On November 28, 1964, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Al Nelson in the third round of the 1965 NFL Draft. Later that afternoon, he was chosen by the Buffalo Bills in the ninth round of the AFL Draft. Nelson had his mind made up where he would go by dinner.
“Well, at the time, I thought the NFL was the better league. And I think that Philadelphia offered me a little bit more,” Nelson laughed.
Nelson’s decision may have put more money in his wallet, but it was the Eagles who pocketed a bonus. That’s because while Nelson set rushing and touchdown records as a running back at the University of Cincinnati, Philadelphia’s head coach Joe Kuharich decided to have him initially line up at safety. He also had the rookie return kickoffs.
“I didn’t have a preference. I just wanted to be on the team,” said Nelson, who averaged 26.3 yards on 26 returns during his first season. “When I came to the pros, the Eagles needed a cornerback. Or they had more of a need there than they did at running back. But one of the things that I enjoyed about returning kicks was that I could run the ball again. Running kickoffs back was exciting because the crowd got all into it. But it was basically just the opportunity to run the ball again.”
Nelson became a starting cornerback after Philadelphia traded Irv Cross to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966, but also continued to play on special teams. And during the season’s final home game at Franklin Field against Cleveland, the Eagles were fortunate he was still doing so when he had a 100-yard return for a touchdown off a missed field goal attempt.
“I think Lou Groza was the kicker and he kicked the ball short,” Nelson said. “You know how when you catch a kickoff, you kind of give and step back with one leg. I guess I was straddling the end zone and I just brought it all the way back out. I just ran as fast as I could, and I believe I was untouched. It was common to put someone back on long field goal attempts, especially when you catch somebody asleep so you could improve your position on the field.”
History repeated itself during the Eagles’ first regular-season game at Veterans Stadium on September 26, 1971, when Nelson scored another touchdown off a missed field goal attempt. This time he ran the ball back 101 yards for Philadelphia's only points in a 42-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
“It was the same type of deal, and I wasn't touched on that one either,” said Nelson. “I was somewhat surprised myself that I was able to score untouched. I was elated! For a defensive player to score was pretty exciting at that time. I was happy to score the touchdown, but it was sad to lose the game like that.”
Retiring after the 1973 season, Nelson had 13 career interceptions, averaged 25.9 yards on 101 kickoff returns, and had the two touchdown returns. What makes him most proud of his football career?
“Well, that I played for one team at defensive back for nine years. I thought that was a pretty good statement to make – that I lasted nine years in Philadelphia, which is a pretty tough town to play defensive back in,” Nelson said. “I felt that I added something to the team. The fans in Philly like the team and they like players who play hard. I thought I played hard. Maybe that’s why, I don’t know, but I was able to last and not many people can say that.”
Following his playing career, Nelson began working for the state of Pennsylvania as the special assistant to the secretary of the department of community affairs, which he would do for 11 years. Following that, Nelson worked in the Dauphin County juvenile justice system for eight years.
Now making his home in Harrisburg, Nelson is enjoying retirement with his wife, Charlotte. They have two adult sons: Jonathan and Matthew. He stays in shape with daily power walks and is also very active with his church.
“I do some things there working with youth and so forth,” Nelson said. “We have recreational activities and we have talks about where they are, any problems they may be having. I just try to act as a mentor.”