EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Stanford Nelson viewed it as his duty, now people across the state, country and world see him and other veterans as heroes.
Years before he positively affected thousands of young men through an accomplished high school coaching and teaching career, Nelson helped eliminate an opponent who threatened millions.
Nelson was a senior at Augsburg College when he decided he would enlist to help the Allies win World War II. He enrolled in the V-7 Naval Reserve Midshipman's School at Northwestern University in Chicago and was commissioned within 90 days.
"I knew our country was at war, and I knew that being a citizen, it was my obligation to do whatever I could to help the country," Nelson said. "I didn't take it as an honorary thing. I just felt it was a duty of ours."
Neslon was assigned to be a communications officer on the LCI 492, a craft that could help more than 200 troops make landfall. He trained on the East Coast and departed for England in late December 1943, two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into the war.
Six months after leaving New York Harbor, Nelson was part of "D-Day" on June 6, 1944, when the LCI 492 landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France as part of the largest amphibious attack in history and the catalyst for the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control.
Nelson returned to his home state and launched a coaching career that garnered his selection to the Minnesota Football Coaches Hall of Fame. He started in Zumbrota, where he coached two years, then shifted to Farmington for five before his first day at Anoka, where 26 seasons followed.
The leadership Nelson, 94, learned from his service was something he wanted to pass along to the young men he coached.
"I think the biggest thing I learned was that if you were given a responsibility, that you better carry it through because your life and the lives of many others was connected to carrying out that mission," Nelson said. "Then as a teacher and coach I tried to impress on the people that if you're given a job, an opportunity, that it was something you had to carry through."
Nelson was able to coach sons Steve, who was a Little All-American at North Dakota State before 14 seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots, and Dave, who played at University of Minnesota-Duluth and has coached high school football for 37 years, winning state titles at Blaine and Minnetonka, where he still coaches.
"That was a tremendous experience to see them grow up and become young men," Nelson said. "Coaching them wasn't tough because they were both outstanding players, and I think they knew what it was to have a relationship between father-coach."
Nelson said the best athlete in the family, however, may have been his daughter Cheryl, an accomplished tennis player and golfer.
Dave Nelson said he and his siblings appreciated the opportunity to grow up in a football family and learn lessons from their father in the way he parented them and cared for others.
"We were part of practices as his young kids, helping out," Dave Nelson recalled. "I always knew I wanted to be a coach. I guess I saw the impact he had on his players and our community and I wanted to try to do something like that, so I just learned his passion for the game and his love for his players, and I think it is really cool to be part of a coach's house when you see all sides of it and the things that go into coaching. I knew that's what I wanted to try to do early on. In high school I wanted to become a coach."
Dave Nelson said his father's two brothers, Edor and Norman, also served in the military during World War II. The younger Nelson said his father still rakes his yard, mows his grass and shovels the snow.
"He's the most unbelievable man I've ever met and the greatest man to me in the world," Dave Nelson said. "He was part of that Greatest Generation that grew up with nothing, survived the Great Depression. All the stories about how they grew up, it's unbelievable what they went through. He never had a father. His dad died when he was real young, was a farmer and both parents immigrated from Norway, so it's just amazing the life he's led, so I think work ethic, being good people, being grateful for what you have, those are all lessons we learned and that he still models in his life."
The Vikings recently hosted the Nelson family at Winter Park, where the family met Hall of Famer Bud Grant, and the organization is proud to honor him and other veterans today as Minnesota hosts Green Bay during an annual Salute to Service game.
"It's a great honor. I'm excited for him and all the veterans being honored so we have a chance to show our gratitude for what they've done," Dave Nelson said. "He's like all the others, he doesn't see himself as a hero. We certainly do for what they went through and what they did for our country.
"I'm sure it will be an emotional day and an exciting day, a really cool tribute to him and all those who served," he added. "It's really important that we don't forget what they've done for us."