The story of Matt Nelson’s incredible comeback begins with him going head-to-head with his twin brother Nick. He hopes it ends with the two of them standing back-to-back on the winners’ podium this spring as NCAA champions.
Nelson, originally from Pittsburgh, was a dominant high school wrestler. He was 22-1 in his junior season at Shaler High, cruising into the state tournament, when a seemingly minor training accident nearly put him out of the game for good.
UVA wrestler Matt Nelson came back from a traumatic brain injury and nearly a four-year layoff to compete this season. Virginia Sports Media photo.
“I was in practice with my twin brother, and we hit heads,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone that belied the impact the event has had on his life. “I knew I was out of it, but I just had to win a state title, so I kept going, kept wrestling. Pretty soon coach realized I wasn’t acting right, wasn’t moving right, so he sent me down to the trainer.”
It was February 2007 and Nelson’s doctor diagnosed him with a concussion. “He sat me down like a little kid and said ‘Look, man, you’re not wrestling, it could hurt you for the rest of your life,’” the 23-year-old recalled.
Not only was his dream of a state title crushed by the news, but Nelson’s symptoms soon got worse. During his senior year at Shaler, he battled blinding headaches for 100 days straight, so his doctor put him on powerful medication. Incoming UVA coach Steve Garland honored his promise to bring both Nelson twins to Charlottesville to wrestle, but the prospects of Matt returning to competition hovered between slim and none.
“Coming into my first year here, I felt pretty good, I thought I might be able to get back to wrestling, but my doctor told me ‘You know, schoolwork means you’re going to have to use your brain, it’s going to be tougher than you think,’” Nelson said. “I’m a wrestler; when things don’t go your way, you just work harder. I kept working out on my own, but I was struggling [in class]. Turns out [staying active] was the worst thing I could have done.”
He studied harder than he ever had in his life, but the information kept getting lost in the miasma of post-concussion symptoms, as well as the medication he took to hold those symptoms at bay. Eventually, Nelson was forced to withdraw from the University and return home to focus on his recovery at a brain rehabilitation center. He admits that his self-pity was at an all-time high, until he got to know some of his fellow sufferers.
“There were people who got run over, hit by telephone poles, people in comas…” he said. “I’ll never forget the day I came in mad at the world and there was a lady there in a walker, and the therapist showed her a picture and asked her who it was. It was her own 4-year-old daughter, but she had no idea who it was. That was a real punch in the gut.”
Armed with the knowledge that his was not yet the saddest story on earth, Nelson used his own goal of wrestling again, and earning that all-elusive title, to motivate his recovery. “Your brain is a city, and the concussion was a tornado,” Nelson said. “So my doctors had to rebuild all of the roads and get them to connect again.” He took a handful of community college hours to keep his academics on track, but the time off took a toll on his body. The elite 5’6" athlete had ballooned to 175 pounds—40 more than his ideal wrestling weight of 132.
“The precursor is that me and my brother were born two months premature. I was two pounds, he was three pounds. My skin had to be painted on, I needed blood, I had a rare lung disease.” The weight gain might have been miraculous in itself if it hadn’t been for the fact that Nelson still harbored one dream—to wrestle for a title.
As his rehabilitation progressed, Nelson came back to UVA and spent nearly every waking hour studying in an attempt to catch up. His medication helped him focus, and he ended up nailing down a 3.7 grade point average in his first year back. He reconnected with his sport as a volunteer assistant wrestling coach at Albemarle High School. In 2009, he was healthy enough to come off his medication. He was cleared to practice with his brother and teammates at UVA facilities in Onesty Hall. He had a job at Arch’s frozen yogurt. He was happy for the first time in years.
By now, you know where this is going. Not good enough. Not for Matt Nelson.
“I told them I was going to wrestle at 133 the next season and they looked at me like I was nuts. I was last in everything, my arms were Jell-O,” he said. “The common theme in my story is don’t tell me I can’t do something.”
Nelson points out that the warrior mentality is a shared attribute on UVA’s team. “You have Matt Snyder who doesn’t have a spleen, who beat cancer,” he said. “Shawn Harris, for a year, was paralyzed in his right arm. My brother came back early from a dislocated elbow. Jedd Moore was out for three years with a broken foot. Those are my mentors.”
Burning outsider doubt as fuel, he lost the weight and was reinstated to the UVA team—currently ranked 21st in the nation by USA Today—in his fifth year of eligibility. On November 5, in his first time back on the mat in organized competition, Nelson pinned both opponents he faced. He won five matches the following weekend at N.C. State. He points to November 27, when the Cavaliers take on No. 15 Virginia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena, as a big day on his comeback trail, but acknowledges that he won’t be content until he’s standing with his brother on that long-imagined podium at the 2012 NCAA championships in St. Louis, Missouri.
“I’m not trying to be the best on November 12,” he stated, emphatically. “I’m trying to be the best on March 15 in St. Louis.”