 years. Instead of capitulating to a decade of norms, to be content with the way things were, work needed to be done.
“We hated it,” Carter said. “People didn’t have an expectation on them so they felt like it was OK to lose, I feel like, in the past.
“But I was not OK with that. The attitude and the mentality we have was just different in the last couple of years and that made the difference.”
He was talking about Ainsworth there. But it could have been about any home with a Husker tattoo, couldn’t it?