Legendary Athletic Trainer Carl E. Nelson Dies at 92

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An innovator in sports medicine, he served Olympic athletes, Colby students, and Waterville youngsters with the same caring spirit

Carl Nelson
Carl Nelson, seen here in 1981, played a significant role in introducing sports medicine to Colby and established athletic training in Maine as we know it today with more than 200 athletic trainers currently working in the state.
By Laura Meader
March 1, 2023

The Colby community mourns the passing of Carl E. Nelson, a trailblazing athletic trainer who introduced sports medicine to Colby and across central Maine. A mentor, caring professional, and trusted friend, his deliberate and innovative programs benefited thousands of students and their families. He died Feb. 26, 2023, at his home in Waterville. He was 92.

Nelson served as Colby’s head athletic trainer for 34 years, arriving on Mayflower Hill from Boston University in 1959. With his experience in physical therapy, athletic training, and massage—and a strong sense of service—he blended expert diagnostic skills with effective treatment approaches to heal Colby student athletes and return them to competition with great success. 

“Carl Nelson had a tremendous and sometimes life-changing impact on the lives of our students over many decades,” said Colby President David A. Greene. “He brought expertise to Colby that was only emerging at that time, and the care he showed to our students will forever be remembered and recognized.”  

In 1966 Nelson became Colby’s director of health services, bringing his signature wisdom and good humor as he continued to elevate Colby’s stature as a leader in student health care.

Nelson famously considered the whole student athlete. His legacy is commemorated in Colby’s world-class Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center with the state-of-the-art Carl E. Nelson Hydrotherapy Room, made possible by Life Trustee Bill Alfond ’72, LL.D. ’19 and his wife, Joan Alfond, LL.D. ’19.

For his decades of service to the College, Nelson was named Colby’s C Club Person of the Year in 1981. The C Club also created the Carl Nelson Sports Achievement Award, which, since 1988, has been presented to an individual who has distinguished themselves in the field of athletics.

Carl Nelson treated students with dignity and respect. “His patients felt confident in his abilities to do his very best to return them to their sport activities,” said Director of Sports Medicine Tim “Westy” Weston.

In 1972 Nelson was tapped to be an Olympic athletic trainer in Sapporo, Japan, a role he also held in 1976 in Innsbruck, Austria. During the next winter games, in 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y., he directed athletic training and physical therapy services. For his far-reaching contributions, Nelson was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) Hall of Fame in 1986, an athletic trainer’s highest honor. In 2018 he was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame.

Despite the high-profile assignments and global recognition, Nelson remained modest. “You would have never known that he was so famous,” said Tim “Westy” Weston, Colby’s director of sports medicine, of his mentor. “Humility was one of his greatest qualities.” 

At the 1991 dedication for the Carl E. Nelson Training Center in the former Alfond Athletics Center, the community recognized Nelson for setting the standard for caring and friendship. Whether taping ankles or mending spirits, he brought dignity and expertise to the athletic training room at Colby, a quality that remains today. 

An early pioneer in sports medicine

Born in Waltham, Mass., Nov. 21, 1930, Nelson graduated in 1949 from Newton High School, where his interest in sports medicine and physical therapy developed following a knee injury. He served in the U.S. Navy, spending two years as an assistant athletic trainer at MIT followed by two years as a Naval officer aboard the submarine USS Ray

After his service, he earned a physical therapy certificate and a bachelor’s from Boston University, where he worked as an assistant athletic trainer before coming to Colby. In 1967 he earned a master’s from the University of Maine.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Nelson was a pioneer in the emerging field of sports medicine who sought innovative ways to make sports safer and athletes healthier. For example, he developed a face mask for hockey goalies made of a fiberglass-like material. He also crafted custom-fitted orthotics using a grinder and convection oven in the back of the athletic training center. 

With the rise of women’s sports across the nation, Nelson hired Colby’s first female medical professional. And in 1973, ahead of the nation’s first intercollegiate women’s ice hockey game, held at Colby, he ordered breast protectors for the team out of concern there wasn’t enough protection for competitive play.

Carl Nelson, center, was committed to treating women athletes equally, said Susan Zagorski Gaffny ’77, left, a field hockey, ice hockey, and basketball player who was Colby’s first woman student-trainer. “He was a master of instilling a sense of confidence and a belief in one’s self that follows me to this day. His lessons helped me land a similar position at Georgetown University and then enter the world of high-tech international business. I will always be grateful for Carl’s trust and invitation into his realm of sports medicine. The lessons learned in his training room were so much greater than knowing how to expertly tape a wrist.”

A home at Colby and in Waterville

Nelson felt a deep commitment to his community. As one of only three athletic trainers in Maine for many years, parents and coaches from across the region brought injured athletes to him for advice, which he offered patiently and often on his own time. He couldn’t go it alone, however, and partnered with Waterville hospitals to recruit and hire athletic trainers for local secondary schools.

For more than 15 summers, Nelson served as director of physical therapy at the Pine Tree Camp in Rome, Maine. Nelson found his work providing services to disabled children and adults deeply meaningful and welcomed the opportunity to spend time with his own family at the lake. In 2015 the camp honored Nelson with the naming of the Carl E. Nelson Wellness Center on its North Pond campus. 

With his talent and reputation, Nelson could have lived and worked in any number of cities. He was offered positions with larger institutions and professional teams but opted to remain at Colby and in Waterville, where he felt at home. 

Athletic Trainers Tim Adams, Carl Nelson, and Patty Thorton in the brand-new Carl E. Nelson Training Center in the former Alfond Athletic Center. In 1991, when this picture was taken, these three individuals made up the entire athletic trainers staff at the College.

Nelson retired from the College in 1993 but remained active and engaged with the community, a regular fixture at games and events. Last fall he attended what would be his last Homecoming Weekend and C Club Awards Dinner. Weston noted an almost overwhelming display of love and admiration for Nelson. “It was really so genuine. They couldn’t say enough about him.”   

The feeling was mutual. Nelson loved Colby and Maine, where he and his family enjoyed fishing, camping, biking, and the outdoors in general. And where, for the last months of his life, his oldest son would take him for Sunday drives. Just a few weeks ago they drove through the Colby campus, stopping to watch a lacrosse practice.

Carl Nelson was predeceased by his wife, Jean, and his daughter-in-law Heather (Morrill ’82). He leaves his sister, Lorraine Williams; three sons, Douglas and his wife, Diane (Jacques ’81), Jonathan and his wife, Cara, and Jeffrey ’83; and four grandchildren.

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