As a sophomore in high school, quarterback Kalyn “Kato” Nelson won a Class 2A state title at Hialeah’s Champagnat, the first football championship in school history.
It was a triumphant day for Nelson, but he was just getting started.
Hearing the whispers from doubters who said he couldn’t accomplish that level of success at a bigger school, Nelson transferred to Pembroke Pines Flanagan, winning the Class 8A state title as a senior. That, too, was the first football championship in school history.
In between those two impressive feats, Nelson also quarterbacked the Florida Fire 7-on-7 team to a national title, defeating elite competition throughout the country.
This year, Nelson, a 6-1, 205-pound redshirt freshman known for his calmness and poise, is coming home to South Florida to try to lead the Akron Zips to a win in Tuesday’s fourth-annual Boca Raton Bowl.
A victory there would be just the second bowl win for Akron, whose football history dates back to 1891.
Akron (7-6) is a 22-point underdog against host Florida Atlantic (10-3), but count Nelson out at your own peril.
“The kid has always been a winner,” said Dennis Marroquin, who coached the Florida Fire to that 2014 national title. “I think he’s won more tournaments than anyone in the history of 7-on-7, and he’s showing [his ability] again this year.”
Nelson, though, is certainly not infallible.
His Zips fell behind 28-0 and lost 45-28 to Toledo in the Mid-American Conference championship game in Detroit on Dec. 2.
The FAU Owls, who have won nine games in a row, including the Conference USA championship, might present an even bigger challenge than Toledo.
FAU sophomore running back Devin Singletary was named C-USA’s MVP as well as the first Associated Press All-American in program history. He leads the nation in rushing touchdowns (29) and total touchdowns (30). He also rushed for 1,796 yards, which ranks fourth in the country.
Three of Singletary’s offensive linemen made first-team All-C-USA, which means getting stops could be difficult for the Zips.
But Nelson, 20, is unfazed, in part because he has overcome hurdles his whole life.
As a freshman at Hollywood McArthur High, he came off the bench and rallied his team to victory after trailing 28-0.
As a senior, he suffered a knee injury but came back and dominated in the state final, completing 16-of-27 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
Nelson, who grew up idolizing quarterback Michael Vick, also ran for 64 yards in that 26-7 win over Osceola.
But the biggest obstacle in his life was overcoming the loss of his beloved grandfather, Rudolph Nelson, who is the person who gave his grandson the “Kato” nickname because he thought it was easier to pronounce.
Nelson was just 13 when his grandfather died of diabetes and kidney failure.
“Even now,” said Tiffany Boyd, Nelson’s mother, “I don’t think Kato is over the death of his grandfather.”
Indeed, Nelson has his grandfather’s name tattooed on his right shoulder — the one he has used to pass his teams to victory.
“Rudolph, Always Missed, Never Forgotten” is what the ink reads, and Nelson acknowledges the profound effect his grandfather had on him.
Said Nelson: “We were always really tight, me and my grandpa.”
Nelson, one of six siblings, including four brothers, grew up in a tight-knit family in Dania. Ever since he was 3 years old, Nelson would run around the block, and his grandfather was always there, even when he got sick.
Boyd said there were many times she thought Rudolph was too sick to leave the house. Boyd and Nelson would leave home for a football game, but Rudolph would somehow manage to catch a ride and show up to support his grandson.
On Tuesday, there will be many friends and family members at FAU Stadium who will have come to cheer for Nelson, and they will be easy to spot.
“I’ve ordered a bunch of ‘Team Kato’ T-shirts,” Boyd said. “Each one has Kato’s ‘number one’ on the back.”
And that’s fitting because, sooner or later, Nelson finds his way to being No. 1.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Nelson has played in seven games this season, and has started in two. He has completed 54 percent of his passes for 663 yards and five touchdowns, with one interception. He has also run for one touchdown and has been named the starter for Tuesday.
▪ Academically, Nelson has a 2.9 GPA and plans to major in business. FAU offered him a scholarship but only after he had already committed to Akron.
▪ A Miami Herald story posted during Nelson’s prep career listed him as the No. 8 prospect in Miami, four spots ahead of Joseph Jackson, who is now a starting defensive end for the Hurricanes. Two other Canes signees were on that list: Mark Walton at No. 1 and Dionte Mullins at No. 2.
▪ Akron has 29 Floridians on its roster. Of those, 12 are from South Florida, including former St. Thomas Aquinas defensive back Alvin Davis, who is second on the Zips with 80 tackles.
▪ Tuesday’s game will feature coaching staffs with strong family connections. FAU coach Lane Kiffin has his brother Chris as defensive coordinator. Their father, Monte, is an FAU defensive analyst. Akron coach Terry Bowden has his brother Jeff as receivers coach. Jeff’s son Hunter is an Akron graduate assistant.