Honoring Bill Nelsen

Honoring Bill Nelson–The QB who started it all

By Paul Morantz

He was on the bench his sophomore season…1960–the first year of Saint John. McKay was to be fired. One and done. So McKay gambled and inserted Bill Nelsen as QB against the highly favored Bruins. With the help of Marlin McKeever and a scrawny 4th string rb one of the great USC upsets was achieved and McKay’s job was saved…bringing USC ultimately 4 NC and two runner ups.

The next year Nelsen went back to the bench in favor of sophomore Pete Beathard. Nelson was not an imposing figure. 6 ft. 195 lbs. Nelson was just drop back and throw. Beathard was a new proto-type. He could roll out and throw on the run. He could run all the way. Rarely mentioned is that Beathard was so athletic he ranks as one of USC’s all time safeties and maybe should have played that position in the pros.

In 61 Beathard was on fire in the famous 35-34 loss to No. 1 Iowa when USC failed the 2 point conversion. At one time Troy was down by 21.

In 62 Beathard took USC to the NC. Against Wisconsin he set a then record with 4 touchdown passes. Along that season Nelsen did contribute. This was an era of platoon substitution and USC had 3 platoons. The red team played both ways. The gold team was defense only and would give red team rest. The green squad was offense only and would rest the red team too. It was quarterbacked by Nelson and sparked by Ron “the Horse” Heller.

Nelson’s squad scored. In fact it produced the only touchdown in a 7-0 win at Iowa famous for the Willie Brown tackle that held Iowa an inch short on a fourth down pass in USC territory late in the game.

Against the Bruins, USC was down 3-0 in 4th qt and it was 4th down deep in Bruin territory. In an amazing surprise, McKay sent in Nelsen for Beathard for the play. Bill threw it, seemingly high, but Willie Brown came down with it on his back at the two. Ben Wilson scored on the next play. Beathard than interceped a Bruin pass and USC went undefeated. McKay’s first title.

Nelson also led a scoring drive against Wisconsin.

When Draft time came Nelson was a 10th round grab, a scout saying USC’s Beathard was the best college football QB in the land who could run and throw but Nelson was the top drop back pro prospect in the land. He almost by-passed going for a coaching job but then took the gamble. He became the starter for Pittsburgh. In l968 he was traded to Cleveland where he played with two bad knees. There the scout proved right.

He led the Brownies to three playoff appearances in 1968, ’69, and ’71, two of which (’68 and ’69), were conference championships. Nelson is still considered in the top five NFL quarterbacks in Browns history.

NFL Career:
Passing yards: 14,165 (9,725 as a Brown)
Passing touchdowns: 98 (71 as a Brown)

In April of 2009 writer Greg Popelka wrote:

“Nelson came to the Browns in a trade with Pittsburgh in 1968. The team was still trying to get over losing Jim Brown in 1966, and Nelson was taking over for Frank Ryan. Ryan had had some very effective years leading the Browns’ offense, and was the quarterback during the 1964 title year. Bill Nelson immediately starred as a Brown in 1968, earning an 86 passer rating on the strength of 19 touchdown passes. In 1969, his passing yards per game improved by 25, to 196 yds/game. 1969 was a Pro Bowl year for him as well.

“In his four years as the Browns’ starting quarterback, Bill Nelson led the team to a 34-15- 1 record, including the playoffs. The Browns won three division titles and two conference titles during this time. His favorite targets were future Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield and Browns legend Gary Collins. Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly starred behind an offensive line anchored by Hall of Fame guard Gene Hickerson.
“Bill Nelson was highly effective at managing the clock and pulling out last-minute wins.
“One source from 1971 placed Bill Nelson’s abilities in the ‘leadership’ and ‘reacting under pressure’ categories as second only to Johnny Unitas’ that year.

”What Bill Nelson was perhaps most known for, however, was his bad knees. He played with most of the cartilage damaged or gone; his knees were reportedly even worse those of his more-publicized contemporary, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath. Ultimately, Nelson’s knees and resulting lack of mobility prompted the Browns to trade Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for the right to draft Purdue All American quarterback Mike Phipps. Phipps was named the starter in his first training camp; to put it politely, his career paled in comparison to Bill Nelson’s.

”By 2007, Bill Nelson was 66 years old and living in Orlando, Florida and trying to enjoy golf. “Doctors want to replace both of my knees. I’ve got bad arthritis in my back and shoulders. (Guys) hit me too many times. I really can’t swing a golf club any more. I used to break 80; now I limp around and try to enjoy the sunshine. Hey – you know what? I’m glad I can still do that.”