SAN DIEGO — If linebacker Shane Nelson plays a complete 1986 season for the Chargers, forget about comeback player of the year awards.
Comeback player of the decade would be more appropriate.
To put things into perspective, injuries have prevented Nelson from playing a complete game since 1981, when some of this year's Charger rookies were high school seniors.
After four years of injuries, what keeps bringing Nelson back?
"I don't think the game has passed me by," he said. "It's still the same athletes. In training camp and preseason last year, I displayed knowledge of the game. If you have been a student of the game, love the game and have a mean streak in you, you can maintain your skills. You won't forget how to play football."
If Nelson remembers to play as he once did, the Chargers will be stronger at linebacker.
In Buffalo, Nelson combined with Jim Haslett and Fred Smerlas to form the so-called "Bermuda Triangle," then a well-known and feared trio. Nelson was Buffalo's defensive MVP in 1977, 1979 and 1981.
But lately, he has been on the shelf as much as an unused library book.
Nelson's misfortunes began near the end of the 1981 season when he suffered a knee ligament injury. Doctors said he could return in four weeks, but additional injuries turned the four weeks into four years.
On opening day of 1982, Nelson reinjured his right knee, requiring reconstructive surgery. The injury kept him sidelined until 1984.
Then, in 1985, just when Nelson thought he was returning to form as a free agent with the Chargers, injury struck again. He suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the final exhibition game, meaning it was wait till next year for the fourth straight year.
"I really had something I wanted to prove to the coaching staff and people of San Diego last year," Nelson said. "I wanted to show that I could still contribute to this team. I had tendinitis in training camp and it became chronic. If I had backed off of it earlier, I would have been better off in the long run. Athletes are hard-headed. The only way they go is full speed. You can't cruise."
In retrospect, Nelson realizes his career has been in neutral, not cruise control, since 1981. However, he has good reason for desiring a return to full gear this season.
"I've accomplished so much in the game as a team MVP, but there's still the emptiness of a team award--the Super Bowl," Nelson said. "I think each player would like to go to football heaven with a Super Bowl ring. I know that a great player like O.J. Simpson, who I played with in Buffalo, would give up a lot of awards for a Super Bowl ring."
Three years ago, Nelson retired because of his knee injury.
"Rather than just sit there, I retired in 1983," he said. "I didn't want to just be there and not contribute to the team. At the time, I knew I wasn't going to come back until my knee felt 100%. I got a lot of coaching experience, which is something I hope to be doing sometime in the future."
In 1982-83, Nelson helped coach Buffalo's linebackers. In 1984, he was an assistant at Cornell University.
In 1985, he left the coaching to Charger assistants in training camp. But another injury meant another season of waiting--and another comeback in the making.
"I've always been one to prove something to people," Nelson said. "I wasn't a first-round pick (he signed with Buffalo as a free agent), and I wasn't supposed to do this or that. I have proven people wrong along the way. I know if I am fit right now, I can go out and do the job."
Among Charger coaches, Nelson is a question mark. After all, a player figures to have difficulty coming back after four years of inactivity.
"There's no denying that," said Mike Haluchak, Charger linebacker coach. "That's why Shane needs opportunities to get his sharpness back. The thing he adds is experience, plus he's a little bit of a take-charge guy.
"I wish I could tell you how well he'll do. Mentally, he knows what to do. We need to get the shoulder pads and helmet on and see if he can play like he used to."
The Nelson of 1986 thinks he can play as effectively as the Nelson of 1981--if he remains injury-free.
"I can definitely be the type of player I was," he said. "I know in Buffalo when we had a good defense, we couldn't wait to get on the field. It was almost as if we were saying, 'Screw up offense so we can get on the field.' We felt we were the best, so we wanted people to bring it on."
For now, Nelson said he can't wait for training camp to be brought on so he can attempt yet another comeback.
"I don't consider myself thick between the ears," he said. "If I felt it was time to let go, I would. I did that once at the height of my career (in 1983)."