Heber Springs senior Blaze Nelson has season to remember
Blaze Nelson was destined to be a Heber Springs Panther football player.
After all his father Shane lettered for the Panthers during the 1986 and 87 seasons and his older brother, Gunner, lettered for the Panthers for three seasons before graduating in 2013, even his mother, Sheri Baureis Nelson, was a Panther cheerleader, so to say the Panther football runs in the family would be an understatement.
But no one could have predicted the mark that Blaze would leave on the Panther football program.
The senior running back finished the season with arguably one of the best single seasons ever by a Heber Springs football player.
Nelson broke all of former Arkansas Razorback Braylon Mitchell’s single season rushing records carrying the ball 286 times for 2,042 yards and 30 touchdowns.
“Breaking one of Braylon’s records is a huge honor,” Nelson said. “I was glad I was able to do that and succeed like that in my senior season. It’s just huge to be part of something like that, part of the school record books.”
Not many would have predicted the type of success Nelson would have had if they would have seen him his ninth-grade year in junior high football, especially his coach.
“He was this little-bitty, small guy,” Heber Springs coach Darren Gowen said. “Though, you could see even then he was fearless and wasn’t afraid of contact.
“He is a hard worker, and was even then, but when grew into the body he has now, he just had a great year, one that has never been duplicated in Heber Springs. It will be a long time until someone does that again.”
Nelson even admitted that he got left behind a bit as younger player as others grew faster than he did.
“I was always bigger than almost everyone else,” he said, “then ninth grade hit and everyone got a little bit bigger than me. I struggled some and stayed behind.”
After playing sparingly as wide receiver and defensive back as a sophomore, it was his older brother, Gunner, that he credited with helping him get moving in the right direction.
“After my 10th-grade year, that summer, my brother came up to me and said, ‘I want to make you big and I want to help you do something great’,” Nelson said. “Immediately I went to the gym with him and started working out twice a day, and did what I needed to do to put myself in a situation where I could to be the greatest player I could be.”
The results of that work in the gym started to show on the field too.
Nelson moved into the running back position his junior year and rushed for almost 800 yards, including rushing for more than 100 yards three times that season.
Then he exploded on the scene in the 2018 opener against Clinton carrying the ball 33 times for 288 yards and four touchdowns.
As the season progressed the yards begin to pile up for Nelson, but as the games got more and more important later in the season, so did the rushing attempts.
In an important week eight victory at Southside Batesville, Nelson carried the ball 29 times in the rain and followed that up a few weeks later in the playoffs, rushing 38 times in win against Pocahontas and adding 36 more attempts the next week in a season-ending playoff loss at Rivercrest.
“It’s just the mentality he has,” Gowen said. “He’s a physical guy in just the way he finishes runs. We just haven’t had anyone like since Braylon Mitchell to finish runs quite like that, and go and want the ball more and more.
“In practice one day getting ready for Rivercrest I said, ‘Are you ready to carry it another 30 times?’, he said, ‘Coach I can carry it 40 if need me.’ He wants the ball and he’ll take it every time you give it to him. And even trying to get him some rest sometimes, he’d get upset with you.”
Rest was something that Nelson didn’t get much of as he also led the team in total tackles with 84 from his linebacker position.
“Last couple of weeks, he was banged up with an ankle injury,” Gowen said. “When you carry it as much as he does, it is what it is.
“He didn’t practice a lot (the last few weeks) and I think showed a little bit more on the defensive side than the offensive side, we just had to get him to the games.”
Nelson was also the “emergency” quarterback had junior Adam Martin been injured during the season.
Though not an emergency situation, he did throw one pass on a trick play against Southside Batesville that went for a 57-yard touchdown.
“He came back to me, ‘That was an awful pass’, and I said, ‘No, that was a touchdown,’” Gowen said after the win over the Southerners.
While Nelson would go on to garner all-conference and all-state honors for his play, his coach credited him for what kind of person he is.
“He is just a great kid,” Gowen said. “He never complained about anything. He went out and did his job. He waited his turn, and that’s something that’s not big in today’s society.There are a lot kids that don’t wait their turn. If they don’t see immediate playing time, immediate gratification right then, they’ll hang up it, quit and go find something else to do, but he sat out and stuck to it.”
During the Panther football postseason banquet held in December, Gowen played a clip that Mitchell sent unsolicited congratulating Nelson on breaking his record.
Though it would be easy to revel in such accolades, Nelson was quick to point out others for helping him have the season that he had.
“I have to give all the credit to the line,” he said. “All of the blockers that blocked for me, helped me do what I needed to do to get the yards I needed to get and get the win for the team.”
The team in Nelson’s three seasons set a school record with 18 conference wins for a single graduating class and won a share of back-to-back conference championships for only the second time in school history.
While his brother was part of the winningest team in school history and one might be inclined to brag a bit, it was no sibling rivalry for Blaze.
“My brother is really a big part of it (his success),” Nelson said. “He always helped me. Worked out with me. Showed me all I needed to and taught me everything I needed to know.”
Hendrix has shown interest in Nelson as well as a few other schools to continue his playing career.
“I am hoping to fulfill my dream of playing on the college level,” he said. “If that doesn’t work out, I am going to go get the best education I can, major in mechanical engineering and pursue that and see what my future holds.”
If Nelson’s career as a Panther football player is any indication of his future, destiny will work itself out.
1055: Heber Springs senior Blaze Nelson with his brother, Gunner, following the Panthers’ homecoming victory over Bald Knob last season. Nelson would go on to break the schools single season rushing record. PHILIP SEATON PHOTO
096: Heber Springs running back Blaze Nelson runs downfield in action against Rivercrest in the playoffs as teammates Rocky Finney and J.J. Bray (55) run aside Nelson to help block.
087: Heber Springs’ Blaze Nelson, left, and teammate, J.J. Bray, with their All-State plaques they earned this season. Bray was the pulling guard on the offensive line that helped Nelson rush for more than 2,000 yards this past season.
PULL OUT BOX FOR NELSON FEATURE: Can be agate type for look and to save on space)
Heber Springs senior running back Blaze Nelson closed his career by breaking Braylon Mitchell’s single rushing record. Mitchell rushed for 1,876 yards as a junior setting the school mark. Nelson broke Mitchell’s school record with his second carry on Nov. 16 at Rivercrest. Nelson would go on to top the 2,000-yard mark on the season during the game finishing the season with 2,042 yards. Nelson also set single season school records in rushing attempts (286), rushing touchdowns (30) and yards per game (170.2).
Blaze Nelson’s Rushing Per Game
Aug. 31 at Clinton 33-288-4
Sep. 7 Greenbrier 13-80-1
Sep. 14 at Harding Academy 29-190-2
Sep. 21 at Lonoke 23-75-2
Sep. 28 Stuttgart 20-116-2
Oct. 5 at CAC 18-180-4
Oct. 12 Bald Knob 18-127-3
Oct. 19 at Southside Batesville 29-148-1
Oct. 26 at Riverview 21-151-3
Nov. 2 Little Rock Mills 8-198-4
Nov. 9 Pocahontas 38-314-1 *
Nov. 16 at Rivercrest 36-175-3 *
2018 Season Toals 286-2042-30
(* - Denotes Playoff Game)
Other Offensive Numbers for 2018:
Total Points Scored: 182 (30 touchdowns, one 2-point conversion)
Receiving: 23 receptions for 149 yards
Kick-return yards: 126 yards
Passing yards: one completed pass for a 57-yard touchdown
Total offense for 2018 season: 2,248 yards (187.3 pg)
Total All-Purpose Yards: 2,317 yards (193.1 pg)