© Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
The best day of Quenton Nelson’s life came celebrating a teammate’s milestone.
Two years ago, Nick Martin, who played alongside Nelson on Notre Dame’s offensive line, held his draft party ahead of the 2016 NFL Draft. When Martin heard his name called with the No. 50 overall selection, Nelson and members of the offensive line reveled and yelled and hugged Martin in celebration. They stayed up all night, reminiscing and reflecting on this crowning achievement that all of them hoped to someday experience firsthand.
“Quenton said it was just magical,” said Nelson’s mother, Maryellen. “He would like to reenact that.”
On Thursday evening, when the 2018 NFL Draft kicks off, Nelson will hold a similar draft party to celebrate his own accomplishment. He and about 60 of his teammates, friends, and relatives will crowd together to watch the event at Nelson’s house on Syracuse Lake in Indiana.
They won’t have to wait long to celebrate.
Nelson, widely viewed as one of the top guard prospects in recent years, is regarded as a top-10 pick. He could become the first guard selected in the top-10 since Jonathan Cooper, now a 49er, went to the Cardinals at No. 7 overall in 2013.
Among the positions the 49ers are expected to address is guard, potentially drafting Nelson with the No. 9 overall pick.
Nelson has strived to reach this point since he was a 6-year-old, when he told his father, Craig, he wanted to play in the NFL. Many kids hold a similar dream, but few reach it, Craig told his son. To personify this message, he took a piece of fax paper and cut it in half to represent the percentage of Pop Warner football players who make their high school teams. Then he tore off a small corner to typify the players who make it to the college level. Lastly, Craig ripped off a sliver of paper and blew it in the air.
“These are the kids who will play in the NFL,” Craig told Nelson and his older brother, Connor.
Both Craig and Maryellen preached the importance of a backup plan, knowing the infinitesimal odds of their son making the NFL. But if anyone had an early advantage, it was Nelson.
He was born as a 10-pound, 10-ounce baby. His doctors showed charts to give parents a feel for their newborn’s size, and Nelson was so big that he created his own chart, surpassing the 99th-percentile.
Each year during Pop Warner football, from ages 6-to-12, Nelson had to lose at least 20 pounds to make playing weight. So, he ran up and down the steep, winding hills at Holmdel Park, considered the toughest cross-country course in New Jersey, with Maryellen.
He never missed weight.
“It was a testament to him and how badly he wanted to play,” Maryellen said.
Nelson played offensive lineman and middle linebacker early on, unlike many kids of coaches, who play their son at the skill positions. Nelson always had a major size advantage, but Craig preached the importance of the mental side of the game.
Each Monday night, Craig, holding a remote control in one hand and laser pointer in the other, dissected film with Nelson. He learned the intricacies of football at a young age, which helped him progress entering high school.
Nelson transferred from Holmdel to Red Bank Catholic prior to his sophomore year. The move was largely football-related, but Maryellen also wanted Nelson to have a Catholic education, just as she did.
In August of 2011, Nelson introduced himself to Red Bank Catholic coach Jim Portela.
“He struck you right away when you saw him, in terms of just the way he looked,” Portela said. “His size, big hands, the way he was slightly knock-kneed, pigeon-toed— all of the things that look athletic that a lot of big men don’t have.”
It didn’t take long for Portela to realize he had inherited a special player.
He deployed Nelson on the defensive line, where he dominated in practice against returning offensive line starters from a 10-1 team. He couldn’t play for the first four games, however, due to New Jersey rules that require transfers to sit the first 30 days of the season.
Standing on the sideline, Nelson still invested himself into games. Early in the season, Red Bank Catholic beat the No. 1 team in the area in double overtime, and Nelson led the flood that stormed the field.
“That showed me it wasn’t about him,” Portela said. “It was about being part of the team. When he got older, if you saw him with the younger kids, he would teach them, coach them, and help them along. He was just a really positive kid.”
When he returned to the field, Nelson quickly turned heads. He played both defensive line and offensive line, attracting some of the top schools in the country for both positions. Oregon wanted him as a defensive tackle, while blue-chip schools such as Ohio State and Alabama recruited him as an offensive lineman.
Nelson became known as an imposing, nasty behemoth who finished blocks with authority. He was so dominant that Portela felt badly whenever Nelson matched up with a Division-I recruit.
“Those kids didn’t stand a chance,” Portela said. “It was pancake after pancake.”
He continued to gain strength in high school, lifting every day with either Red Bank Catholic staff or a personal trainer across town. By the time he was a high school senior, Nelson out-lifted prospects at the 2014 NFL Combine, squatting 500 pounds with ease and pumping out 20-plus repetitions on the 225-pound bench press.
“He’s such a hard worker,” Portela said. “When you have a kid of that caliber who is being recruited by Alabama and Notre Dame, and he’s the hardest worker, what a message that sends to the rest of the kids in your program. He’s not resting on his laurels.”
Nelson attended his first college camp as a sophomore in high school when he visited Rutgers. He was offered a full-ride scholarship later that day. Word got out about this kid from Northern New Jersey, and the offer letters piled up. He finally chose Notre Dame, the final offer he received, over Ohio State.
Nelson’s dominance continued throughout his college career. After spending his freshman year on the scout team, he started 11 of 12 games at left guard as a sophomore. He supplemented a talented offensive line during his junior year before returning for his senior season as one of the top players in the country. He dominated, earning AP second-team All-American honors.
He became the third offensive lineman in the storied history of Notre Dame to earn the team’s MVP award in the 2017-18 season.
“I knew it was a no-brainer he was going to be an NFL guy,” said Portela, who coached three NFL players throughout his 14-year coaching career. “Quenton, I always felt he would start at Notre Dame early, and if he stayed healthy, he would make it to the NFL. Now based on what everybody is writing and the way he looks on film at Notre Dame, he’s going to be a Pro Bowler.”
Those close to Nelson describe him as light-hearted, outgoing, and empathetic. The youngest of four, he always wanted a younger sibling, according to Maryellen. Throughout his college and high school tenures, he consistently nurtured younger players by teaching footwork, proper technique, and breaking down film.
“I was blown away by all the parents that came up to me and told me how much Quenton has meant to their sons,” Maryellen said.
“I think he will make an enormous impact on whatever locker room he winds up because of his leadership capabilities, his desire to play the game, his desire to get better,” Portela said. “All of those things are infectious. If an NFL coach called me years from now I would tell him the same thing. You will be proud that this kid was part of your program.”
There is no shortage of NFL teams salivating over Nelson, who is considered a Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Many projections have Nelson going to the Chicago Bears at No. 8 overall. Nelson played for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who was hired by the Bears in January, during his Notre Dame career.
If Nelson drops to No. 9, it would make sense for the 49ers to select him to bolster an interior offensive line that struggled in 2017. General manager John Lynch added Cooper and center Weston Richburg this offseason to revamp the unit. It’s expected that Cooper will battle Joshua Garnett and Laken Tomlinson for the two starting guard spots, but all three have struggled with consistency.
Nelson is another animal. He repped the bench press 35 times at the 2018 NFL Combine. And despite his size, Nelson is a swift athlete — he was also a basketball standout in high school — who slides his feet well and can easily block into the second level, all traits of a Kyle Shanahan-bred lineman.
On Thursday, Nelson’s hard work will culminate once he becomes a newly minted NFL player, the destination he foresaw as a 6-year-old. Nelson won’t attend the draft because he wants to celebrate with those who have raised and shaped him, from teammates to family members and childhood friends.
Like two years ago, at Martin’s draft party, Nelson will feel the same type of life-changing thrill— only he will be the one whose name is called.
“We never thought it was going to come to fruition,” Maryellen said. “We can’t get over it now with the position he is in and how exciting it is for him. He is taking it all in stride. He feels that whatever team takes him, he will be blessed.”
Brad Almquist is KNBR’s 49ers beat writer. Follow Brad on Twitter @Bquist13.