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Byline: BRIAN DOHN Staff Writer

Dan Nelson was at UCLA a couple of months, had yet to take part in a practice, and very few of his teammates knew anything about him. Still, he spoke his mind, in a brutally truthful way, about what he witnessed.

``I was kind of shocked, but the message he had was very informative for everybody,'' Bruins redshirt junior fullback Michael Pitre said. ``Everyone tried to sugarcoat things instead of telling you the truth and being honest. He called the entire team's work ethic out. He said, `I know that I am one of the least talented people on this team, but I know that I work hard. And if you guys work as hard as I do, and try as hard as I do, we can't be beat.'''

And so began Nelson's role as a leader among the Bruins.

He is a senior reserve fullback who rarely plays offensively. His on-field role is as a special teams player, another guy running down the field to take on a block. Yet, Nelson's importance to the Bruins gives a glimpse into his future.

He is a former Marine who is short on football talent but achampion in effort, a member of the football team's player-elected leadership council, a husband, and an impassioned speech-giver who demands accountability evenwhen it is an unpopular subject.

He is the type of leader Bruins coach Karl Dorrell sought for his program, and the type of leader the Army craves.

Many of Nelson's peers will continue their football careers, or go to graduate school or enter the business world. When Nelson, 23, graduates from UCLA in June, he is heading back to the military, this time the Army, to train to be an infantry officer and lead his own unit in active duty, with an eye on becoming a member of the Army's special forces team.

Nelson is a B-plus student despite balancing academics, football and UCLA's Army Reserve Officer Training Corps duties. He is a long-distance runner who raises money through marathons to benefit the families of soldiers killed in war.

``Every soldier needs a great leader, and I think he can be one,'' said Lt. Col. Shawn Buck, who recruited Nelson to UCLA's ROTC. ``He's got a passion, he walks with a quiet confidence and never makes excuses.''

Earning respect

Every time Nelson sees an offensive lineman on an opponents' kick-return unit, he shudders at the memory of the hit that ended his 2004 season.

He was running downfield to cover a kickoff against Stanford. His job, as a wedge-buster, was to smash his body into the opponent's blockers, clearing the way for his teammates to tackle the return man.

Nelson ran squarely into a pair of Stanford offensive linemen, and felt excruciating pain in his left shoulder. He shattered his collarbone in five places. The impact of the hit was so intense, his shoulder pads cracked apart.

``For Dan to go down at any point, you know he's in pain,'' Dorrell said. ``He is not an excuse-maker. He does not try to get out of anything, and that was a point where you knew he was injured.''

Nelson remained on the ground a few moments, then popped up and ran off the field.

``When I saw that, I was amazed,'' UCLA junior defensive end Bruce Davis said. ``I couldn't believe he was able to get up and get off the field himself. I was blown away. That told me about him. I know our country is going to be safer with him protecting us.''

Nelson said the only time he was carried off the field was at Centennial High in Boise, Idaho. He remembers feeling ill, then getting sick on the field. There was a blank spot in his memory before he woke up and was on the ground. He did, however, walk off the field.

Leading the Bruins

It was the spring of 2005, and nearly every member of the football team decided it was time to honor tradition.

The spring game was already played, so the team elected to ``go over the wall,'' which means after stretching the seniors lead a ditch practice party by scaling the wall at the east side of Spaulding Field.

After spending time speaking with the coaches, Nelson believed finishing out spring practice was integral to future success. He stood in front of his teammates ``I think I was the only one there,'' he said, ``and told them why ditch day was a bad idea.''

The Bruins wound up having their best practice of the spring, team unity was strengthened and the following season UCLA tied a school record for wins in a 10-2 campaign.

``We wanted a guy that I knew had backbone, who regardless of which way the wind blew, he would want to pick the right thing to do,'' Dorrell said. ``He quickly became a leader in this program because people respected his decision-making.''

The past

Effort and honesty, teammates say, is why Nelson excels as a leader.

His path to UCLA involved personal sacrifice and hardship.

He was not highly recruited out of high school, and long before graduation decided on a military career. He enlisted in the Marines, and trained at Camp Pendleton, but was discharged after a year because of a health issue.

Nelson wanted to rehabilitate a back injury and remain in the military, but the Marine Corps believed it would be too expensive, and take too much time, so they opted to discharge him.

Nelson went back to Boise and was an assistant football coach at Centennial before heading to Arizona Western College (Yuma, Ariz.) to play junior college football.

He was not overly talented, but while Dorrell's staff was scouring the junior college scene for linemen, Nelson was spotted.

``The information we were getting was he would sacrifice himself for any job in any opportunity to help his team win,'' Dorrell said. ``He was the guy that was the hardest-playing guy on the field. We knew he didn't have all the physical talent you would want, but we felt he was a program guy who could come in and lead.''

Nelson arrived at UCLA in January 2004, and made his first speech about commitment and teamwork shortly thereafter. He spent two seasons as a linebacker before being moved to fullback after last season.

``I love linebacker. I really do,'' said Nelson, a former junior Olympic boxing state champion. ``I wasn't that good at it, but I loved it. But I would do anything they ask me to do here.''

Raising awareness

In a celebratory locker room after Saturday's win at Arizona State, Nelson glowed. His 27-yard run on a fake punt jump-started UCLA in the second half, and the venue was appropriate.

Smiling while discussing the successful fake, Nelson reached into hislocker and pointed to a page in a game program that had a tribute to the late PatTillman on it. Tillman played his college football at Arizona State, and went on to play for the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL before turning his back on riches and joining the Army.

Tillman died while on active duty, and Nelson, stung at how his tour with the Marines ended but still wanting to make a difference, runs marathons to raise money for several charities which aid families who lost members in war. The Pat Tillman Foundation is one of them.

``This guy is a hero,'' Nelson said, his eyes tearing up.

After one of his marathons, the humble Nelson sent and a letter and the money he raised to the Pat Tillman foundation.

He was further humbled when Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, called to say thanks. That date -- June 30, 2005 -- turned into a remarkably emotional day, since it was also the day Nelson married his wife, Megan.

``He doesn't do things in lieu of,'' Dorrell said. ``He just does things above and beyond, and that's why people respect him.''

The future

UCLA has one regular-season football game remaining -- Dec. 2 against USC -- and likely will play in a bowl game. After that, some of Nelson's senior teammates will begin training for shots at the NFL, while he begins training for his next endurance race to benefit the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Since the event is still in its planning stages, Nelson did not want to divulge what it would be, but he said it was a major endeavor and figures to be more taxing than a 26.2-mile marathon.

By the end of June, though, Nelson will have his degree in history, and be at Fort Lewis in Washington to begin training to become an infantry officer.

``It's kind of like an unfinished obligation that I haven't fulfilled,'' Nelson said. ``I know I couldn't live my life knowing I didn't try to help. It bothers me that a lot of people have been called back to active duty once they've already served their active time, if they chose to leave. It bothers me that people have had their tours in Iraq extended.

``I see a lot of people complain about it and say it's terrible, and I don't want to get too political, but what's the only way you can fix it? My only choice is what I do personally, so why not me? I'm perfectly good to go.''

Buck, who suggested Nelson join UCLA's Army ROTC after reading a story profiling the player in the campus newspaper, said two minutes after the initial meeting he knew Nelson had a future in the Army. Until then, Nelson was going to enlist in the Army.

``The guy is a poster child for everything we're looking for,'' Buck said. ``But I warned everybody I told that he's a very humble guy and doesn't want to do anything to glorify himself.''

In addition to playing football and carrying a 3.4 grade-point average, Nelson awakens at 5 a.m. three days a week for his ROTC duties. The only time he misses ROTC training is when the football team is on the road.

During the offseason Dorrell, whose father was a Navy officer, periodically excused Nelson from football training sessions so he could fulfill an ROTC obligation.

``Regardless of speed and size, he's got intangibles,'' Buck said. ``That's what you have to have to be a great Army leader. The soldiers are going to be lucky to have him leading them.''

Grant has one big Hart

Sandy Hart never wanted to become a story. The only headlines she wanted to read were the ones that mentioned her son Daniel, a senior linebacker and outfielder at Grant High of Van Nuys.

The only tape she wanted people to notice was whatever was leftover from taping the ankles and fingers of the football players at Grant, not the bandages on her hands from the spots where chemotherapy ravaged her skin.

Her job as trainer was to take care of them, not the other way around.

But when Hart had to leave the team for three weeks this fall to receive treatment, something incredible happened: Instead of healing them, she started teaching them.

She taught them about courage and perseverance. She taught them how to stare down the biggest baddest foe anyone could face. But most of all, she taught them enjoy every day without knowing what the next day would bring.

``She's as tough as any guy out here,'' Grant coach Miguel Gonzalez said of Hart, who also is deaf. ``They all have a lot of respect for her.''

The team dedicated its season to her and made posters for her in the locker room. She called in to her husband Bob for daily updates and waited eagerly for game tapes to arrive at her hospital room.

About a month later, Hart returned to the sidelines, the first round of another 12-round fight with cancer successfully completed. The Lancers stumbled to the finish, their dreams of a Sunset Six League title having crumbled after a loss to Verdugo Hills.

But this wasn't a season measured by wins and losses. It was a season defined by one very big Hart.

``She's special,'' star running back Fred Winborn said. ``Even with everything she's been through, she's always got this big smile on her face, cheering us on.''

-- Ramona Shelburne

An honor to know her

She is buried alongside war heroes and green berets, like all the rest a shining star taken much too young.

Maggie Dixon only graced us for 28 years, but what a 28 years they were. The last year, most of all, as she led a struggling women's basketball program at Army to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

It was in those final days when she shined the brightest, standing alongside her big brother Jamie -- the men's basketball coach at Pittsburgh -- as the only brother and sister to coach teams to the NCAA tournament in the same year.

She was, all at once, radiant, tough and inspiring. She charmed everyone she met with her personality and passion.

``What a soul,'' said Rob DiMuro, her basketball coach at Notre Dame High of Sherman Oaks who had known Dixon since she was a pre-schooler. ``Salt of the Earth in every single dealing I had with her. If anybody's soul is going to float right into the clouds, it's hers.''

Her death last April brought the battle-worn generals at West Point to tears. They honored her as they would one of they own, burying her among our country's greatest soldiers and leaders.

``She won the whole academy over,'' said Army superintendent Lt. General Bill Lennox. ``She was a tremendous leader.''

-- Ramona Shelburne

Toughest fight faced

Morris Biggers III isn't the kind of guy who gets choked up easily.

The ex-Marine has gone through boot camp, faced the enemy in Iraq and stared down the toughest gangsters in South Central Los Angeles.

But when Biggers read an article in the Daily News last month about Rudy Lugo, his former wrestling coach at Canoga Park High, and Lugo's battle with lung cancer, his throat dried up, his chest tightened and the tears started to flow.

``Coach Rudy Lugo is a man's man and may have saved my life,'' Biggers wrote in an e-mail. ``I was a bully in 10th grade. One day, coach Coach Lugo happened upon us and looked me square in the eye and said: `You think you're tough? Then I will see you at wrestling practice after school!'

``His commanding tone and stern appearance was very intimidating to me, but at the same time it was warm and inviting. He challenged me and I accepted. ... Coach helped to make me a winner and and man.''

In the weeks after the story ran, the Daily News was flooded with e- mails from former students, players and friends of Lugo. They wanted to help him in the fight of his life, to tell him how much he meant to them, or simply to say hello again.

Rick Olivas played football and wrestled for Lugo in the 1980s, then coached with him for 15 years.

``Much of what he does goes unnoticed outside of our school. While other coaches search for the limelight, Coach Lugo was always thinking of others,'' Olivas said. ``There were two former students who were tragically killed. Although they graduated some years prior to their death, Coach Lugo attended their funerals. ... Later, he created a perpetual trophy to honor the former players and at every banquet, their families come to present the award.''

-- Ramona Shelburne

The mother of the Valley

For more than a decade, Angelica Ponce has been one of the Valley's great sports moms.

Ponce, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Pacoima, is the mother of four Sylmar High alums who have graduated from or are currently enrolled at four-year colleges.

Since her son Samuel started playing Little League 15 years ago, she's touched the lives of countless others, bringing snacks and a message of hope and self-reliance to kids on sports teams her kids have played for -- and against.

``I can't live without helping kids,'' Ponce said. ``If I'm here for myself, then I haven't lived a life. If I share and give to other people, then I feel like I accomplished my mission.''

Ponce's youngest daughter, Angie, who helped lead the softball team to its third consecutive Valley Mission League title, is now at UC Riverside. Samuel graduated from UC Berkeley, and Ponce's oldest daughter Bettina graduated from San Diego State. They are both taking post-graduate classes. Her daughter Jessica is at UC Santa Barbara.

``I personally see her as a role model,'' said former Sylmar softball standout Adriana Lira, who plays for Colorado State. ``There aren't that many Mexican families that have every single one of their children going to college.''

-- Gideon Rubin


11 photos


(1 -- color) MAGGIE DIXON

Before her untimely death, North Hollywood's own lifted Army women's basketball team.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer

(2 -- color) SANDY HART

Her battle against cancer teaches Grant High's football team lessons in life.

Photo contributed

(3 -- color) ANGELICA PONCE

Mother of four is an inspiration to many Mexican-American families in the Valley.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer

(4 -- color) RUDY LUGO

Canoga Park coach's fight against lung cancer touches many of his former players.

Joel P. Lugavere/Special to the Daily News

(5 -- color) DAN NELSON -- His military background helped shape him into a leader on the UCLA football team, despite his limited playing time.

(6 -- color) UCLA's Dan Nelson plays mostly on special teams, but is one of the Bruins' most respected football players.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

(7 -- color) HART

(8 -- color) DIXON

(9 -- color) no caption (Dave Shelburne)

(10 -- color) LUGO

(11 -- color) PONCE
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 23, 2006
Previous Article:BRIEFLY.

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