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Cheerleader turned defensive back hopes to play football at Franklin College

FRANKLIN, Ind. — She’s on the field throwing passes, helping the defensive backs run different routes. She’s carrying around cards, getting the scout offense ready for the defense. On the clipboard, she looks at the script for practice, where she needs to go next.

Hope Nelson is a freshman student football coach for Franklin College. It’s a tremendous feat, a woman helping to lead a team that this season is 5-1 and undefeated in its conference.

But it’s not her dream. Not even close.

Coaching is the backup plan.

She’s in the weight room, squatting 245 pounds, getting her legs stronger — ready to make tackles. She’s running sprints, getting lightning fast — to cover receivers and defend against pass offenses. She’s watching the guys on the field, the cornerbacks in particular.

That’s her position.

Nelson was a high school defensive back.

“When I tell people, it’s always ‘Wow.’ And they’ll ask, ‘What position do you play? Kicker?'” Nelson said. “But that’s not the case. I’m out on the field making tackles. And I want to do that here. I know I can do it.”

Nelson carries out her coaching duties during practice at Franklin College. Next year, she hopes to play on the football team. (Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar) (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

Nelson’s goal is to play at Franklin next season as a sophomore. For spring practices, she will suit up with the guys.

She will prepare to make football history, as the first woman in the school’s 184-year existence to play the game.

But that is just the beginning of Nelson’s story of persistence and perseverance.

A lifelong dancer and cheerleader, Nelson is a fighter, a woman who overcomes obstacles every single day.

And she knows what is most daunting, should she take the college football field next year, is a right side hit that comes out of nowhere.

Nelson doesn’t have a chance to see it coming.

She is blind in her right eye.

‘It’s just made me who I am’

The night before, it had seemed like the best solution – at least the only solution for the short term.

Nelson’s babysitter had taken the doorknob off in the bathroom – because her own kids kept trying to lock themselves inside.

The next day, a 3-year-old Nelson was at the house playing hide-and-seek with the babysitter’s daughter.

When she darted into the bathroom, Nelson chased after. As she was just about to catch her, the door slammed shut.

The metal prong exposed by the missing doorknob stabbed Nelson in her right eye.Buy PhotoHope Nelson, a freshman student football coach at Franklin College, and a former football player on the mens team at Indian Creek High School, carries out her coaching duties during practice at Franklin College on Thursday, October 11, 2018. Nelson, who suffered a childhood eye injury hasn’t been held back by blindness in one eye, playing high school football on the mens team as a defensive back, cheerleading, pole vaulting, and taking years of dance. Nelson plans to try out for the mens team at Franklin in the spring. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

“I just remember my eye shriveled up like a raisin in my eye socket,” said Nelson.

Her mom was called, but the paramedics beat her to the house. They decided not to take Nelson in the ambulance.

She was tiny and scared and in severe pain. She needed her mom.

Once at the hospital, Nelson was rushed into surgery. Doctors filled her eye with saline and water. It plumped back up. The surgeon put 21 stitches in her ruptured eye.

Her eye looked better afterward, cosmetically. But it didn’t work. Doctors told her parents the devastating news. Nelson would be blind in her right eye.

Through the years, people have said things to Nelson – mean, rude, negative things.

“If I let it bother me, then I would be down on myself all the time. So, I just keep a positive outlook,” she said. “If I could go back and change it, I wouldn’t. It’s just made me who I am.”

When it all started

That accident was traumatizing. And yet, instead of shrinking up, becoming introverted, something wonderful happened to the 3-year-old girl.

“That’s probably when it all started — her becoming this, ‘I can do anything,'” said her dad, John Nelson. “Before that, she was really laid back and quiet.Then, she got a little spunk.”

Nelson poured her heart and soul into dancing. She was going to be the best. She was a cheerleader in high school at Indian Creek in Trafalgar, Ind.

“I believe that everything happens for a reason, good and bad,” said John Nelson. “We’ve raised her that you have to overcome things in life and you’re going to fail more times than not.”

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