The first call came from his father. Chris Nelson, a former Husker All-American wrestler, watched his son live a dream on the familiar Lincoln campus. He witnessed how an ambitious 4-year-old in a wrestling singlet grew into a captain on the Nebraska football team. If Garrett wanted to achieve something, he seemingly willed it into existence.
But on February 8, Chris was simply a dad calling to comfort his son.
I heard the news, Chris told Garrett. His son did not receive an invitation to the NFL Combine. The Scottsbluff native started 32 consecutive games for Nebraska, became a team captain edge rusher and all-conference selection. His gut reaction to not receiving a combine invitation meant maybe his dream of playing in the NFL was further from his reach than he thought. Then Chris offered advice to his downtrodden son, as fathers often do.
“You can’t let that bum you out and throw you off your training,” Garrett remembered his father telling him. “There’s tons of dudes that played super well, there’s not a system or a science and there’s so many guys who go to the combine and don’t get drafted and there’s a lot of guys who do Pro Day and do get drafted. Nobody knows anything that’s going on at all.”
Six weeks after that call, the younger Nelson received positive feedback from multiple NFL scouts at Nebraska’s Pro Day. He also recapped the whirlwind he lived since carrying the Heroes Trophy for traveling Husker fans to touch after beating rival Iowa on Black Friday. Nelson and his teammates returned to Lincoln late that night. The next morning the university announced Matt Rhule as its new football coach. With that mystery solved, Nelson needed to determine his future.
Nelson sat on his decision for weeks. Of course, he mulled it with his family. He talked with teammates and former Huskers who left eligibility on the table in favor for an NFL future. Each one, regardless of how the conversation went, reminded him it’s his decision. He’d have to live with whatever decision he made. Nelson said he ultimately broke down his values and what he found important. On December 27 he declared for the NFL Draft.
While mulling his choice he found an unlikely ally—Nebraska’s new head coach. Rhule and his staff hosted Pro Day and provided resources for former Huskers. Nelson met with Rhule and the two developed an admiration for each other. Rhule, with his NFL background, offered pointers and help in draft preparations. Nelson noticed the new head coach inside the Hawks Championship Center between Pro Day workouts and hugged him.
“I didn’t mean anything to him, but his staff and him have helped me so much with the decision, with this process, everything,” Nelson explained. “They’ve treated me like their own and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Nelson also hugged former interim defensive coordinator Bill Busch. Busch returned to Lincoln a year earlier for yet another stint on the Nebraska coaching staff. The Pender native moved up from special teams coordinator to defensive coordinator amid the coaching shuffle. Nelson appreciated all Busch did while keeping the defense together in the final half of the 2022 season.
Nelson compared training for Pro Day like a boxer trains for a title fight. Three months of preparation for one day—2 hours of workouts. Admittedly, that could build a groundswell of pressure. But the veteran defender reminded himself of the opportunity. How cool it was for all 32 NFL teams to send scouts and watch him workout. Nelson also found comfort in his former teammates working out as well. Fellow former team captain Travis Vokolek called Nelson one his best friends on the team. Vokolek, also surprised at Nelson’s combine snub, opted not to call and give him some space. Weeks later, he lent vocal support from the same practice field.
“He’s a really unbelievable athlete, unbelievable human being,” Vokolek said after Pro Day. “He killed it today. Super pumped for him and excited about his future.”
Nelson was happy with his workouts and received “good feedback” from scouts. He felt he did well in the 40 and showed off his short-distance lateral quickness, his specialty. Nelson clocked a 4.8 in the 40, 4.18 in the shuttle and 7.24 in the three-cone. Ahead of both 40 reps, he slowed his windup, situated his feet and hands how he wanted them and burst off the line. He called it a sense of calmness where, like second nature, his training kicked in.
Teams that met with him typically see him as an outside, strong side linebacker. However, NFL scouts also noted his diverse role accrual on film. He credited his time at Nebraska for showing his versatility within different defensive fronts and packages. Teams also asked him about himself, his background, even what he wants on his headstone (“To the best friend anyone could have,” he said).
Nelson went to get a burger after Pro Day, a treat after the weight off his chest lifted. Then he set out to get into his best football shape for organized team activities and minicamp. Time healed the wound of not receiving a combine invitation. Even at Pro Day, Nelson cracked the joke that he punched a hole in the wall when he found out. He’d love to get drafted this weekend. Projections are mixed whether he will or won’t. Either way, just like not receiving a combine invitation, there’s nothing he can do about that now.
“I can’t control whether they don’t invite me or they do,” Nelson recapped. “I can control just what I did out there.”
The NFL Draft starts Thursday at 7 p.m. with the first round. The second and third rounds start Friday at 6 p.m. and the remaining rounds start Saturday at 11 a.m.