“In the game of football, you hear all the time that one guy can’t make a difference. RaJa showed us that one guy absolutely can propel a team.” -- Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen / Photo: JEFF WHEELER • Jeff.Wheeler@startribune.com
Even though he was a rare four-year starter for one of Minnesota’s top high school football programs, RaJa Nelson never led the Lakeville North offense in carries.
But his yards and touchdowns gained on the ground are the foundation of his program records in total yards (4,674) and trips across the goal line (72).
Nelson always maximized his opportunities, whether at running back or receiver or corner back. So naturally, he made the most of moving to quarterback this season.
Playing with a blend of swagger and humility, Nelson proved Panthers’ alumni wrong and carried a rebuilt offense to a 10-2 record and the Class 6A semifinals.
Nelson, a 5-10, 185-pound senior recruited by North Dakota State as a receiver, shined as an incredible athlete and fierce competitor playing quarterback.
Nelson is the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.
“In the game of football, you hear all the time that one guy can’t make a difference,” Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen said. “RaJa showed us that one guy absolutely can propel a team.”
The 2018 season climaxed with the undefeated Panthers winning their first Prep Bowl title since the city opened a second high school. In boxing parlance, Lakeville North’s mammoth offensive line crumpled defenses with repeated body blows. Nelson was the uppercut to the chin, the knockout punch that excites crowds. He averaged 8 yards per touch and scored 28 offensive touchdowns.
“His physical athletic ability is second to none for kids that have come through our program,” Vossen said. “He can play every single skill position at the highest level.”
Graduation claimed the Panthers’ offensive line, tight ends, fullback and quarterback. Several of those players doubted a successful 2019 encore.
“Last year’s graduating seniors were saying that this year’s team wasn’t going to be anything close to what we were,” Nelson said. “They said we were going to be a .500 team — maybe. Our team really bought in and focused on ourselves. We believed we were capable of being just as good, if not better.”
Nelson accepted the switch to quarterback just months before the start of the season and learned the position’s nuances.
“Reading the defense from the quarterback point of view is different,” Nelson said. “But playing running back and receiver in the same offense helped me know most of what my players are doing so my transition wasn’t as hard as people might think.”
Nelson started fast, running for 109 yards and two scores in the season opener at Woodbury. He finished the season with 1,147 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. He added 889 passing yards and 11 touchdowns to keep defenses honest.
“He is THE player that you have to design your defensive game plan around,” Woodbury coach Andy Hill said. “He can change the game on any given snap.”
Said Nelson, “The leadership I had to bring in my role was probably the biggest change. With victories, you feel like you really did that and people really appreciate what you’ve done. But the losses really get into your heart. You really feel it. You’re only going to know that feeling if you’re at quarterback.”
Success this season owed to Nelson’s belief in his considerable abilities. Or as the younger set calls it, swagger.
“Every kid hears, ‘You want to be the guy with the ball,’ ” Vossen said. “But they don’t all necessarily want to be. They want that moment but they don’t have the courage. I don’t think RaJa even thinks about it. With him it’s more, ‘I think the ball should go to me because I will make the play.’ I’ve never seen, at any of the positions we played him in, a moment where he couldn’t give you an immediate answer of, ‘I got this.’
“He has an undeniable swagger about him and it would lead you to believe that he’s not a humble kid,” Vossen said. “But he is.”
Basketball season proved Nelson’s humility. A diminishing varsity role forced Nelson to settle for JV minutes. But he never quit.
“I learned not everything is going to go your way and you have to deal with what’s brought to the table,” Nelson said. “It was a good life lesson.”
He remained a hit with young fans, who waited in a line stretching out of the gym to present Nelson with footballs to sign. Never mind the occasion was for signing basketball team photos.
Moments like those are what Vossen had in mind when he approached Nelson after the team’s semifinal loss.
“I just put my arm around him and told him how amazing it is, what he did for Lakeville North,” Vossen said. “I told him, ‘You are the greatest that ever put this uniform on. You’re the most talented Lakeville football player in the history of this city.’ I don’t know if anyone could debate that with a straight face.”
Lakeville North's RaJa Nelson (7) switched to quarterback this season and amassed 2,036 total yards rushing and passing, threw for 11 touchdowns and ran for 18 more. Photo: JEFF WHEELER • firstname.lastname@example.org
Nelson enjoys getting tattoos, which his parents permitted only if the ink held meaning.
Nelson committed Colossians 3:23, what he called the “Bible verse I stand by,” to his right arm: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
On the right side of Nelson’s chest is “stairway to heaven with an angel at the top and that’s a representation of my biggest goal in life,” he said. The word “family” is on the inside of his right forearm because “your family will be there to support you no matter what.” He plans to finish his right arm and continue onto his right leg.
4-year varsity starter
39-8 team record
4,674 all-purpose yards*
72 total touchdowns*
1 state title
2018: Matt Cavanagh, Edina, RB/DB
2017: Antonio Montero, Eden Prairie, RB/LB
2016: Brad Davison, Maple Grove, QB
2015: J.D. Spielman, Eden Prairie, Athlete
2014: Robbie Grimsley, Hutchinson, RB
2013: Jacques Perra, Roseville, QB
2012: Bridgeport Tusler, Osseo, RB
2011: Trey Heid, Lakeville North, QB
2010: Eric Kline, Blaine, QB
2009: A.J. Tarpley, Wayzata, LB
2008: Anders Lee, Edina, QB
2007: Michael Floyd, Cretin-Derham Hall, WR
2006: Blake Sorensen, Eden Prairie, LB/RB
2005: Jake Machacek, Eastview, RB
2004: Walker Ashley, Eden Prairie, DL
2003: Nathan Swift, Hutchinson, RB
2002: John Majeski, Hastings, RB/DB
2001: Kim Sarin, Cretin-Derham Hall, RB/KR
2000: Joe Mauer, Cretin-Derham Hall, QB
1999: Dominique Sims, DeLaSalle, QB/DB
1998: Thomas Tapeh, St. Paul Johnson, RB
1997: Marvin Spencer, Blaine, RB
1996: Adam Runk, Stillwater, DB/WR
1995: Aaron Runk, Stillwater, RB
1994: LeRoy McFadden, Eden Prairie, RB
1993: Tommy Reynolds, St. Paul Johnson, RB
1992: Marcus Harris, Brooklyn Center, RB
1991: Carl McCullough, Cretin-Derham Hall, RB
1990: Bryce Darnell, Brooklyn Center, QB
1989: Joe Dziedzic, Minneapolis Edison, RB/LB
1988: Paul Meyer, Minneapolis Henry, RB/LB
1987: Rod Smith, Roseville, RB
1986: Kurt Gunning, Stillwater, RB
1985: Bob Coughlin, Osseo, NG
Ron Goetz, Waconia, RB/LB
1984: Steve Walsh, Cretin-Derham Hall, QB