BRIDGEWATER -- Of all the training facilities, in all the towns, in all the world, Philip Nelson walked into one located about 15 minutes away from Rutgers.
The 2017 NFL Draft quarterback prospect understood he was returning to New Jersey by enrolling in the Pro Day prep class at TEST Football Academy.
But eating at familiar restaurants, training alongside five ex-Rutgers teammates and throwing passes in the same facility where he once participated in spring practice?
All those coincidences surprised Nelson -- and made it more difficult to suppress the question: What if things played out differently for him at Rutgers?
"You can't go there," Nelson told NJ Advance Media in his most-extensive interview to date. "As a human being, you can't always wonder about what could've been. I'm always focused on what I'm doing presently to affect my future. I feel like I wouldn't be the person or player I am today without everything I've been through the last five years."
Unusual bond between 2 RU QBs, 1 AD
Nelson transferred to Rutgers in January 2014 after two years as a Big Ten starter at Minnesota. The plan was to redshirt and compete for the starting job in 2015-16.
But, two weeks after playing in the Rutgers spring game, Nelson was arrested and charged with two counts of assault for his role in a fight outside of a Minnesota bar during a break from classes. He was kicked off the team within two days.
"Based off what had been printed at that time, I guess I understood it," Nelson said of then-coach Kyle Flood's decision. "It would've been nice to get some more facts out there, but at the same time the process is what it is and I accept that."
About 10 months later, Nelson plead guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to a $300 fine and 100 hours of community service, which he completed through visits to a nursing home, speaking to youth sports teams and teaching a faith class.
Nelson resurfaced as a walk-on at East Carolina in 2015, won the starting quarterback job in 2016 and suddenly finds his NFL dream as alive as ever after completing 11-of-18 passes for 102 yards and rushing for a touchdown in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
"I think Philip Nelson is a starter in the league," former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz said after calling plays in the game. "I'm convinced of it."Philip Nelson, quarterback for Minnesota, Rutgers and East Carolina, trains for NFL
So is Terry Shea, who, like Martz, coached NFL quarterbacks under Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil.
The former Rutgers head coach (1996-2000) has trained Nelson at EXOS in Arizona for years, both prior to his one semester at Rutgers and as recently as the two weeks leading up to the Collegiate Bowl.
"He's got a tremendous drive to be as good as he can be," Shea said. "That's been the most consistent thing I've seen in spite of all the bumps in the road that he has had to navigate. That's going to carry with him through the first several years in the NFL."
'No idea where my life was heading'
Nelson is prevented from discussing the incident because of pending civil litigation, but a video played in court reportedly showed that victim Isaac Kolstad hit Nelson with what Nelson's lawyer called a "sucker punch."
Kolstad was later knocked out by a third party and reportedly suffered permanent injuries. Nelson was seen on video kicking at Kolstad's head.
While a sometimes-contentious legal battle played out publicly, Nelson privately found peace in preparing for an opportunity that seemed like a longshot. Possible roster spots with Colorado State and South Alabama fizzled out.
"I know who I am and I know what my true values are," Nelson said. "I don't let that one night define me."
If Nelson returned to college football, he wanted pick up where he left off.
"I've had coaches tell me that life is 10 percent about what happens to you," Nelson said, "and 90 percent about how you react to it."
Nelson only had access to his local high school facilities before classes, so he showed up daily at 5 a.m. for three hours worth of lifting, running and throwing.
Top QB recruit Sitkowski picks Miami
"I had no idea where my life was heading," Nelson said. "At that time, I was a person that really liked to know what was going to happen. I had to learn to go with the flow and be able to create things for myself.
"Once I got back on my feet a little bit, I realized how much I love the game. I've never worked harder in my life. I just kept relying on my faith. To come that close to multiple teams, it's heart-breaking when it doesn't work out."
Then came East Carolina, which welcomed Nelson as a walk-on scout-team quarterback who still owed the NCAA a year of sitting out because of his transfer.
"I actually drove there (over) 24 hours with my dad," Nelson said. "I wasn't even sure if I was getting in (the school) at that point, but we were driving. I just remember the first time I hit the field with the team, I broke down and cried because I was so emotional."
Through it all, several Rutgers teammates, including offensive lineman Chris Muller and quarterback Chris Laviano, stayed in touch with Nelson. Muller, who hosted Nelson on his Rutgers transfer visit, also is training at TEST.
"I'm happy to see him go out and try to achieve his dreams the same way we are," Muller said. "You can't look at the what-ifs. You just have to be happy to enjoy the moments that we have now."
'Tough guy to beat out'
Watching Nelson throw 18-yard dig routes, Shea noticed how the pass was in the air before the receiver broke on his route.
"Throw with great anticipation," Shea said. "If he can demonstrate that as he continues his NFL journey, he's going to be a tough guy to beat out."
As Nelson burned through the 3-cone drill at a recent TEST workout, it served as a reminder that he is a borderline dual-threat entering his Pro Day on March 23.
The 6-foot-1, 216-pounder rushed for 364 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore at Minnesota, and completed 67.9 percent of his throws with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions during an injury-shortened senior season for East Carolina (3-9).
"My greatest achievement was becoming a team captain voted on by my peers and knowing the guys wanted me to lead them," he said. "It showed how far I've come."
Nelson's journey back to Jersey started when he signed with Shore-based agent Mike Celli, who represents ECU alum Justin Hardy of the Atlanta Falcons.
"With all this experience being brand new, it was one familiar thing," Nelson said. "It was kind of surreal that I've been here before. There are definitely some deja vu moments around here."
Will NFL free agency end RU-Pats ties?
Martz's comments turned the surreal into the very real.
"I feel like I learned a lot at the NFLPA game and got a true taste of a real NFL offense," Nelson said. "Throughout the week, Coach Martz was pulling me aside and saying, 'You can do this.'
"For a second there I was like, 'Wow! Really?' I feel like throughout my entire career I've been getting overlooked in some senses, even back to high school. To have a coach of that caliber recognize that I have potential is very humbling."
Senior all-star games can be tricky for quarterbacks trying to digest a new offense on the fly.
But Nelson learned the shotgun pro-style offense at Minnesota, the seven-step drop in the pocket at Rutgers, the Air Raid offense during his redshirt year at ECU and the recognition skills to audible at the line of scrimmage after ECU changed coaching staffs.
"What I see is an athletic enough quarterback who has the ability to throw the ball with velocity," Shea said. "And I think his mind is such that he's able to compartmentalize and grasp concepts.
"I think it will allow him to be a quick study. If you don't have that ability to translate and move it from the classroom to the practice field in a heartbeat, the NFL can pass you by quickly, and you never get that second shot to make a team."
'Love and hate'
With Nelson out of the picture, Rutgers started Chris Laviano for 18 straight games over the rocky 2015-16 seasons. Laviano is headed to San Diego State as a graduate transfer.
"We have grown pretty tight and would exchange positivity to one another because I know being the starting quarterback and having all that pressure on you is a whole different beast," Nelson said.
"You can apply all different things in life to being that starting quarterback. You have to be able to take criticism and keep moving on: In one ear and out the other."Rutgers football players training for NFL Draft
Five regular NFL starting quarterbacks in 2016 were drafted in the fourth round or later. TEST has developed quarterbacks Joe Flacco, Zach Mettenberger, Brian Hoyer and Mark Sanchez.
"I'm a film junkie," Nelson said. "I would love to help a team game plan and be a great teammate. That's the way I've been raised to be as a football player."
But Nelson's best attribute ironically might have been developed during his darkest times.
"Facing the adversity as a quarterback, people love you and people hate you," Nelson said. "I know I've grown some very tough, thick skin over the last five years, and it's helped me. I feel like I've got a lot of grit and toughness in me, and I bring that attitude every single day."
Ryan Dunleavy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rydunleavy. Find NJ.com Rutgers Football on Facebook.
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.