It’s been a while since Johnny Nelson was king of the court himself. But with the impact he’s had on hometown sports in his 87 years, like starting his city’s youth basketball and summer tennis programs, the Grantsville man is allowed to take it a little easy.
Sports have always run in Nelson’s blood. Though rarely the tallest or bulkiest man on the field, he excelled at just about every sport he picked up. As a student at Grantsville High School, he guided the football team as quarterback, lead the Cowboys on the court as captain of the basketball team and netted a string of victories at tennis.
During one tennis match, a member of the track team said they needed another person to run in a relay race.
“OK,” Nelson said, “just as soon as I’m finished with this tennis match.”
And, he said, that’s just what he did. The team won the relay race, and Nelson went back to playing tennis.
In college, Nelson’s athletic prowess continued as he played running back for the University of Utah football team in 1944. At 126 pounds, he is said to have been the smallest player the Utes have ever had, but he made up for his size in speed, earning him the nickname “Lightning” Johnny Nelson. During one game, he scored four touchdowns.
But his football career was cut short by World War II. Two months into college, Nelson was drafted into the Army, along with his two brothers. After being stationed for two years in Okinowa, there was only one thing Nelson wanted to do: marry the girl of his dreams.
Bernadine Johnson and Nelson had been high school sweethearts. Before being shipped off to Japan, Nelson made a trip home to take the girl who would become his wife to her junior prom — even if it meant dodging AWOL-suspicious military police by hiding in a ditch for part of the night. While he was away, his song for her was “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else but Me”; hers for him was “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” She wrote him every day, and he said he tried to write almost as often.
“Mom said everyone wanted to go with Johnny Nelson — he was the star athlete and student body president — and she said, ‘I don’t know why he looked my way, but I was the lucky one,’” said Karma Dale, one of Nelson’s daughters. “But Dad says he was the lucky one, because he got Bernadine.”
The two married in April 1947. One by one, they became the parents of seven. Their love story was one for the books, even after she passed away in 2006. Nelson’s children said his love of sports was rivaled only by his devotion to his wife and family.
“There was never a meal, it could just be peanut butter and jelly, where he didn’t say, ‘Thank you, Bernadine, that was such a good meal,’” Dale said. “So when we got married, it was like, ‘Well? Aren’t you going to say “Thank you?”’”
“He would always kiss her when he came home from work, too,” said another daughter, Janet Paulich. “And we couldn’t wait to see what was in his lunchbox, because he would always save his treat for us.”
Most of the family’s vacations, though, did entail going to an olio of games and tournaments within driving distance.
“We never went to Disneyland, but we must have gone to every tennis match there was in the state of Utah and Colorado,” Dale said.
Nelson continued playing, too, on rec leagues and teams through Tooele Army Depot, where he was employed, and the LDS Church, even well into his 50s. When the kids were old enough to play sports of their own, he was their most dedicated fan.
“He never missed a game,” said Jack Nelson, one of Nelson’s sons.
“It didn’t matter if we were doing sports or we were in a play, he was always there,” Dale added. “He was our number-one supporter.”
Nelson’s role was usually more involved than being a mere spectator.
“It was a way for him to spend lots of time with his kids, too, because he coached about every sport we were in,” Dale said.
It was through coaching his children’s teams that perhaps Nelson’s most well-known legacy came about. In 1960, he began a summer tennis program. When the players had improved playing each other, he began taking them in to tournaments in Salt Lake.
“He knew they couldn’t get any better just playing each other. He wanted to expose them to some real good tennis players, and most of the tennis players in there were country club players. They would play continually all year round, and I know they’d get really upset, these city slickers,” Dale said. “They’d always call a line judge over because they thought we were cheating. They couldn’t believe that players from a little pig town could beat them.”
Having tournament participants from such a rural area was unheard of, especially participants who were such strong competitors.
“I remember when we started going to Salt Lake a guy came up and said, ‘I didn’t even know you guys had tennis courts out there. What do you do?’ Dad said, ‘We just string a piece of wire in between the barn.’ They ate it right up. They couldn’t believe we were that good from playing in the barn,” Jack Nelson said.
“We wiped them out,” Nelson said with a chuckle.
When Jack Nelson played tennis at Weber State University, his roots in the sport continued to raise eyebrows.
“In college, they asked, ‘Who’s your teaching pro?’ And I said, ‘Johnny Nelson,’ and they said, ‘I don’t think I’ve heard of Johnny Nelson,’ and I said, ‘He’s my dad,’” Jack Nelson said.
For some in Grantsville today, the name “Nelson” is synonymous with tennis. The high school has more than 40 team state championships between the girls and boys teams — many under the coaching of Nelson’s son Don Wayne Nelson — and maintains a reputation of being a heavyweight in the sport. Dale said although others have also helped the program to move forward and grow, she believes the strength of the sport in Grantsville is due to the summer tennis program her father started more than 50 years ago.
“That can really be attributed to that summer tennis program he started because he brought really good skills to them all,” Dale said. “He made it fun. And at the time the tennis courts were where the elementary school is, he was the janitor at the [LDS} seminary [now Head Start], he’d be watching out the window and if he saw someone on the courts not doing something quite right, he’d run across and tell them how to hold that racket right and how to do it. He was just always giving.”
His style of teaching, too, made players more engaged in the sport, she said.
“He wasn’t one of those screaming maniac coaches; he always was positive with them,” Dale said.
In 1969, Nelson also started Grantsville Bantam Basketball, a youth basketball program. The same goal of a strong foundation of fundamentals taught with humor and kindness. To Nelson, excelling in sports was not a product of inborn talent or something in the water.
“Hard work,” he said. “And good coaching.”
Nelson’s dedication to attending his children’s events continued on to the next generation, and he still goes to many of his grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s games today. Last month, he coached one great-grandson’s Junior Jazz game. He still makes every basketball game and tennis match Grantsville plays at home, and many of the “away” games at Tooele and Stansbury high schools. And at the annual Dusk Til Dawn tournament, which benefits Alzheimer’s research in honor of Bernadine, Nelson still makes the first serve.
Not even a thing like old age can stop Lightning Johnny Nelson.