When practice ends on an April afternoon, Utah offensive lineman Daniel Nielson is standing in Rice-Eccles Stadium’s south end zone, near the very spot where his state championship dreams were ruined.
Well, once, anyway.
The last-second touchdown pass, launched by a quarterback before Nielson could sack him, was just another play in a series of stunning losses in Class 3A title games in Nielson’s Hurricane High School career.
Three times, the Tigers made the 300-mile trip from southwestern Utah to play Juan Diego for the championship. Three times, Hurricane lost — after being ahead or tied in the final few seconds of each game.
So now, with the Utes’ practice fields being renovated, Nielson walks through the Rice-Eccles gates every day of spring drills with memories of what happened in that stadium in his high school days. Yet the losses that seemed so crushing at the time apparently do not haunt him.
He’s moved on, and so has Hurricane. Nielson is listed as Utah’s No. 1 right tackle. The Tigers finally won their state championship in November, beating Desert Hills.
Those developments make looking back more tolerable to Nielson, who processes those three defeats with a healthy outlook. The sequence of events is "incredible in a positive way, in my opinion," Nielson said. "It brought the community together."
The bonding came through heartbreak. Nielson was on the field for a few plays as a sophomore in 2008, when Juan Diego kicked a field goal to win 21-18. The next season, after the Tigers took a 10-6 lead with 45.7 seconds remaining, Juan Diego answered with a 31-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play.
Playing as a defensive lineman, Nielson was "about three feet away from the quarterback," he said. "I remember standing next to him and watching [the ball] go into the end zone. I didn’t know what to think."
Senior year, similar story. In a 7-7 game, Juan Diego drove 90 yards to set up a short field goal. Nielson almost blocked the kick. The ball brushed his fingers just enough that he was surprised when he turned around and saw the officials raising their hands, signaling the successful kick.
So Nielson blamed himself for that unhappy ending, but he channeled his efforts into his transition to college. He enrolled early at Utah and participated in spring drills, then redshirted last season while tackle Tony Bergstrom was concluding an outstanding career. Two junior college linemen will arrive in August, so Nielson’s position is not secure, but he labels the potential of starting as a freshman "a great opportunity in my life."
The way Nielson is thriving academically and athletically in college "makes me feel like we’ve kind of done something right along the way," said David Cullimore, an English teacher and longtime coach at Hurricane.
An avid scientist, Nielson is targeting a specialized major that will distinguish him as a medical school applicant, regardless of where his 6-foot-6, 317-pound body takes him in football.
"Just from his sheer size, we knew we had something special initially," Cullimore said.
Nielson developed his talent, always prodding himself and his teammates to keep pursuing that state championship. Even though he never personally won a title, he found satisfaction in the Tigers’ championship last November. His brother, Jacob, paved the way for Hurricane’s rushing success as a lineman.
Nielson was on the Rice-Eccles sideline that night with heavy snow falling and the Tigers winning convincingly. That remains a nice moment for him and his family. Nielson will have four more seasons to produce his own good memories in the stadium, where devastating defeats may have headlined his football career so far, but have not defined it.
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