Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Walk into Dr. Matthew Nelsen’s office inside Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine and you’ll see a gold mine of North Dakota State Bison memorabilia. Upon opening the door, a 5-foot high shelf of Bison gear across the room awaits. Surrounded by certificates and achievements hanging on the wall from years of medical school, two Bison statues proudly stand overlooking signs and a chunk of bleacher from the Bison Sports Arena. Below the two bronze statues is a football helmet signed by head coach Chris Klieman. “I was finally able to get my hands on one,” Dr. Nelsen laughs. “It’s good to know people.”
Around his desk sits a basketball, but this isn’t any ball. This basketball has been touched by every member of the 2009 men’s basketball team that escorted the Bison to its first NCAA tournament. “It’s never been out of the case before,” says Nelsen as he slides the glass off around the basketball that holds the John Hancock of three thousand-point scorers and twelve others.
Nelsen’s bond and compassion for the Bison athletic program began when he first put on the basketball uniform in 1987.
“I was recruited by NCC schools and a few other different places, military academies,” Nelsen said. He continued saying he felt a connection with head coach Erv Inniger, who back in 1987 was entering his 10th year at NDSU.
But it was more than Inniger the kid from Staples, Minn., had a connection to. “Guys like Joe Regnier and Juno Pintar, we just kind of clicked.”
Nelsen committed to NDSU and would spend his first two seasons playing with Pintar and Regnier in a limited role. As his career progressed, so did Nelsen’s playing time and he logged 21 starts his senior year.
“So my game was relatively slow,” Nelsen said with a grin. “I was a big man with no post moves, but I could shoot the three.”
Nelsen shot only four three-pointers during his freshman season and 13 his sophomore year. By the time he was a senior, he raised his number of attempts from beyond the arc to 100. Nelsen would shoot 229 threes in his career and score 494 points. This leads him to explain his basketball career with one satirical comparison: “I was like Dirk Nowitzki, except I couldn’t dribble or pass,” he said.
Nelsen decided to stay another year at NDSU after his basketball eligibility ran dry. He wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon to remain close to athletes and sports. Suddenly, the boy from a small family farm turned into a man attending the University of North Dakota’s medical school.
“I think the other part of it was problem solving,” Nelsen said, explaining the gratification of becoming a surgeon. “It was just natural for me. My dad and brothers are handy-men, jacks-of-all-trades and can fix and make anything. I was never interested in that growing up. Now we do the same things; it’s just a different medium.”
After completing his degree from UND and finishing his residency at Texas Tech University Nelsen moved his family to Phoenix, Ariz., to have a fellowship at Sports Medicine: Institute for Bone and Joint Disorders.
Nelsen now practices out of Fargo and is also the medical director of the athletic training program at NDSU. Nelsen explains the position as a figurehead, but he consults with the trainers about various injuries on the basketball team and won’t budge on doctor-patient confidentiality when asked about an injured player on the team.
This position keeps him close to the NDSU program and makes his wife of 22 years, Kristin, happy to be back in the town she grew up in. It also gives him the chance to bring his four kids to Bison games as he sits near the bench during basketball games and the occasional football game.
“I have (worked at football games) but with much trepidation, because then I can’t tailgate,” chuckles Nelsen. He’s a member of the Grillmasters tailgating group that has around 40 guys and is mostly made up of former Bison athletes; including Tony Satter, Chad Stark and his former teammate Pintar.
Nelsen rarely misses a game and has been to Frisco, Texas, for the football championship games three out of the four seasons. He said he was pleased to see the basketball team make noise last year in the NCAA Tournament, but he was unable to join the team on the road due to the short notice.
Being surgical, whether behind his surgeon mask or the three-point line, has kept Nelsen engrained in Bison tradition. This Dr. Bison wouldn’t want it any other way.