ATLANTA — Alexander Nelson was crushed.
“I said to my mom, ‘Why are they doing this? They should at least let me go,’ ” he said with a coy, half-joking smile.
He might be able to laugh about it now, but the fact remains that when this young Georgia Tech football fan heard some of the saddest sports-related news he had ever received, the deflation was evident.
A little more than two weeks ago, when Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson decided to close preseason practices to fans, Nelson was ready to rain down a flood of tears. But that couldn’t happen, because at the time he heard the news, he was with a Georgia-cheering, red-and-black-flag-waving friend.
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“He’s a big Georgia fan, and he’s like 5-8, 5-9 or something like that,” the small-in-stature 12-year-old said. “And so when I heard, I was ready to be like, ‘Oh no’ and about to start to cry. But then, I knew I couldn’t do that.”
Even still, it was as if a large chunk of Nelson’s inner identity had been ripped away. For the pre-teen and his mother, a late-summer, pre-school year tradition had been abruptly ended.
He could no longer see his Yellow Jackets practice.
Falling in lockstep with a national trend, Johnson shut down most portions of his preseason workouts to the masses. Although the Yellow Jackets had kept virtually all of their previous August practices open during Johnson’s first two seasons at Georgia Tech, he felt compelled to finally shut them.
“The biggest thing about closing practice is eliminating the distractions and the people you don’t know and the tweeting and the pictures and the video from practice and all the stuff that you don’t want to get out,” Johnson said.
On Saturday, Johnson opened his lone workout of the preseason, when he gave fans and the players’ parents a chance to see the Yellow Jackets compete in their first live scrimmage at Bobby Dodd Stadium. They will hold another scrimmage this weekend, but it will be closed.
Like several fans who chimed in on message boards and blogs, the initial news of the closures was upsetting to Jean Nelson, Alexander’s mother and practice chauffeur. But Johnson’s reasons made perfect sense, she said.
“If they’re trying to keep the distractions down, or if agents are coming and messing with the players, I totally understand that,” Jean Nelson said. “It was actually, in my mind, it was amazing they had them open in the first place. It was kind of a perk they even had it open.”
Then, leaning over to her son, she added, “Remember I told you how lucky you were? You’d never be able to do this at other colleges.”
It all started for Alexander Nelson when he was 6 years old. That year, his uncle, Jimmy Anderson — a Georgia undergraduate who also finished a Georgia Tech graduate program — took his nephew to the annual rivalry game between his two alma maters. In Alexander Nelson’s first football experience, his uncle was curious to see which team his nephew would like more.
“You were confused because both teams had ‘Georgia’ in their names, so you ended up going with colors, right?” Jean Nelson said to her son, who responded with a grin. “So when Tech scored, they cheered, and that was his team from then on.”
Alexander Nelson became hooked. As far as he was concerned, life began to revolve around Georgia Tech.
The next year, during one of then-head coach Chan Gailey’s final seasons, Alexander Nelson began attending Georgia Tech’s open practices. It was at those practices when he first encountered Joshua Nesbitt.
A recruit at the time, Nesbitt was being wooed out of Greene County by the Yellow Jackets who saw him as a potential quarterback of the future. What they did not know at the time, however, was that he would lead the team under Johnson and his spread-option offense. Now a senior, Nesbitt has drawn the attention of several watch lists and is a darkhorse Heisman candidate for some.
But Alexander Nelson’s connection with Nesbitt and other players didn’t begin right away. A somewhat shy 8-year-old at the time Nesbitt arrived, Alexander Nelson had to build up the courage to talk to them. What was his icebreaker?
“I’ve got all the (NCAA football) video games, so I just played a lot,” Alexander Nelson said. “Like six hours straight.”
After that, he would approach players and rattle off their heights, weights and hometowns, proving he knew who they were and what they could do.
“I would say to Josh, ‘Hey, Josh, 6-1, 214 from Greensboro, Ga.,’ ” Alexander Nelson said.
Nesbitt was impressed.
“Oh yeah, that’s my little buddy,” Nesbitt said, smiling broadly.
Although it started with something as inconsequential as colors, Alexander Nelson’s fandom flourished. His family has been season ticket-holders, and the family goal has been to make at least one road trip per season. Last year, he and his uncle headed to Nashville, Tenn., for Georgia Tech’s game with Vanderbilt on Halloween.
As players walked into Vanderbilt Stadium from their hotel across the street, Alexander Nelson was there hours before kickoff, greeting them dressed as Michael Jackson, donning a sequined glove, white socks and dress shoes.
This season, he hopes to make the Oct. 23 trip to Clemson.
While one of Georgia Tech’s most knowledgeable fans may not be able to see his team up close and personal each day this preseason, the players and coaches wanted to make sure he knew how much his presence meant.
“Oh yeah, I remember him; he’s out there all the time,” Johnson said. “I’m sure we’ll see him at the games.”
Perhaps his hero summed up that sentiment best.
“Just don’t worry about (the closures), we know he’s supporting us,” Nesbitt said. “We’ll see him on gameday.”