Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson blended into the scene on a Friday afternoon, sitting at a small patio table with an umbrella providing a slight shield from the sun outside of a Starbucks off Highway 40 in Kansas City.
Perhaps it’s that he’s 5-foot-11 and not a 6-foot-something behemoth. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s a soft-spoken defensive player in a sport played where players’ faces are obscured by helmets.
Nelson, 25, wearing a black Dri-FIT shirt and speaking up to be heard over a trio of women exiting the coffee shop, is used to relative anonymity while others garner praise and accolades. He has played the underdog role in high school, had to go the junior-college route to get to a Power 5 conference school, and he got cast as the other corner — drafted the same year as Marcus Peters — in the minds of Chiefs followers.
The Chiefs play their second preseason game on Friday night against the Atlanta Falcons in Nelson’s backyard. Meaningful games won’t start for another three weeks, but the Georgia native’s training camp performance seems to forecast a season in which he makes a name for himself.
“When I’m playing on the field and people say I have that chip on my shoulder, people don’t know what I went through,” Nelson said. “They don’t know who I am as a person. They see he practices hard every day. I’ve always had to work like this. These other cats out here who got this attention, that’s cool. But I’m going to be me. I just have to work for everything I have.”
Nelson, entering his fourth season with the Chiefs, gave off a calm confidence in a one-on-one interview with The Star, and he spoke with almost an air of inevitability about what’s on the horizon this fall.
He looks at this season, the first in which he projects to play full-time on the outside, as his opportunity. He started at corner the previous two seasons when healthy, but bumped over the slot in nickel situations.
“I feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be,” Nelson said. “I feel like it’s perfect timing. I feel like this is my time. I went through all that hard stuff to get to this moment. They kind of opened up the doors for me, pretty much. They moved everybody out. I’m the last one here. It’s not a coincidence. It’ll work itself out.”
Nelson’s football career actually started in Atlanta … as a Chief.
He has been a fan of the sport since age 4, when he’d put a mini-helmet given to him by his grandfather, Jerome Butler, and watch games on television. At age 6, his stepfather was head coach of a youth team called the Butler Park Chiefs, and Nelson played with and against boys two years older than him.
By high school, he’d made football his primary focus. He starred at a school, Northside High in Warner Robins, Ga., more than an hour outside of Atlanta. He set the state high school record for punt returns for touchdowns. But he felt overlooked by the big-time colleges, having grown up in the heart of SEC territory.
“The stuff I’ve been going through (as a pro) is nothing I haven’t already been through,” Nelson said. “Me just seeing my friends I grew up with, they were Georgia commits, all-this and all-that. I’m like, ‘Dang, I’m down here balling at this small little country school and nobody knows about it.’ ”
After a brief commitment to Division II Carson-Newman, Nelson decided to follow the path of two of his cousins, KJ Morton and Darius Hudson, to junior college and use that venue as a springboard to a Division I scholarship. Morton and Hudson preceded Nelson at College of Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. Morton went on to Baylor, Hudson to Texas Southern.
With no scholarship and little money, living in a two-bedroom apartment with five other players, junior college only hastened Nelson’s desire to prove himself and move on.
Fred Zepeda coached the defensive backs at College of Sequoias, and he became enamored with Nelson’s explosive first steps, his ability to turn and run and his ball skills as a corner and returner.
Zepeda saw in Nelson’s body frame — wide in the shoulders and long arms — the potential to play bigger. Zepeda and Nelson put together a plan for Nelson to graduate in three semesters and have a chance to go play at a major college.
“I had to match that intensity that Steve brought, as a coach,” Zepeda said. “Everything was on Steve. He just had the mindset that he was out here for a certain reason, and he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that. And he didn’t.”
Rated the top JUCO corner in the country by his second season, Nelson initially committed to Georgia. He quickly realized that he ran the risk of getting caught up in a numbers game with just two seasons of eligibility remaining and a new crop of recruits coming in at his position. He changed his mind and put his faith in his own ability rather than the cachet of an SEC school.
Zepeda steered Nelson toward Oregon State because of defensive backs coach Rod Perry, who’d spent 24 years in the NFL as a player and assistant coach.
“There was something special about Steve,” Zepeda said. “In the beginning, I couldn’t pinpoint it, but after I started to work with him, I knew it. I just knew it was his mindset and it was his work ethic that were going to get it going. We knew from the very beginning that Steve was going to be that guy. … We knew he was going to be a dude.”
In two seasons as a starter at Oregon State, Nelson recorded eight interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), defended 24 passes and made 122 tackles while twice earning All-Pac-12 honors.
The Chiefs selected him in the third round (98th overall) of the 2015 Draft. With veterans already on the roster and Peters as their top draft pick that year, Nelson didn’t even dress for games at the start of his rookie season. He appeared in 12 games that first year (53 defensive snaps).
In his second year, Nelson played more snaps, on defense and special teams combined, than anyone else on the roster. Last year, after a strong showing in OTAs, he got hurt and underwent a core-muscle surgery that cost him six games.
After having his own big expectations last season derailed, Nelson attacked this offseason with a vengeance. Chiefs coach Andy Reid lauded Nelson’s tireless conditioning work and described Nelson as an “energizer bunny.”
“Steve’s been impressive since OTAs,” said Kendall Fuller, acquired this offseason as the other projected starter at cornerback. “He’s been a guy that, he’s hungry. He’s ready to go out there and ball and make some plays.”
The addition of Fuller allowed Nelson to focus almost exclusively on playing corner, with Fuller at nickel. Nelson responded with seven interceptions in training camp practices before the preseason opener.
“I think Steve has done a really good job outside, taking that position, taking it over,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He played that in base last year and then the slot on nickel situations, so he’s been out there. Now, you’re out there on a full-time basis and you’re dealing with different kinds of guys all the time so you’ve got to understand them, but I think he’s had a really good camp, you know, a really good camp.”
Nelson credits the move back out to corner for enabling him to have the best camp of his career thus far. He insists that being outside and being able to see the entire field allows him to make plays by getting his hands on the football.
Chiefs secondary/cornerbacks coach Al Harris sees Nelson’s strides as the result of time and growth.
“Steve has always been a highly competitive guy,” Harris said. “From college to his first year here, he’s grown. He’s matured as a professional and as a man. You can see that out on the field. So whether he’s inside or outside, I think the growth would’ve been there.”
Nelson knows that this season means a lot in terms of his future. The Chiefs have flirted with the idea of bringing in another veteran cornerback for camp. Bashaud Breeland spent time in St. Joseph as one of the stops on his free-agent tour, and Orlando Scandrick reportedly paid a visit this week.
Next offseason, Nelson can become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
“I know it’s there,” Nelson said of free agency. “I’m very conscious of it. I have a lot of just personal goals that I want to get to before that even comes.
“I haven’t even had an interception here. I’m so hungry for those, I just have dreams of leading the NFL in interceptions this year. Once I’m able to do that, we’ll be talking, for sure for sure.”