Kanin Nelson is most thankful for the lessons he's learned playing football for the yellow and black.
For the former Mitchell High School football team quarterback, football is life.
"It's like a life lesson playing football. Everything life carries, football carries," Nelson said. "It prepares you and it's a special sport to play."
The Division I-bound Nelson has made a significant mark on the MHS football program. Nelson will graduate high school early to be a part of spring football with South Dakota State University in Brookings, where he has verbally committed to play next season. He can't officially sign his letter of intent and join the team until Feb. 4.
The three-year starting quarterback led Mitchell to its first semifinal playoff appearance since 1993 this year. Since 1981, the playoff-era, Nelson is the program's all-time leader in points scored (252), single-season scoring (20 touchdowns), second in all-time passing (202 completions and 2,578 yards) and sixth in all-time rushing (1,862).
"He left a substantial mark on our program," Mitchell head coach Kent VanOverschelde said. "He was going to compete, and he was going to compete at the highest level. When it's all said and done, he had to believe he left everything he had on the field, and that's a mark of a good football player."
This year, Nelson was the catalyst for an offense that averaged 31.4 points per game. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound team captain completed 53 of 122 passes for 734 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for 1,189 yards on 174 carries with a team-high 20 touchdowns.
Mitchell finished the season 7-4-the school's first winning season since 2011. While Mitchell didn't have many winning seasons throughout his career, Nelson said he's leaving the program in better shape than we he first started playing.
"This year, changing it around was really cool," Nelson said. "We didn't go as far we wanted, but I know in the upcoming years there will be some special teams here."
Nelson's stats and leadership stood out for Mitchell all season, but the intangibles impact he had on the team and program is the most important for VanOverschelde.
"He wanted to develop a culture in our program," said VanOverschelde, who added Nelson was tougher, worked harder or had more dedication than any player he's coached. "He wanted to develop a winning tradition and a winning attitude. This year was a good example of his work ethic and his leadership."
Early experiences pay off
Nelson entered the MHS football program as a freshman in 2012. The Kernels were fresh off one of the program's most successful seasons in 2011 after a playoff win and Mitchell finished with an 8-3 record.
The next season, however, was a different story. Mitchell finished with a record of 1-8, but Nelson picked up varsity experience throughout the season.
"Right away, we understood that physically, he was going to contribute at the varsity level," VanOverschelde recalled. "What's always impressive with Kanin is his willingness to work and to learn. He took his knocks without complaint."
Nelson said older players helped him develop throughout his first two seasons.
"My first year I played a little bit and got some experience," Nelson said. "Matt Larson was the starting quarterback then and it was a build up year for me. I had great support from the guys when I was young, and it was fun to do the kicking duties for the varsity."
Nelson played in all nine games and saw some action as a backup quarterback. He was 11-of-32 passing for 83 yards and recorded two tackles as a freshman.
The future Jackrabbit came onto the scene as quarterback in his sophomore season. After winning the starting quarterback job before the season, Nelson had 110 passing yards and 65 rushing yards in Mitchell's opening 27-21 upset win over Yankton on the road. The 2013 win over Yankton-which was the first win over the Bucks since 1987-still resonates deeply with Nelson.
"That was my probably one of my most memorable moments playing football," said Nelson, who had two touchdowns in the win. "It was my first game and I had some nerves. I had good skill players around me and I just remember throwing the ball up for them.
"Having that as my first game as a starter is a pretty special moment. It was something I'll always remember."
VanOverschelde specifically mentioned Nelson's game-winning 22-yard touchdown pass to former Kernel Beau Brown in the final moments that gave Mitchell the win.
Statistically, Nelson had his best season passing the ball during his sophomore season. He completed 84 of 179 passes for 1,009 yards for six touchdowns and rushed for 267 yards and six touchdowns as Mitchell went on to finish the season 3-6.
Becoming a leader
Despite only experiencing four wins in his first two seasons of playing high school football, Nelson was working hard in the offseason. The multi-sport athlete was also a standout and two-year starter for the Kernel basketball team, a member of the Post 18 baseball team and a varsity tennis player.
Whenever he wasn't competing in a different sport, Nelson was active in the weight room as well as attending various football camps across the region.
"I can't thank my parents enough for what they've done. They've provided me with some great opportunities to go to places a long ways away from here," Nelson said. "Being from Mitchell, to get seen by some special places is hard to get done here."
As Nelson entered his junior year and second season as the Kernels' starting quarterback, VanOverschelde saw the physical abilities continue to improve but mentioned Nelson's leadership took over halfway through the 2014 season.
"When he was able to do that, it made a big difference in his performance," VanOverschelde said. "That's when he developed the ability to really take over games."
In 2014, the Kernels started the season 1-5, but won two of their final three games, setting up for a strong 2015 campaign. Nelson was 54-of-129 passing for 752 yards and four touchdowns and added 427 rushing yards and seven touchdowns during his junior season. The lengthy quarterback had all the attributes to be the leader of successful team, but admitted he worked to become a stronger leader before his senior season.
"I worked a lot on my leadership skills and tried to become more vocal. Leading by example is something I've always tried to do," Nelson said. "It'll help me in upcoming years."
Entering his senior season, Nelson started to work with former Dakota Wesleyan University head coach Joe Kramer, who joined the MHS football staff in May.
Kramer defined Nelson as "unflappable," pointing to Nelson's demeanor on and off the field.
"Kanin is a great player. He has a lot skills and he's a tough kid," Kramer said.
Nelson credited the success of this season to the coaching of VanOverschelde and Kramer, who helped Nelson finish his high school career on a winning season.
" 'Coach V' has been a great mentor and he's helped me throughout my four years here," Nelson said. "He has been almost like a second dad. He's helped me gain what I've wanted out of my career in Mitchell. Coach Kramer has been on me this year and helped me develop my skills as a player. It's definitely shown."
Fulfilling his a dream as a Jackrabbit
From the first moment he stepped onto the football field, Nelson knew he wanted to take his talents to another level. This summer, Nelson completed that dream as he verbally committed to play football for SDSU.
"I can't wait to go up there," he said.
While his role on the Jackrabbits is yet to be determined, the former Kernel quarterback, punter and kicker said he has enjoyed playing multiple roles with Mitchell. VanOverschelde said Nelson's work ethic and willingness to learn could translate to him becoming a Division I level quarterback.
"College coaches know what they're looking for in athletes and I know Kanin is willing to work hard and he has a learning curve ahead of him that I think he's ready for," VanOverschelde said. "Whatever challenge is put in front of him, I know he has the toughness to overcome it and achieve great things."
In preparation for his future football career with SDSU, Nelson, an academic all-state selection, plans to graduate high school early and start his freshman year in Brookings early.
"I have everything set up right now, I'm just waiting for my high school and college classes to finish," said Nelson, who added he'd like to become a seed salesman and plans to major in Agriculture Business or Entrepreneurial Studies at SDSU. "I send them my final transcript and I'll register for classes (at SDSU) on December 7. It's something special."
While finishing high school early and attending SDSU this winter gives Nelson a head start on adjusting to college life, it also means the senior will miss out on a Kernel basketball season and tennis season.
"I'll definitely miss basketball, it's been fun and I've had a lot of great teammates," Nelson said. "I've played tennis since my sixth-grade year and we've put ourselves on the map as a tennis team, that's for sure."
Nelson said he consulted with his parents, coaches and teachers about making the jump to college early. VanOverschelde said he supported any decision Nelson made in chasing his dream of becoming a Division I football player.
"He had my support 100 percent," VanOverschelde said. "He's worked hard and deserves the opportunity to continue his football career."
When he walked off the field for the last time after Mitchell's 41-26 loss to Pierre on Nov. 6, Nelson understood the moment. He knew he'd never get the chance to put the pads on for Mitchell again, but that didn't stop him from being proud of the accomplishments he had during his four years as a Kernel.
"We've developed as a team and it's not necessarily about me because you can have a good player but if you don't have 11 players that are doing their job it's hard to win games," he said. "It's been a total team effort."
Nelson's career as Mitchell's quarterback is finished, but he won't be the last Nelson to have an impact on the Kernel football team. Nelson's little brother, Kiel Nelson, is a freshman at MHS and like his older brother saw some varsity experience as the team's holder against Pierre.
"I have a younger brother and he has a good opportunity to follow in my footsteps and maybe be the quarterback," Nelson said. "I wish these players the best and if they keep working hard during the offseason, it could be three or four years of special football."
By the numbers
Freshmen year: PASSING: 11-32 for 83 yards; Two tackles.
Sophomore year: PASSING: 84-179 for 1,009 for 6 touchdowns; RUSHING: 114 carries for 267 and 6 touchdowns; PUNTING: 1 punt, 1 inside the 20 and long of 63;
Junior year: PASSING: 54-129 for 752 yards and 4 touchdowns; RUSHING: 127 carries for 427 yards and 7 touchdowns. KICKING: 5 touchbacks, 6-8 PATs; PUNTING: 39 punts, 2 inside the 20.
Senior year: PASSING: 53-122 for 734 yards and five touchdowns; RUSHING: 174 carries for 1,189 yards and 20 touchdowns. KICKING: 8 touchbacks, 32 of 35 PAT; PUNTING: 32 punts, 9 inside the 20 and long of 54 yards.