Mitchell High School senior Kiel Nelson strode out to midfield of Lyle Hare Stadium on Thursday for the coin toss with the rest of football team's co-captains just like he had for the previous eight games.
This time, however, Nelson was not wearing a uniform with the No. 3 emblazoned on his chest. This time he was wearing a black baseball cap and a sweatshirt. Nelson had started the 30 previous games at quarterback for the Kernels, but he learned just the day prior that his high school football career was over.
During the third quarter of Mitchell's Oct. 12 game against Harrisburg at Joe Quintal Field, Nelson carried the ball on a quarterback sweep, and as the cornerback closed in for the tackle, he turned his left shoulder a bit too far. The blow stretched ligaments and tore off a piece of the bone, ending his season and high school football career in one play.
"It stung pretty good. It put a damper on the rest of my week," Nelson said. "To put in all the work that we put in to get back on track and to get short because of something like this really hurts, but there's positives within it."
His varsity career began after being inserted into the starting lineup for the second game of the 2016 season and Mitchell did not lose another game, ending with the South Dakota Class 11AA state championship. The Kernels compiled a 22-9 record with Nelson at the helm, the best three-year stretch for the program dating back to 1981.
Nelson ends his career tied for fifth in school annals with 17 touchdown passes, while also ranking in the top 15 in rushing yards (1,554) and rushing touchdowns (17).
While Nelson hopes to return in time for basketball season and has already made a commitment to continue his football career at Dakota Wesleyan University next fall, he won't suit up in another game for Mitchell.
"It hurts, honestly," Nelson said. "At least it's not something where I can't still be here everyday."
Despite receiving the season-ending diagnosis, Nelson still plans to attend practice for the duration of the year.
Instead of running through plays with the first team, though, he is watching intently, hoping to help in any way he can.
"If he's going to leave a legacy, it's that he's a good teammate," MHS head coach Kent VanOverschelde said. "He's had time and consideration for everybody that's been part of our program, from the young players to his classmates."
Nelson also returns each day because Kernel football has been sewn into his fabric since he was a child.
Nelson's father, Paul, is an assistant for Mitchell, his older brother Kanin was a record-setting quarterback for the Kernels and now Kiel has created a bond with his own teammates through football.
"This is like your family," Nelson said. "It would be like not showing up for Thanksgiving dinner. You put so much work in with these guys, you want to be there for them no matter what's going on."