When you “win” a trade in the NFL, by acquiring more talent than you surrendered, it is a good accomplishment for your franchise.
When the other team in the trade is one of your greatest rivals, the accomplishment makes you feel even better.
The trade acquisition of quarterback Bill Nelsen by the Cleveland Browns in 1968 was a successful transaction for the franchise that was made even better because Nelsen was acquired from one of Cleveland’s oldest rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nelson earned Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and All-Conference honors with the Browns and quarterbacked Cleveland to three division titles and two playoff victories.
We take a look at the life of Bill Nelsen – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
William Keith Nelsen was born in Los Angeles, California on January 29, 1941.
As a boy growing up, Nelsen played flag football and in a park baseball league.
Nelsen attended El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, California.
Pico Rivera is a suburb of Los Angeles.
After Nelsen experienced a significant growth spurt, growing by five inches, Nelsen became starting quarterback of the El Rancho High School football team as a junior.
As a senior, Nelsen made the All-Conference team.
El Rancho High School won all seven games that Nelsen played in during his senior year; the high school lost the three games that Nelsen missed as a senior (Nelsen missed the games because he had the Asian flu).
Nelsen also starred in basketball as a guard at El Rancho High School.
He made the All-Conference team and was voted Conference Player of the Year.
In both his junior and senior years, Nelsen’s play helped the El Rancho High School basketball team advance to the California Interscholastic Federation finals.
Nelsen also played first base on the El Rancho High School baseball team.
Pepperdine University offered Nelsen a basketball scholarship.
However, Nelsen enjoyed football more, and he believed that he had a better future as a football player than as a basketball player.
After declining the Pepperdine scholarship offer, and not being offered a football scholarship by any major college, Nelsen decided to attend Cerritos Junior College in Norwalk, California (a suburb of Los Angeles) to play football.
At Cerritos Junior College, Nelsen made the All-Conference team in 1958.
Cerritos Junior College, with Nelsen in 1958, lost its opening game by one point to Riverside Junior College (which ultimately went undefeated and won the Junior College championship), but then won all of its remaining games.
After his play at Cerritos Junior College, Nelsen received several football scholarship offers from colleges.
Nelsen accepted the football scholarship offer from the University of Southern California (USC) and headed to Los Angeles to join the Trojans.
Nelsen joined the USC varsity football team in 1960.
On November 19, 1960, Nelsen threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to receiver Marlin McKeever, helping USC defeat its rival UCLA (then ranked 11th in the nation by the Associated Press) 17-6.
The win is considered to have saved the job of future College Football Hall of Fame USC head coach John McKay.
Nelsen led the Trojans in total offense in 1960.
He completed 29 of 72 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 186 yards and one touchdown on 90 rushing attempts.
For his play in 1960, Nelsen received the Trojan Club Award as the most improved player on the varsity football team.
USC had a 4-6 record in 1960.
On October 7, 1961, playing against Iowa (then ranked first in the nation by the Associated Press), Nelsen threw two touchdown passes to receiver Hal Bedsole, as USC narrowly lost to Iowa 35-34.
In 1961, Nelsen again led the Trojans in total offense.
He completed 39 of 86 passes for 683 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 152 yards and four touchdowns on 96 rushing attempts.
USC posted a 4-5-1 record in 1961.
Nelsen saw less playing time in 1962, as Pete Beathard became the primary starter at quarterback for USC.
However, Nelsen still helped the Trojans win several games in 1962.
On September 22, 1962, Nelsen threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Hal Bedsole for the winning touchdown, as USC defeated Duke (then ranked eighth in the nation by the Associated Press) 14-7.
In USC’s victories against each of SMU, 33-3 on September 29, 1962, California (then ranked ninth in the nation by the Associated Press), 32-6 on October 20, 1962, and Stanford, 39-14 on November 10, 1962, Nelsen threw two touchdown passes.
For the 1962 season, Nelsen completed 36 of 80 passes for 682 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 140 yards and one touchdown on 57 rushing attempts.
USC had an undefeated 11-0 record in 1962, including a 42-37 victory over Wisconsin (then ranked second in the nation by the Associated Press) in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1963.
The Trojans were considered the champions of college football in 1962, as USC was ranked first in the nation in the final Associated Press and United Press International polls in 1962.
Nelsen majored in physical education and graduated from USC in 1963.
He then headed to the next phase of his football career – the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Nelsen was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 10th round of the 1963 NFL draft; he was the 136th overall pick.
In 1963, Nelsen hardly played.
He appeared in only two regular season games for Pittsburgh and did not complete a pass in two attempts.
Nelsen played in five regular season games, and started one regular season game, for Pittsburgh in 1964.
On November 8, 1964, Nelson threw his first NFL regular season touchdown passes – 22 yards to running back Dick Hoak and 29 yards to flanker Gary Ballman – in a 34-30 Steelers loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Nelsen completed 10 of 19 passes for 170 yards.
For the 1964 regular season, Nelsen completed 16 of 42 passes for 276 yards and the above-described two touchdowns.
In 1965, Nelsen became the starting quarterback for the Steelers.
He played in and started 12 regular season games in 1965.
He missed two regular season games after he suffered a knee injury in a game against the Dallas Cowboys on November 14, 1965.
Nelsen completed 121 of 270 passes for 1,917 yards and eight touchdowns, and rushed for 84 yards and one touchdown on 26 rushing attempts, in the 1965 regular season.
During a September 18, 1966 game against the Detroit Lions, Nelsen suffered another knee injury.
As a result, he only played in and started five regular season games in 1966.
In the 1966 regular season, Nelsen completed 63 of 112 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 18 yards on six rushing attempts.
For the third consecutive year, in 1967, Nelsen missed games because of an injury (suffered in a September 24, 1967 game against the St. Louis Cardinals).
He only played in eight, and started five, regular season games in 1967.
Nelsen completed 74 of 165 passes for 1,125 yards and 10 touchdowns in the 1967 regular season.
The key development in Nelsen’s NFL career took place on May 14, 1968 when he was traded by the Steelers to the Cleveland Browns.
Specifically, Pittsburgh traded Nelsen and safety Jim Bradshaw to Cleveland in exchange for quarterback Dick Shiner, defensive lineman Frank Parker, and an undisclosed draft pick, which is believed to have been a 1969 second-round draft pick used by the Steelers to select running back Warren Bankston.
In describing the trade, Pittsburgh head coach Bill Austin stated:
“As far as quarterbacks are concerned, if we opened our NFL schedule tomorrow I’d go with Kent Nix. I still think Nelsen is a good football player who has been very unfortunate because of injuries. If he didn’t beat out Nix this summer it would be very discouraging for him. A shift in scenery should help.”
Shiner played for the Steelers and three other NFL teams over six seasons after the trade.
He threw 33 touchdown passes, but compiled a 7-20-1 regular season record as a starter and never made the playoffs or received Pro Bowl, All-Pro, or All-Conference honors.
Parker played for the Steelers and the New York Giants for only two seasons after the trade (starting only nine games).
He never made the playoffs or received Pro Bowl, All-Pro, or All-Conference honors.
Bankston was to play for the Steelers and Oakland Raiders over a 10-year NFL career.
He scored six touchdowns, but never received Pro Bowl, All-Pro, or All-Conference honors.
While Bradshaw never played in any NFL regular season games after the trade, the Browns certainly “won” the trade with the acquisition of Nelsen.
Nelsen (who joined Cleveland in 1968 playing at a height of six feet and a weight of 195 pounds) played in all 14, and started 11, regular season games in 1968.
After the Browns began the 1968 season with a 1-2 record, Nelsen replaced starting quarterback Frank Ryan and started the remaining 11 regular season games.
In Nelsen’s first start, against his former team on October 5, 1968, he completed 16 of 25 passes for 190 yards and a 28-yard touchdown to future Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield, as Cleveland defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-24.
During the 1968 season, Nelsen led the Browns on an eight-game winning streak.
For the 1968 regular season, Nelsen completed 152 of 293 passes for 2,366 yards (which ranked fifth in the NFL) and 19 touchdowns (which ranked tied for fifth in the NFL).
In 1968, Nelsen was named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press and United Press International and first team All-Conference by Sporting News.
Cleveland, with a 10-4 record, won the NFL Century Division title in 1968.
For the Browns, winning the division in 1968 was nothing unusual.
Cleveland had won the NFL East Division title in 1964 (on the way to the 1964 NFL championship) and 1965 and the NFL Century Division title in 1967.
However, it was a new achievement for Nelsen.
In his five seasons with Pittsburgh, Nelson never played on a division winner (or even a playoff team, as the Steelers posted records of 7-4-3 in 1963, 5-9 in 1964, 2-12 in 1965, 5-8-1 in 1966, and 4-9-1 in 1967).
The Browns ranked third in the 1968 NFL regular season in points scored (394).
On December 21, 1968, Cleveland met the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional round playoff game.
Nelsen completed 13 of 25 passes for 203 yards (including four passes for 86 yards to Paul Warfield and four passes for 47 yards to Milt Morin) and a 45-yard touchdown to Leroy Kelly.
The Browns defeated Dallas 31-20.
After the game, Browns head coach Blanton Collier stated:
“I’ve seen quarterbacks with great ability who cannot win. To win, you have to have confidence in yourself and in your teammates. Nelsen has it.”
The following week, on December 29, 1968, in the 1968 NFL championship game, Nelsen completed 11 of 26 passes for 132 yards, but Cleveland lost to the Baltimore Colts 34-0.
In 1969, Nelsen started all 14 regular season games.
Nelsen had his best NFL season in 1969.
For the 1969 regular season, Nelsen completed 190 of 352 passes for 2,743 yards (which ranked fourth in the NFL) and 23 touchdowns (which ranked tied for second in the NFL).
In 1969, Nelsen received a Pro Bowl invitation.
The Browns had a 10-3-1 record and again won the NFL Century Division title in 1969.
Cleveland ranked third in the 1969 NFL regular season in points scored (351).
Cleveland again played the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional round playoff game on December 28, 1969.
Nelsen completed 18 of 27 passes for 219 yards (including eight passes for 99 yards to Paul Warfield) and a six-yard touchdown to Milt Morin (who caught four passes for 52 yards).
In what became the last road playoff win for the Browns until the 2020 season, the Browns defeated Dallas 38-14.
The following week, on January 4, 1970, in the 1969 NFL championship game, Nelsen completed 17 of 33 passes for 181 yards and a three-yard touchdown to Gary Collins, but Cleveland lost to the Minnesota Vikings 27-7.
In 1970, Nelsen played in and started 12 regular season games.
On September 21, 1970, Nelsen was the winning quarterback in the first game on ABC’s Monday Night Football, as the Browns defeated the New York Jets 31-21.
Nelsen completed 12 of 27 passes for 145 yards and an eight-yard touchdown to Gary Collins.
In the 1970 regular season, Nelsen completed 159 of 313 passes for 2,156 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Cleveland had a 7-7 record in 1970.
Nelsen played in all 14, and started 13, regular season games in 1971.
Nelsen completed 174 of 325 passes for 2,319 yards (which ranked fifth in the NFL) and 13 touchdowns in the 1971 regular season.
With a 9-5 record, the Browns won the AFC Central Division title in 1971.
Cleveland met the Baltimore Colts in a divisional round playoff game on December 26, 1971.
Nelsen completed nine of 21 passes for 104 yards, but the Browns lost to Baltimore 20-3.
In 1972, Nelsen only played in four regular season games and started one regular season game.
He was basically replaced by Mike Phipps as Cleveland’s starting quarterback.
Nelsen completed 14 of 31 passes for 141 yards in the 1972 regular season.
After the end of the 1972 season, Nelsen underwent his fifth knee surgery and then announced his retirement as an NFL player.
The Years After the NFL
Nelsen was married to Vicki.
He had two sons, William and Timothy, and three daughters, Missy, Tammy, and Tracy.
After Nelsen’s retirement as an NFL player, he stayed in the NFL as a coach.
In 1973 and 1974, Nelsen was assistant quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots.
Nelsen then was Offensive Coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in 1975 and 1976.
From 1977 to 1982, Nelsen served as assistant quarterbacks coach and assistant wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In 1984, Nelsen worked as Offensive Coordinator and assistant quarterbacks coach for the Detroit Lions.
Nelsen retired from coaching after the 1984 season and settled in the Orlando, Florida area.
On April 11, 2019, Nelsen died in Orlando, Florida at the age of 78.
Even though he only played five seasons (four full seasons) with Cleveland, Nelsen ranks high in Browns career passing statistics.
Nelsen ranks seventh in Browns career regular season passing completions (689), seventh in Browns career regular season passing yards (9,725), and sixth in Browns career regular season passing touchdowns (71).
In describing Nelsen’s career, it is important to note the impact of injuries.
Nelsen played with one-and-a-half pound aluminum braces to support his legs and would have excess fluid drained from his swollen knees before games.
Cleveland offensive tackle Doug Dieken said of Nelsen:
“He was tougher than hell.”
Without his knee and other injuries, it is likely Nelsen would have played in more games, with higher statistics (including in rushing), and for more years.
Nelsen stated when he played:
“There’s not much left to my knees, but I get by the best I can.”
Perhaps the best description of Nelsen’s time with the Browns is that Nelsen was a successful leader.
While Nelsen played with Pro Football Hall of Famers Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield, and guard Gene Hickerson, as well as other outstanding players, Nelsen led the Browns offense at the critical position of quarterback.
Nelsen compiled a 36-19-1 regular season and playoff record as a starting quarterback for Cleveland.
Nicknamed “Commander Nelsen” (after the British naval commander Horatio Nelson) by Browns linebacker Jim Houston, Nelsen led the Browns to three division titles and two playoff victories.
With Pro Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham, Frank Ryan, and Bernie Kosar, Nelsen is one of just four Browns quarterbacks to lead the team to multiple league championship games.
“I’ve always known I wasn’t a classic quarterback, but I always felt I was smart enough and strong enough to do the job if I could play with the proper help.”
The trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Cleveland Browns gave both Bill Nelsen “the proper help” to earn Pro Bowl, All-Pro, and All-Conference honors and the Browns the “proper” quarterback to lead the team to success in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.