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Thursday, December 23, 2010
David Nelson belongs in NFL -- final answer

By Tim Graham

David Nelson
David Nelson, scolded by Regis Philbin for picking Florida over Notre Dame, has found a home with the Bills.
When rookie receiver David Nelson signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent, his primary objective was to do was gather some preseason game film for potential future employers and someday hope to prove Regis Philbin wrong.

Eight months later, Nelson is a starter with a touchdown in three straight games and a girlfriend who's a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

Take that, Rege.

"If you'd have told me sixth months ago I'd be in the situation I'm in now, I'd have called you crazy," Nelson told me Thursday over the phone from One Bills Drive.

It's not often a high school kid gets called out by a lovable TV icon, but that's what happened to Nelson.

"My mom loves Regis," Nelson said.

Nelson was a blue-chip prep prospect from Wichita Falls, Texas. He committed to Notre Dame but changed his mind when Philbin's beloved alma mater fired coach Tyrone Willingham. Nelson switched to the University of Florida, drawing Philbin's ire.

"Big mistake for you, kid!" Philbin wagged his finger one morning on "Live! with Regis & Kelly."

"To make a decision you thought was best for your family and best for your future and then Regis Philbin comes out and calls it a mistake, that was kind of neat," Nelson said. "It was the first time a national celebrity mentioned our family.

"It's a funny story and feels good to make somebody eat their words."

For a few years, however, Philbin looked like he was correct. Nelson struggled at Florida. The Gators redshirted him as a freshman. He couldn't get on the field for a couple years. He was relegated to special teams.

"You start to think 'What might have been? Maybe Regis was right,' " Nelson said with a laugh. "Looking back now, it's easy to see I made the right decision."

Nelson helped the Gators win the national crown his junior season. He started the SEC championship game (Percy Harvin was too injured to play) and scored a touchdown to help beat Alabama. Nelson caught a famous Tim Tebow jump pass for a touchdown to knock off Oklahoma in the BCS title game.

Nelson had a strong senior season, too, but nobody drafted him. He was pursued by a few teams, but chose the Bills because he thought they afforded him the best opportunity to get started on the arduous journey of practice squads, waiver wires and tryouts.

"I thought it was going to be a long road," Nelson said. "I have a lot of friends that went the undrafted road. They said it can be discouraging at times, hard at times. You have to realize it's your dream, and if you want it bad enough you've got to stick to it.

"I was fully prepared, coming into this whole deal, to go to four or five camps, go to four or five different teams, practice squad for a couple months, get cut, practice squad again until you find your niche."

Nelson caught some breaks along the way and performed well enough that he found a home immediately.

Buffalo's new general manager and coaching staff showed they weren't beholden to high draft picks from previous years and cut 2008 second-round pick James Hardy. This year's fourth-round draft choice, Marcus Easley, went down with a season-ending knee injury in August.

Nelson made the roster. In-season injuries to veterans Roscoe Parrish and Lee Evans have given him greater opportunities to show what he can do.

He'll have the chance to extend his touchdown streak Sunday against the New England Patriots, another team that wanted to sign him after the draft. Of the dozen or so teams to contact him, only two calls came from head coaches: Gailey and Bill Belichick, a close friend of Urban Meyer, who coached Nelson at Florida.

"What he did with Florida is pretty much what he's doing with Buffalo in this league," Belichick said. "He's a big target. He's got great range. He can get to a lot of balls, excellent hands. He's not the fastest receiver, but he's deceptive, and he's got a good burst and good quickness.

"If the quarterback puts the ball away from the defender, he can adjust and make the play, that kind of thing. He's a very crafty guy, and he's a smart football player. He knows coverages. He knows how to get open, and it's obvious that [Ryan] Fitzpatrick has a lot of confidence in him."

Nelson seems to have done just fine for himself as a football player.

Oh, and Nelson's dating Kelsi Reich, an actual Cowboys cheerleader who has blogged about rooting for the Bills, too.

Not a bad testimonial for perseverance.