By Dr. Ken 


The Cincinnati Robert Taft High School feature in the HELMET NEWS/REFLECTIONS article of November 2016 noted the rare backfield talent that brought four eventual National Football League players together as a powerhouse quartet. That the sophomore of the group, Carl Ward who would star at Michigan and later for the Cleveland Browns could not crack the starting lineup despite already flashing his immense abilities, speaks rather descriptively of that Taft Senators squad. Head Coach Will Stargel was a local hero, one of the first African Americans to lead the University of Cincinnati football and track teams in his years there that began in 1941. His collegiate studies and athletic career were interrupted by World War II and after serving with the Fifth Army, he returned to contribute to UC’s 1946 team that compiled a 9-2 record and a Sun Bowl victory. As a letterman in basketball and a track athlete that set low and high hurdles records that were not broken until his son Scott did so in the ‘60s, Stargel was later inducted to the University of Cincinnati Athletic Hall of Fame and was a natural leader for the Taft High School Athletic program. However, even by 1960, like so many of the Cincinnati inner city schools, he had to fight to overcome poor facilities and a lack of student academic success.





Former UC Bearcat star Will Stargel remained a local hero and dedicated himself to the young men and women of Cincinnati’s Robert Taft High School


Losses to private schools Purcell (now Purcell Marian High School whose 1959 squad was led by Roger Staubach) and Roger Bacon did not reduce the interest of college scouts who flocked to recruit  the stacked backfield of Walter Johnson, Al Nelson, Cleophus Edwards, and Carl Ward. Of this group, Al Nelson was the only one who chose to remain close to home. The 9.8/100 yard sprinter who won the Public School League titles in the 220 and 440 yard sprints wanted to remain in town, in part to be near his mother. Taft’s left halfback who included a 105 yard interception return among his many high school accomplishments said, “I could have gone to a bigger football school but I preferred to stay home. Besides, at that time, we got $15.00 per month for laundry. I took the money and brought the laundry home to my mother.” At the University of Cincinnati, Nelson immediately made an impression, not only with his outstanding speed but with his ability to take his 5’11”, 175 pound frame and burst through tackles running for the tough yardage.





Despite a series of minor injuries that limited his participation on the frosh team, he was running as the first string halfback coming out of UC’s spring drills prior to his sophomore season. Injuries again were a problem, forcing Al to miss the first four games of his 1962 sophomore football year but he still finished as the team’s number two ball carrier with a five-yards-per-carry average. He was perhaps the squad’s best defensive back, returned punts and kickoffs and was the Missouri Valley Conference 100 and 220 yard sprint champion. Nelson’s junior season was perhaps more rewarding than his first varsity year, despite being helped off of the field during the fourth game of the season against Tulsa with a broken clavicle. He again established himself as a defensive standout when needed, ran with more power after gaining five pounds of muscular weight, and repeated as Conference sprint champion. Remaining healthy for his senior season, Nelson gained 973 yards, scored thirteen touchdowns, was third in the nation in both rushing and scoring, and with outstanding quarterback Brig Owens, defeated a great Tulsa team to capture the Missouri Valley Conference title, a championship that would be their last until forty-four years later. UC’s head coach Chuck Studley described Nelson as “…Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside rolled into one. He runs like a halfback to the outside and like a fullback to the inside. Pound for pound he has to be one of the most powerful runners in the country.”


Although starring as a full-time offensive performer his senior season, he proved his versatility at the College All Star Game. Given the task of covering the Cleveland Browns All Pro and eventual Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield, Nelson did an exemplary job and sidelined the Browns’ great with a broken clavicle. As the 1965 third round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles he was immediately given the nickname “Crusher” for his stifling and damaging tackle on Warfield, placed in their defensive backfield, earned the starting cornerback position, and held it for nine seasons. The Eagles also utilized his abilities on kickoffs where he averaged over twenty-six yards per return.




Al Nelson, # 26, teams with Bill Bradley to punish the New York Giants


Eagles’ fans perhaps remember Nelson best for establishing two of the longest scoring plays in the team’s history. On December 11, 1966 he returned a missed field goal attempt 100 yards for a touchdown against the Browns and improbably, repeated the feat, this time running back a missed Cowboys field goal attempt on September 26, 1971 for a record breaking 101 yards!


Unfortunately, the injury bug that had intermittently limited his effectiveness at Cincinnati hit him again. He missed all but one game of the ’67 season with a broken arm and an infection caused by an abcessed tooth produced an irregular heartbeat which reduced his playing time in 1969. With the team rebuilding, Nelson was released in 1974, failed to catch on with the Chicago Bears, and retired to pursue work with the Delaware County (Pennsylvania) Division of Parks and Recreation as a community affairs specialist. As an Eagle, Al Nelson was as popular with the fans there as he was as a hometown star at the University of Cincinnati despite the Eagles undistinguished records during his tenure there. He explained this by stating that “I played hard. Losing as much as we did, it wasn’t easy…The fans were tough but I played hard and I played with passion.”