February 6, 2012
Virginia senior Matt Nelson is in his first competitive season for the Cavaliers, joining his twin brother Nick on the mat for the first time in five years.
"I woke up every morning and said I'm gonna to be a national champion," said Matt of his road to recovery. "Every single day. There was never no doubt I was going to come back."
Matt suffered a severe concussion in February of 2007 as a senior at Shaler High School in Pittsburgh. Both brothers were ranked top in the state preparing for their final postseason when the two collided at practice.
"We both hit heads," said Nick. "I hit the front of my head against his temple and we both went down. We didn't know how bad it was, I would say...for months."
Nick would win a PIAA championship that March; Matt would not return to competition until November 2011.
The Nelsons enrolled at UVa in the fall of 2007 but quickly it became clear concussion symptoms had worsened and Matt's short term memory had been affected.
"The first semester was awful for Matt," said Virginia head wrestling coach Steve Garland. "He was in the deepest part of the trauma from headaches to not feeling well, having to take breaks, literally resting his mind."
"I remember getting a phone call," said Matt's father, Mike Nelson. "Dad, I took a test today and didn't know one thing. He said I studied all night woke up didn't know anything."
Just weeks before his first semester of finals, Matt was forced to medically withdraw from school. He was evaluated at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and soon enrolled in a brain rehabilitation facility nearby. Matt went 5 hours a day, four times a week for six months and battled depression, anxiety, and post-concussion syndrome.
"The way they explained it is that your brain is like a city," said Matt. "The concussion is a tornado that knocked down trees, power lines....what they had to do was clear the roads to get back to the information center."
Matt spent the semester in a community college, re-conditioning his brain how to learn. That fall, Matt re-enrolled at Virginia and began coaching for Albemarle High School.
"I thought I was a pretty good coach," said Matt of his three years with the Patriots. "I'm very technical as a wrestler, but I definitely needed those kids more than they needed me."
Headaches were a daily occurrence for Matt, who was on and off medication still coping with the brain injury. By the summer of 2010, Matt began working out again. He was nearly 40 pounds over his 133 pound weight class.
"I remember thinking to myself, jeez this is going to be tougher than anyone thinks," said Coach Garland. "But much like the Nelsons, the whole Nelson family, they surprise you every chance they get."
Matt rejoined his teammates and twin brother in November, nearly three years since the concussion, cleared for non-contact practice.
"He couldn't go live, he couldn't compete but he could practice," said Garland of his return. "It became apparent pretty quickly that he really hadn't lost that much and he was still pretty darn good."
Matt was cleared to compete on January 6, 2011 and spent that year earning a starting spot on the Cavaliers' roster. He made his college debut on November 5, 2011 in the team's season opener against Anderson and Campbell.
"I kind of knew how the matches were gonna go in my head," Matt said of his first contest. "I played them over a gazillion times the last three and a half years."
Matt pinned Anderson's Tanner Bidelspach in 2:30 and repeated the result over Campbell's Dan Haines in 4:24.
The wins were his first of 15 so far this season. Matt (15-3) is second on the team in points scored and ranked No. 20 in the country at 133 pounds. And despite taking two different paths to their senior seasons, twins Matt and Nick have plans to finish together atop the podium at nationals in March.
"Something that we say literally every night to each other is 2012 back-to-back," said Nick, who's ranked No. 8 at 141 pounds. "That's something that's emotional for me because it's like...two years ago that wasn't possible."
"Is it a realistic expectation? I think so," added Matt. "Probably not a lot of people do, but they've been telling me that for the last three years."
Regardless what happens, Matt says every day is blessing.
"Before 6am practice, 7am practice, sprints, doesn't matter what's the obstacle in front of me," he said. "I look in the mirror and say ' Christmas morning'."
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