Martz turns to Nelson to quarterback Fleet in home opener

San Diego Fleet quarterback Philip Nelson works in the rain during practice this week.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

 

In the North Carolina town where Philip Rivers went to college, you’ll find the Philip Rivers sushi roll.

 

Go to the Sushi Blues Cafe, in Raleigh, and they’ll fix you up. Inside a cucumber wrap, the Rivers roll is stuffed with tuna, salmon, avocado and no rice.

 

Thank Philip Nelson for the food tip.

 

A former server at Sushi Blues, the 25-year-old Nelson moved to San Diego last month.

You can see him Sunday (5 p.m., Ch. 5/69, NFL Network) at the old football stadium in Mission Valley, quarterbacking the Fleet in their home opener on the same grounds where Rivers flung passes for the Chargers.

 

The switchback roads that led Nelson here included stops at three colleges, one of which dismissed him.

 

Serving him well two years ago, he won MVP honors at a college bowl game under Fleet coach Mike Martz (in the same Carson soccer stadium where Rivers performs).

 

Lately, two doors opened for Nelson.

 

The Washington Redskins signed Fleet starter Josh Johnson, and Martz, late in the Fleet’s season opener last week, installed him to replace uneven starter Mike Bercovici.

 

Martz this week stuck to his postgame comment that Nelson will start Sunday.

 

Nelson last played regularly in 2016 with East Carolina University, completing 67 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 10 games.

 

Undrafted by the NFL, he worked flexible jobs — as a server, personal trainer, actor and fitness model — so he could also train for football and work out for pro teams on short notice.

 

He saved money on haircuts, judging by photos on his social media accounts that suggest male model Fabio or the Old Testament’s Samson. “It was, I guess, my look,” he said.

 

Martz had some grooming advice. “Kid,” he told Nelson during their college-bowl venture in January 2017, “you’re going to have to cut your hair. You’ve got a job interview, you’d better cut your hair.”

 

Nelson took Martz’s advice last November, sitting for a 45-minute haircut shortly before the Alliance of American Football’s quarterback combine where Martz was headed.

 

“I just wanted to put my best self forward, whatever I need to do, whether that be cutting my hair,” Nelson said. “I just didn’t want any reasons for anybody not to take me because I wanted to play the game that I love.”

 

Martz praised the smarts of Nelson, who’s listed at 207 pounds and measured 6-foot-1 3/8 in the NFL predraft process. The quarterback’s father, Pat, was a Wisconsin fullback. “He’s got pretty good control of the passing game,” said the coach. “I like his even keel, his temperament. He just needs to play.”

 

Altercation five years ago

 

At age 20, Nelson was involved in a three-man altercation outside a Minnesota bar. The fight left a 25-year-old man with a permanent brain injury.

 

Nelson pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Felony charges that could have sent him to prison for 20 years were dropped, reported the Star-Tribune.

 

Witnesses said he kicked a prone man. Nelson admitted to the lesser charge after a prosecutor’s medical expert said his kick did not lead to the severe brain injury. Per the Star-Tribune, the expert said the victim’s injuries were mainly, if not all, from being punched by another man — a friend of Nelson’s — and hitting his head when he fell.

 

A lawsuit on behalf of the injured man — a husband and father of two — led to financial settlements with Nelson’s friend, Nelson and two bars, one of which served alcohol to Nelson, reported the Mankato Free Press in January 2018.

 

Nelson was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and no jail time.

 

This week, Nelson said he can’t discuss the incident for legal reasons. He said his Christian faith grew in the aftermath. He spoke to youths as part of the community service, and told them “do your best to be your best self every single day,” and “keep your faith strong when things don’t go your way.”

 

Rutgers, to where Nelson had transferred after two seasons with Minnesota, kicked him off the team after the incident. Sitting out the 2015 season after walking on at East Carolina, he didn’t play football for two years.

 

Fleet personnel director Dave Boller said he and Martz knew of Nelson’s well-chronicled court case, well before selecting him in the Alliance draft Nov. 27. Said Nelson: “Coach Martz knew who I was as a player and as a person, specifically as a person.”

 

The start Sunday will be Nelson’s first in 25 months.

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