April 2, 2011
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A tackle by University of Iowa linebacker Tyler Nielsen ended the game for Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on Oct. 16 in Ann Arbor. But the play was much more costly to the Hawkeyes and their outside linebacker.
Nielsen, a senior from Humboldt, Iowa, injured his neck after stopping Robinson for a 12-yard gain early in the third period of Iowa's 38-28 victory. Nielsen remained in the game and finished with six tackles -- two for a loss. He returned to the field the following week and had 10 tackles against Wisconsin. On Oct. 30 -- two weeks after the fateful stop against the Wolverines -- Nielsen's neck had enough.
Nielsen broke a vertebra in his neck. Without him in the lineup, the Hawkeyes dropped three of their final four regular season games before rebounding for a 27-24 victory over Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
Now for the good news: Nielsen was cleared for full contact in late February and he is listed as a starter at one of three linebacker positions. The Hawkeyes completed their seventh practice of the spring Saturday inside the Kenyon Football Practice Facility. They return to work tomorrow afternoon.
"It just sucks being on the outside looking in," Nielsen said. "It made me realize how much I love this team and how much I want to play football."
Missing time because of injury was a new and nasty experience for the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Nielsen, the 2006 Gatorade Football Player of the Year from the state of Iowa. He was also a state track champion in the 400-meter dash.
"When you're out there on the field, you have adrenaline going and you've been told your whole life to tough it out and play through the pain," Nielsen said. "That's what I did. It's something (former Hawkeye and current Indianapolis Colt) Pat Angerer always said, `If you're going to be dumb, you have to be tough.' I don't know if I was letting that get to my head a little bit too much, but I wasn't thinking about (the pain); I was just trying to play football."
Nielsen completed his junior season with 42 tackles (4 ½ for a loss), four pass breakups and an interception (against Iowa State).
The words pain and football are nearly synonymous, but the injury was understandably worrisome to Nielsen and his family. Nieslen won't whine if he has some aches in a finger or elbow, but if there is ever a recurrence of neck soreness, he won't hesitate to find a trainer.
"It's different with your neck than it is with something else," Nielsen said. "From now on, if I have pain in my neck, I'll definitely go get it checked. You always have pain in football and it's something you have to deal with when you're playing."
There were no attempts to convince Nielsen to call it a career after the injury.
"Nobody even tired. They knew they couldn't," Nielsen said.
The time away from the playing field reinforced to Nielsen why he enjoys being a Hawkeye.
"(The injury) is something I'm not going to think about," Nielsen said. "I'm thinking about how much I love this team and how much I love the program and people in the state who are all Hawk fans. I want to play for them."
Nielsen said it feels great to be "flying around" at practice and bringing energy to a defense that was sixth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision last season in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (101.54) and seventh in fewest points allowed per game (17).
Nielsen's brother, Nick, is a junior defensive back for the Hawkeyes. He compiled three tackles in five games last season.