A report from the Daily Tribune.
St. Lucia, a small Caribbean island north of Venezuela, is the only country in the world named after a woman.
In history, it was passed back and forth between the British and the French. At 238 square miles, it’s only half the size of Bartow County.
Mervin Nelson was a banana farmer — 22 percent of St. Lucia’s exports are bananas — worked for the power company and opened his own bakery in Dennery, on the east side of the island.
But almost 20 years ago, he moved to Cartersville, 2,047 miles away, to join his brother.
“Life was good,” Mervin said. “I mean, I liked the beach, every weekend I’d go to the beach and cook out and stuff like that. But life was great down there until I just took a vacation and come up here. My brother used to live up here and he didn’t want me to go back, so I just stayed. But my whole family was down there.”
That included his unborn son, Nyvin, who moved to New York with his mother soon after.
When he was 4, Nyvin moved down to Cartersville to live with his dad.
As he grew up, he would spend summers on St. Lucia, where he discovered his roots.
“It’s peaceful. It’s real peaceful,” Nyvin said. “The people are friendly, I feel like it’s like being back at home, kind of. Really, that’s what it is, being back at home. … I just feel like it’s a connection. It’s really a small island, so you feel like you know everybody down there. My dad knows people from all over the place down there, from Castries to Dennery to Mount Bay. Everything just seems so connected and so entwined.”
A Running Back’s Worst Nightmare
Nyvin Nelson isn’t the most recognizable player on a stacked Cartersville roster.
But he is, indisputably, the scariest.
The senior middle linebacker is what lurks in a running back’s worst dreams, 6-feet and 215 pounds of mean muscle waiting just behind the defensive line with one thing on his mind.
He’s not just a hard hitter, he’s a guided missile who lives for highlight-reel hits.
“I love coming downhill and hitting the running back right in the mouth,” Nelson said. “You never get anything more exciting, from my standpoint as a linebacker, than that, hitting a running back right in his mouth. It feels like you’re just taking over, like you just impose your will onto him.”
Nelson has been a constant fixture of Cartersville’s nearly three-year unbeaten run and two-straight state championships.
He was actually one of only a few sophomores to see playing time in the first of those state championships, a hard-fought 10-0 win over Buford, as he split time with then-senior Tiamon Pennymon at linebacker.
The next year, he was one of the unquestioned stars of the defense, racking up 95 tackles.
This year, he’s been just as good, and will be going to a Division-I school, with Kennesaw State and Tennessee-Chattanooga the current frontrunners.
He’s a classic Cartersville success story, part of a huge senior class of Canes that seem to have been born and bred to play football.
Nelson, though, is a little different.
He’s the product of a lineage where football barely seemed like an option, and a hometown where it was inevitable.
Chicken and Dumplings
Nelson’s favorite foods — chicken and dumplings, johnny-cake, saltfish — are a callback to his Caribbean roots.
“When he goes back to the island, when we go back to St. Lucia, he will eat a lot,” Mervin Nelson said. “He will eat a lot of local food, a lot of local fruits. He will just eat, eat, eat and be in the water.”
Mervin Nelson still speaks in the island accent of St. Lucia, his home. He works long, 12-hour shifts at Gerdau Ameristeel.
Ask him about his son, and he will talk for days, bringing up story after story.
“[My dad is] my best friend,” Nyvin said. “Like, I did everything with him. I remember, when I was young, waking up, he would drop me off early in the morning at my babysitter’s house, because he had to go to work, he couldn’t put me on the bus. But he works hard, he tries to do a lot for me. I know he’s working, so he can’t always be there, but I know he’s always there when I need him.”
On the streets of Dennery, when he wasn’t eating or swimming, Nyvin would play cricket with the kids in the neighborhood.
As a former British colony, St. Lucia was dominated by colonial sports — cricketer Daren Sammy, who played for the West Indies, is the national sporting hero.
Mervin Nelson was a soccer player himself.
When Nyvin was 5, his father took him Walmart to pick out a kid-sized soccer ball so they could play together.
“So when we get to Walmart, he picked up the football,” Mervin Nelson said. “We call it American football. I said, ‘No, you’ve got the wrong ball.’ He said, ‘No, daddy, I like that one.’ And he picked up the football. I tried to take it from his hand, he started crying. So I give him the soccer ball, he didn’t want that. He wanted the football, so I let him have it.”
Mervin laughs now remembering the story. He still doesn’t know what made his Caribbean son pick up the weird oblong ball, but Nyvin fell wholeheartedly in love with his adopted hometown’s favorite game.
When his dad was home from work, Nyvin would beg him to play catch. On weekends, he would watch the college and NFL games.
“He would always tell me he could never imagine me playing football, because he said, ‘Nyvin, where do you get this from? I never did that,’” Nyvin said. “It was surprising for him to see me playing football and being so good at it.”
Nyvin never played organized football until he was in middle school at Cartersville.
At first, his dad was reluctant to let him play.
“When I was in middle school, he would always see me come home hurt, bumps, bruises,” Nyvin said. “He would say, ‘Nyvin, stop.’ I would be like, ‘No, I can’t. It’s part of the game.’ Him telling me that, like him telling me to stop and me just having that drive for it, he was always proud of that — knowing that it was something I wanted to do and he wasn’t pushing me to do that. It was something I wanted to do and that I had the drive for.”
Mervin Nelson finally acquiesced to letting his son play.
He just had one request. “One thing about Nyvin, at home, I said, ‘For you to play football, I have to feed you dumplings,’” Mervin Nelson, said. “Homemade dumplings, dumplings and chicken. He love that. … I said, ‘Man, if you have to play American football, you got to eat some healthy food. You got to stay healthy and I will feed you. You’re going to get big and everything will be alright.’”
Nyvin’s talent for destruction was apparent at an early age.
“He’s a very destroying boy,” Mervin Nelson said. “He love electronics, I buy all kind of electronics for him, and he will take a screwdriver and unmount it and fix it and put it back together, put it the way he want.”
That translated, immediately, to the football field.
After middle school, Nyvin started out as a defensive end at Cartersville. After his freshman year, the coaches moved him to linebacker.
The switch changed Nelson’s responsibilities, but not his attacking mindset.
That’s part of what allows him to make so many tackles and big hits.
“I’m thinking about getting my first read and just attacking what I see, honestly,” Nelson said. “Coming from D-end to linebacker, it’s a lot of moving, so just getting my read, I knew that I would have to come downhill and play physical.”
That’s how he made his name.
Recruit Georgia describes him as “dynamite stick of a hitter.”
“I told him, ‘Son, if I’m on the field, and I see you coming towards me, you know I’m going to run. I’m not going to let you catch me at all,’” Mervin Nelson said. “I love the way he plays, and it’s amazing to watch him play.”
It’s a long journey, from St. Lucia to New York to Cartersville, from cricket on the streets of Dennery to one of the best football high school football teams in the country and, now, maybe, to Division-I college football.
“[I just want to go] somewhere that feels like home,” Nyvin said. “Somewhere that’s not too far but yet close, probably like a two, three hour drive, where my dad can come watch me play. Because that’s really what I’m worried about, I want my dad to be able to watch me play.”
Nyvin might not think about the improbability of his journey too much, even as the Canes march towards, hopefully, their third-straight championship.
He was really just a kid growing up in Cartersville, playing football like all the other athletes in middle school.
“I grew up playing football with them, from middle school on up,” Nyvin said. “Seeing everybody develop and grow is like, ‘Wow, we’ve been here, we’re doing it,’ but I’ve never, like, thought about the talent.”
For Mervin Nelson, one step removed, it’s still a little unbelievable to see his son, the one who should have been playing soccer, reach these heights and help out his family with a game that his father barely knew existed.
“I don’t know how many times I’m telling him that I’m proud, because two years ago, I said, ‘Son, daddy gonna have to work and put some money on the side for you to go to college, get ready for you to go to college,’” Mervin said. “And he said, ‘Daddy, you don’t have to worry about it, everything will be alright.’ It’s, like, amazing. I love to go to the colleges and visit and I’m walking in there with my son, you know, it’s something that I never do in life. And he’s taken me that far and because of him, I’m there. Sometimes tears coming out of my eyes to see how exciting it is, because I never had that experience, and it’s my son that making me feel that experience.”