Tessa Nelson: The Giving Heart of a Fierce Competitor

By Rich Cook

This profile was written in 2007.

Football is a complex dichotomy – a living, breathing contradiction in terms. It is cerebral and physical, complex but simple, brutal yet elegant. The sport is defined by dissimilarities: polar oppositions are not just a part of the game, they are the game.

Tessa Nelson perfectly embodies this study in stark contrasts. On the field, the Divas’ veteran defensive lineman has all the gentility of a punch in the mouth. She is the fiercest of competitors, who plays the game with a passion bordering on reckless abandon.

“When I’m on the field, I let everyone know how it’s going to be,” Nelson matter-of-factly explained. “I tell people all the time, ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re about to get stuck.’ I’m a hunter searching for prey. When I find it, I put it down. Period.”

Those words take on an even greater significance when one considers her life outside of shoulder pads and cleats. Away from the game, she is defined by empathy, compassion, and generosity. In her private life, this sweet-natured, self-effacing mother of two and grandmother of four is the antithesis of her rugged gridiron persona.

“My family means everything to me,” Nelson admitted with purposeful emphasis.

Talk of her children and grandchildren quickly reveals a sensitive soft spot that belies her hard-as-nails football demeanor. “Wherever I go, I’m surrounded by kids, but that’s just fine. They’re our future. Besides, good people, positive people, they help keep you going. If you’re positive and encouraging [with them], you really can make a difference.”

That’s the goal of the Caithness Shelter, a multi-bed facility for abused and neglected children in Montgomery County. The residents there comprise Tessa’s second family and help to fulfill her lifelong goal of public service. “A lot of people have helped me along the way, so I just wanted to give something back.”

For nearly a decade, Nelson has been trying to affect positive change in the lives of Maryland’s underprivileged youth. Her work as a program coordinator is often difficult, yet the myriad of challenges can sometimes be quite rewarding. “You don’t see it every day, but every once and again, there are one or two [children] that you get through to, where you feel you’ve actually made a difference. That’s really what it’s all about.”

That undercurrent of heart, effort, and selflessness are the essence of a woman hell-bent on achievement and success. “I’ve always been determined to be the best. Whatever I do, I’m going to give it all I have.”

Growing up on the hard-scrambled streets of inner-city Baltimore helped forge Nelson’s tenacious resolve. She found an outlet in athletics, an escape from the dangers and temptations of her gritty urban environment. Although she was a star basketball player at Walbrook High School, her real love was playing co-ed pick-up football. “As a kid, I just loved [Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback] Terry Bradshaw. If I couldn’t be the quarterback, I didn’t even want to play.”

Like most women, Nelson thought her playing days would always be confined to the sandlot. As she settled into her adult life, football soon became a distant childhood memory, like freeze-tag or hopscotch. Fifteen years came and went; the game she once loved dearly faded further and further from view.

Until one day, almost on a lark, a friend convinced her to stop by a D.C. Divas tryout. “I couldn’t believe they even had women’s tackle football,” Nelson recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t know how I was going to fit in, but I just loved it. I mean, I really loved it…When I first got my pads and suited up, I knew this game was for me.”

Much to her own surprise, Nelson survived the three-day player selection process and made the team. But learning how to play the game correctly was a lesson in patience, humility, and self-control. “I broke someone’s ankle in practice once. I didn’t mean it and I really just felt awful. I was just wild. I had to learn to rein it in a bit and learn proper technique, how to tackle properly, how to play the game right.”

Through the years, Tessa Nelson and the rest of the Divas grew together, as people and as players. “This is a team. We trust each other. I know, we all know, that everybody will do their job. Nobody can stop us…we haven’t come across a challenge yet that we can’t handle.”

Slowly that unity transformed an average group into winners and eventual champions. While the accolades and prosperity of success are rewarding, the deep bond that has formed between teammates is the real triumph. “We’re a family,” said Nelson with believable conviction. “We baby-sit for one another, house-sit for each other. We help each other out. You need a place to stay? You need a ride home? Whatever, you got it. The coaches foster that environment. We really care for one another.”

Unfortunately, Nelson found her third family late in her sports career. On the down-slope to forty years of age, she knows that her playing days are numbered and won’t last forever. “I’ve retired the last two years in a row, but I still came back.”

While the reality of her own athletic mortality is difficult to face, Nelson still has a lot left to give. The prospect of defending a title and jumping to a new league are just too tantalizing to ignore. “I hurt my ankle in the national championship game, so it has taken some time to heal. It has really slowed down my off-season program. But don’t worry about me. When it’s time, I’ll be ready.”

There’s a slight pause, as if she’s momentarily reconsidering her decision. For a person so steeped in duality, hard-nosed competitor versus compassionate matriarch, it’s difficult to contemplate life without both. The need for balance may be necessary, but ultimately personal harmony is superseded by her most defining characteristic: unselfishness. Giving, and then giving some more, is really what Tessa Nelson’s life is all about.

“If they need me, I’ll be there.”