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John "Nellie" Nelson Passes Away at 44

John "Nellie" Nelson and Frosty Westering.

John "Nellie" Nelson, an inspiration to two decades of Pacific Lutheran football players, coaches and fans, passed away today at the age of 44. Nelson died this afternoon at his residence, Avamere Heritage Rehabilition Center in Tacoma, surrounded by several dozen current PLU football players and coaches.

A Celebration of the Life of John "Nellie" Nelson will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6 in Olson Auditorium on the Pacific Lutheran University Campus. Nelson had served in recent years as a PLU football volunteer assistant coach, taking an active role in the program's administrative duties.

Nelson was born on Dec. 20, 1964, in Singapore with the disease Arthrogryposis, which locked all of his joints from the neck down. He also suffered spinal cord problems and had depended on a wheelchair for mobility all of his life. He first became aware of the PLU football program in 1989 while a student at the school, and his involvement in the program helped him see a purpose for his life. He could be found motoring up and down the sideline at Pacific Lutheran football practices and games, offering words of encouragement to the players that became his friends.

"He never saw himself as disabled," PLU football head coach Scott Westering said. "His influence has been on the young men of our progam since 1989. He loved people and poured his life and hope in Jesus Christ into them. His life was a classroom, and his students loved him.

"John Nelson is living his dream that he went to bed with every night," Westering continued. "His dream was to play football. He played through these young men for years, and now I know he's one heck of a halfback up in heaven." 

Nellie's life story became the focus of an award-winning documentary, "Nellie: A Life Worth Living." The film documents Nellie's life, daily challenges, and life purpose. Though his disease made him unable to feed, bathe or use the bathroom by himself, he chose to inspire and encourage countless hundreds of PLU athletes and students by embracing his life and sharing his story. The documentary won the Heartland Film Festival Crystal Heart Award, the International Family Film Festival award for Best Short Documentary, and the NY International Independent Film & Video Festival Grand Jury Award.

(Click this link to view Chris Egan's tribute to Nellie on Northwest Cable News.)

- PLU -