Dr. Robert P. “Bobby” Nelson Jr.’s accomplishments on the football field and basketball court were the stuff of legend on the West Side and beyond. What he did as a doctor in Indianapolis left an even greater legacy.
Nelson was so devoted to fighting AIDs, COVID-19 and other diseases, and so selfless he did not marry, did not have children. He didn’t have time.
“One day he was visiting and I asked him how many more hours do you have to work, and how much longer are you going to keep doing this? ... And he said, ‘Karen, I have to answer the call,’” said Karen Nelson-Moser, Bobby’s sister, on the subject of his working as many as 100 hours per week, devoting time to COVID patients.
Nelson, an all-state quarterback and captain who lifted Reitz’s football team to the 1971 mythical state championship and the Panthers’ basketball team to back-to-back sectional titles in ’71 and ‘72, died on Dec. 9 at Franciscan Health in Indianapolis from complications from viral pneumonia at age 67.
A Celebration of Life will be held in his honor at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Lucas UCC, 33 W. Virginia St. in Evansville. After the service, the celebration will shift to The Sandbox Bar & Grill at Helfrich Golf Course at approximately 3:30 p.m.
“He was such a humble leader,” said Doug Claybourn, Nelson’s teammate through his junior year and sports editor of the Reitz Mirror student newspaper. “A lot of athletes point fingers at themselves. He was quick to credit others.”
Stephen Bennett, an all-state offensive tackle on the ’71 football team, said Nelson was the perfect quarterback and leader for the Panthers.
“He was humorous and at times almost irreverent; however, he was equally focused and intellectual (enough to run both the single wing and traditional ‘T’ formation),” said Bennett, who earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt. “This mix of traits allowed Bob to keep us loose and relaxed (specifically on a bus trip to Indianapolis) but targeted on a goal of an undefeated season. Bob embodied what a quarterback should be.”
Nelson earned a football scholarship to Indiana University, but concentrated on his upcoming medical career after suffering a shoulder injury.
Randy Cain, an all-state wide receiver/wingback at Reitz who later went into the Air Force, said you don’t realize what a special time it was, winning the mythical state title, until you get older and have time to pause and reflect.
“On the first day of practice, coach Bob Padgett would have us run a mile,” Cain said. “The winner would get a steak dinner. I practiced all summer to get into shape to win that mile.”
Cain led the entire race until Nelson passed him on the last lap.
"His leadership skills were present on and off the field," Cain said. "He gave every team member encouragement -- and a few choice words if you were not giving 100%. I was blessed in 1971 to be a member of this talented team and especially being able to say that Bob Nelson was my teammate. God speed, Bob.”
Tom Buck, an all-state end/linebacker, earned a scholarship to IU. He was also Nelson's teammate and center on Reitz's basketball team. He was in awe as Nelson scored 39 points in the Panthers' 100-95 victory over Central in the sectional title game.
"I was so much better because of Bob," Buck said. "He had a unique and wonderful capacity for living to the maximum each moment of each day. It was one-of-a-kind energy. I sometimes think that he was like a comet, this bright, wonderful enigma that would swoop in and fill you with this great energy, and then be gone until the next time this comet returned.”
Gary Barnett, who graduated from Reitz in 1969, was the son of Panther basketball coach Jim Barnett. He was a senior guard when Nelson was a freshman.
“Bobby went on the IU of a football scholarship but I remember vividly my father felt Bobby was Ivy League material both in academics and athletics and he was actually recruited by Yale in both football and basketball and really wanted him to go there," Gary Barnett said.
When Nelson decided not to remain in football at IU, Reitz coach Jim Barnett contacted a number of schools for him (at the request of the Nelsons).
"He also spoke with Bob Knight, new to IU, but dad had met him at a clinic at West Point," Gary Barnett said. "Knight had no (basketball) scholarships to offer but agreed to have Bobby walk-on, if interested, and see what would develop. Bob decided to forego athletics, which dad thought was a wise decision, and focus on the goal of being a doctor."
Nelson often told Barnett he decided to specialize in cancer treatment because his father and Barnett's father both died of cancer -- "the two men he admired the most in his life.”
In basketball, Nelson was Mr. Inside while Carey Nall was Mr. Outside
"If teams locked him down inside, he’d kick it out to me for an open shot," Nall said. "Likewise, if they came out to guard me, I’d pass it inside and he’d just about always find a way to get it in the basket or get fouled. It was ironic that my career high was 39 points and Bobby’s career-high (which came in the sectional championship game vs. Central) was also 39 points. He was so competitive, I loved playing with him.”
On the lighter side, Nall pointed out that, for some reason, Nelson was a poor driver.
“When it came time to go somewhere, Bobby would drive to somebody’s house and we’d make him give us the keys," Nall said. "He was the smartest guy I knew, but he couldn’t drive. We wouldn’t get in the car if he was driving.”
Nelson was a medical pioneer
As talented as Nelson was in athletics, Claybourn said it would be a disservice to his life and legacy if the complete array of his accomplishments were not recognized and acknowledged. He was near the top of his graduating class academically "and was a friend to just about everyone."
After injuring his shoulder, Nelson had the wisdom to look forward, rather than lament his misfortune and set about pursuing a career in medicine.
"He wrote and contributed to countless research papers on subjects like HIV affecting adults, but especially infants, cancer, allergy and immunology and many others too difficult to spell or pronounce," Claybourn said.
"He spent the last months of his life treating COVID patients, many of them on ventilators," Claybourn said. "When a memorial service was held in Indianapolis after his death, Bob’s sister Karen was approached by many of his colleagues who shared stories of his compassion for patients."
One story was of Dr. Nelson making rounds with a nurse. They came upon a female patient who was near death with no family nearby.
"Rather than making notes and moving on to the next patient, he paused and went in, sat on her bed, cradled her in his arms and rubbed her forehead for several minutes until she passed away," Claybourn said. "The nurse said it was the most compassionate gesture she ever witnessed from a doctor."
In another instance, a patient wanted to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
"So the good doctor took him in his wheelchair to the roof of the hospital so he could do just that," Claybourn said. "Fittingly, an award for compassion has been created at the hospital in the name of Dr. Robert Nelson, that will be awarded annually.”
Dr. Kirby Gross, a 1971 Reitz teammate, attended IU Medical school with Nelson, both graduated in '80.
“As a third-year medical student, Bob had an insight into issues well beyond what one would expect for an individual so early in their medical training," Gross said. "While the medical school class was focused on learning of illness and remedies, Bob was thinking of the bigger picture; how did the diseases and cures affect the patient. Just as in high school, Bob was a prodigy. He was also showing early in his career the quality of being a relentless patient advocate."
After completing medical school in Indianapolis in 1980, Nelson continued his medical training in internal medicine at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"In the early '80s, the AIDs epidemic was just starting," Gross said. "The cause of the disease was unknown and it was highly lethal. The first patients identified with the illness were often marginalized. Much fear existed around AIDs, but now much has been learned about HIV in the last 40 years because Bob was one of those doing research. Once again, a prodigy, once again a patient advocate."
Nelson returned to Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis in 1988 and continued providing clinical care and continued research on a multitude of areas, including allergy and immunology.
"Due to his clinical skill, research and teaching, he rose to become a Professor of Medicine as IU," Gross said. "Bob’s influence will continue. His research will influence clinical care for years. No doubt his students benefitted from the intelligence, leadership, drive and team-first approach Bob demonstrated at Reitz High School."
Bruce Gordon, Nelson's Reitz's 1972 basketball teammate, was a long-time friend. He noted that Nelson was part of a team of physicians who started the country’s first clinic dedicated to caring for individuals and families battling AIDs, at the University of South Florida All Children's Hospital.
"If you recall, because of an absence of understanding, the stigma surrounding the AIDs epidemic created a division among many Americans," Gordon said.
His final act began in March of 2020 when he would step forward to lead teams of physicians, nurses and caregivers in one of IU Health’s Intensive Care Units as they battled the flood of coronavirus patients arriving daily.
"Bob found himself in the terribly stressed-filled role of deciding who would be provided ventilator support and who would not," Nelson said. "Again, just as his work with AIDs patients in Florida, he would not shy away from the frontline."
Mark Coomer, a senior Reitz football teammate in 1971 and a U.S. Army retiree, said when he's on his deathbed and his life flashes before my eyes, those football games are the most vivid memories that will lead the panorama.
"Before the beginning of our senior season, in the Reitz fieldhouse, coach Bob Padgett told us it would be so. ‘Your big plays’ he would say, ‘are the memories that will last a lifetime,'" Coomer said. "Over time, your runs will grow longer, your tackles will be more crisp, each act magnified in memory’s eye. These memories will shape your life. Coach Padgett would know. He scored Bosse High School’s winning touchdown over Reitz during his senior year."
Coomer said the memory of catching a 45-yard touchdown pass from Nelson against North near the end of the final game of the '71 season will last forever.
"North scored first. With time running out in the first half, we had not scored," Coomer said. "In the huddle, Bobby called ‘Pass 35. Everybody do your job. This is for a touchdown!’"
Nelson's play-action fake to Larry Johnson froze the cornerbacks and his pass was right on target.
"I easily caught the ball and crossed the goal line," Coomer said. "I don’t know what my life would be like if we had not scored that touchdown – when headed north into Iraq, at the head of Task Force Strike Force; when serving in some God-forsaken desert in the Sinai or Saudi Arabia; when facing misery or hunger or fear. It gives the clear message – do your job, together we win."
Nelson brought the Panthers together.
"He was the leader in the locker room and on the field," Coomer said. "It is MY memory, but HIS touchdown. Anybody can catch a ball."
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Reitz grad Nelson led Panthers to state title, was a medical pioneer