FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Minicamp practice had just ended, and Jets wide receiver David Nelson stood at his locker in the Jets training facility, sweat pouring off his face as he unlaced the black tape from his cleats. Nelson spoke optimistically about what's ahead for the Jets, who are coming off an 8-8 season and have made a series of roster enhancements aimed at making a playoff run in 2014.
But as much as Nelson has immersed himself in getting ready for another NFL season, which he hopes will end with a Super Bowl run, there was much work to be done outside the game; phone calls and emails, all in preparation for a trip Monday to Haiti, a place he also calls home and a place his life's work has brought him after an unlikely and unexpected transformation.
"When I leave the locker room, I go into that business mode," Nelson said. "This is the last chance I get to go before the season starts. I can't wait to see all the kids."
The kids. It is all about the kids, the ones who suddenly changed Nelson's life forever when he first met them along with his younger brother, Pat- rick, and other family members on a trip to the earthquake-ravaged country two years ago.
"I had the weekend off, so I figured it would be a quick trip, and I said, 'Absolutely, I'd love to go,' " said Nelson, who was asked by some people at a local church in Houston who were making the trip to Port au Prince after the earthquake in 2010. "I was just expecting to go and experience it and say that was a cool experience and I'd just kind of check it off my list of things I've done in my life."
It did not take long for the children, many of them orphaned by the earthquake, to make a profound impact.
"When I met those kids, and met little children who don't have a mother and father, yet who have more hope in their pinkie than I have in my entire body, it just changed and humbled me," Nelson, 27, said. "I came back, my brothers and I reflected on it, and said, 'We just can't come back [home] and act like we hadn't experienced what we just experienced and do nothing about it.' We had to do something. I wanted to be able to use being an NFL athlete and speak on behalf of the kids."
Nelson went back. Again and again and again, always trying to do whatever he could to help the people in and around Port au Prince, where he now rents a home with Patrick, who lives there full time and takes care of five children. The two are helping to build a school for 250 children, and they are also partnering with former Jets kicker Jay Feely, who now plays for the Cardinals, in constructing a $2.1-million sports complex.
Everything Nelson does on his own time away from football is dedicated toward helping the Haitian people he has grown to love.
"If I wasn't playing ball, I'd be living there. It's in my heart," said Nelson, who plans to spend several months a year in Haiti when his NFL career is over.
For now, his life away from football is spent raising money through his faith-based charitable foundation, I'mme (imme.org).
"There are a lot of kids who live on the street around where our house is," he said. "They come over every single day, we give them a job, give them a little bit of school and just love on them to let them know they are valuable and that they're going to have somebody there that's going to support and encourage them. Even though we can't give them a house right now, hopefully, we can soon. But we can still give them as much love as we can."
Patrick Nelson, who moved to Haiti in April to oversee their ambitious operations, became immediately aware of the abject poverty. But there was something else, too.
"Lots of people come to Haiti and get overwhelmed by the immense poverty and kids on the street,'' he said via email from his home near Port au Prince. (There isn't adequate cell phone service where he lives.) "That wasn't the case for us. We were overwhelmed with the beauty and potential that seemed to be waiting for us to unlock and reveal. There was something great about this people and this nation we discovered that no one, especially themselves, has seen."
He believes helping the Haitians help themselves will allow them to "rise up and change their current situation. All we are doing is giving them a platform to dream, and to provide them with an atmosphere that is conducive to activating their true identities . . . The crisis of the orphan cycle, poverty, corruption, injustice, and violence now has a remedy. Nations, families, individuals must come together as a unified body believing that we will see Haiti restored."
Feely had a similar experience when he visited Haiti after the earthquake, and has since devoted time, energy and money through his Feely Family Foundation, which has partnered with I'mme and Mission of Hope to build the sports complex, as well as a technical school outside Port au Prince.
"David and I independently fell in love with the people of Haiti," said Feely, who has visited several times in recent years. "The goal of the sports complex and the technical school is to create an avenue for future success. Using sports to develop leadership, character and skills that will provide the foundations of success. We're proud to partner with David and Mission of Hope to build this life-changing complex."
Nelson hopes to attract NFL players, Major League Baseball players and other professional athletes to help his efforts. Sports can be such a unifying experience.
"Any time you drive through Haiti -- I don't care where you are -- every five minutes, you'll see 10 or 15 kids playing soccer with a deflated soccer ball, no shoes on a gravel road, with makeshift goals, because they want to play," David Nelson said. "They just want to be kids. So Jay and I were just talking about it. First, it started with creating a sports league, giving them uniforms, and then it developed into, well, what if we got some land and could build a soccer field? Then it went to, why are we limiting ourselves to just that? Why don't we build an entire sports complex, and not only put kids in a soccer program, but bring NFL players to do camps and Major League Baseball players to do camps and put on programs where you're teaching them values and ethics and sports and putting them in that environment? We just said, 'Let's do it.' "
An ambitious plan, to be sure. But it is a worthwhile mission for Nelson, who understands his life is about much, much more than just playing football. It is about giving back to people who lost so much after a natural disaster, but never lost hope.