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All-state Sun Prairie WR Cooper Nelson stays close to home, walks on to Wisconsin

How the Wisconsin legacy set his own path and still became a Badger.

Courtesy of the Nelson family

Scott Nelson played with Korey Manley, Joe Panos, Chris Hein, and Sam Veit during his time as a Wisconsin safety from 1989-93, sharing a 1994 Rose Bowl win with the latter three. Those names kickstarted the modern walk-on legacy that UW’s football program prides itself on.

Now his son will take on that journey at his father’s alma mater.

Cooper Nelson claimed first-team all-state honors from the AP and WFCA in his senior campaign at Sun Prairie, and on Jan. 31, he announced his verbal commitment to Wisconsin. He made that decision official by signing with UW as a walk-on for the class of 2019 on Feb. 6 as part of National Signing Day.

Nelson’s family history with Wisconsin played a role in his decision, but the conclusion and reasoning for becoming a Badger were all his own.

“A couple times when we’d be visiting Minnesota or something, I’d just joke with my dad and say I’m going to swing the Axe the wrong way, stuff like that,” Nelson said. “It obviously played a little bit of a part, but not to what a lot of people would think because overall that’s where I felt most comfortable and that’s where I wanted to be at for the next four or five years of my life.”

Walk-on opportunities for Nelson came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State, and Northern Illinois. The family also made trips to Illinois State, North Dakota State, North Dakota, Western Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Winona State, and Northern Illinois.

A former college player, Scott was placed in the position of a parent of a potential student-athlete preparing for the next level. A lot has changed in 30 years of college football recruiting, but there were discussions on a variety of topics.

To weed out some of the schools initially, Scott suggested questions of how far Cooper would want to go in terms of distance away from home, what coaching staffs he liked, and if he took football out of the equation, what school he saw himself at.

Then the question about what level of football Cooper wanted to pursue was raised.

“Really just trying to ask those questions,” Scott said, “but also stressing the point that no matter where you go, it’s going to be a lot of hard work and to wrap your brain around going to college at the same time while you’re trying to develop physically, develop mentally, and develop as a person and football player.

“There’s a certain expectation that when you go somewhere to compete and play, much like in your high school, you represent a lot more than just yourself.”

Familiar with Wisconsin and its program from the player’s perspective, Scott has also worked on pre- and post-game radio shows and participated on radio broadcasts working from the sidelines. Through Cooper’s recruiting process, he had the opportunity to take in other universities. He complimented Minnesota’s Athletes Village that opened last year, with the former Badgers safety noting the nice locker rooms in TCF Bank Stadium. The family also traveled to North Dakota State’s Fargo Dome, and he came away impressed with North Dakota’s indoor facilities as well.

“We really liked Minnesota, and I said, ‘Well, Wisconsin is just putting in brand-new lockers,’” Scott said. “There’s constant change within all that stuff, whether it’s updating weight room equipment or updating audio/visual stuff, updating meeting rooms. You name it, there’s always some sort of change going on, so Minnesota might have been the newest and the latest, but schools will continually do that. It was really interesting the different levels to see where the money was, one, where they put it, whether it’s in facilities and infrastructure or into academic personnel, support personnel. Each place is a little bit different, and those are some of things you watch for and look for.”

From those walk-on opportunities plus offers from FCS program Western Illinois and Division II schools Minnesota State, Winona State, and Minnesota-Duluth, Cooper trimmed the list to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa State as his finalists.

How close was he to heading to Minnesota? Pretty close, it seems.

“Well I was about to be a Gopher, and then when I talked about it—I’d say I was about to be a Gopher probably early December as they offered that preferred walk-on—and then Wisconsin really started to hit me harder,” Nelson said on Bucky’s 5th Podcast. “It was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up after sitting on it and sleeping on it for a while, and it was just a lot of thought, but overall as a Wisconsin kid, this was just a great opportunity and it felt like home, quite honestly.”

The contact between Wisconsin and Nelson began about a year ago after his junior season, when the staff mentioned they were impressed and would keep in contact. He camped at UW, but in early September the staff asked if he would be interested in an offer to walk on to the program. Around the end of November, the offer was officially extended.

It wasn’t until late January in the span of two days that Nelson made his decision final— right after one of his finals. Finishing an exam early on Jan. 29, the extra time allowed him to sit and think about where he thought the best fit was for himself. He concluded Wisconsin was the where he wanted to go.

So he texted his parents.

“I wanted to see their reaction,” Nelson said, “and then when I came home from practice, that’s when we talked about it, and the next day as well.”

With the help of Mother Nature providing impromptu time off of school and his mom off of work on Jan. 30, Nelson locked down the initial decision.

“Thankfully, I guess in a roundabout way,” Scott said, “school was canceled the day or two after he told us that so we had an opportunity to chat just a little bit more, just to help him reaffirm that that’s what he wanted to do.”

Cooper sat down to write out the pros and cons of his top three schools.

“The next day came, and I slept with my decision and I woke up and said I was ready to be a Badger, and I want to keep that,” Nelson said. “So I called the coaches that morning and then called the other schools—being Iowa State and Minnesota—and said I accepted this opportunity [at Wisconsin], and I announced it that night.”

On Feb. 6, Wisconsin announced the Sun Prairie native, who caught 60 receptions for 1,027 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior, as a wide receiver. He will join a legacy that saw walk-ons Adam Krumholz and Jack Dunn see reps at the position group in the past couple of seasons.

With his family having UW season tickets, Nelson estimated he’s gone to at least one game a year since he was about seven years old. His fondest memory dates back to 2011, when Russell Wilson and the Badgers steamrolled Nebraska in a key Big Ten contest with College GameDay in town.

Now, he’ll get the chance to play on the same field as Wilson and his father, and he was even able to take in a bit of history himself during the 2018 season.

Scott recalled the 25th reunion of the 1993 squad that defeated UCLA in the 1994 Rose Bowl. That was the same weekend as Wisconsin’s matchup against Nebraska on Oct. 6. He noted it was Cooper’s main visit to UW, but the younger Nelson took in the opportunity to meet some of those players his father trained with, practiced with, and helped coin the phrase, “Why Not Wisconsin?” in a historic season.

“He had a chance to meet [running back] Brent Moss, had a chance to meet [safety] Reggie Holt, [cornerback] Jeff Messenger, a number of guys that were teammates of mine, and Dan McCarney, who was our defensive coordinator, had come back,” Scott said. “Just a great opportunity for him to kind of see my experience, right, with guys from all over the state, all over the country, and what lies ahead for him.

“I think that’s the cool thing when you start looking at this class [of 2019]. Guys from all over the place, California and Kansas, and out east and down south. They’re all over the place. I started talking with him about that last night, that that’s the fun. You’ll have your high school buddies for sure, but this is the next step where you get a chance to explore and experience things from other people’s perspective and learn about where they grew up and what do they have, what didn’t they have. How you can support them and really build a bond in a short amount of time with a program that’s been highly successful. But how exciting that is to be a part of that history and tradition.”