In four years at Cal State Fullerton, John Nevens was known for his reckless aban don on special teams and his ferocious hitting as a linebacker.
That reputation--combined with quickness and the kind of enthusiasm coaches wish every player had--was enough to convince Denver Gold officials to pick him first in the 1985 United States Football League open draft. He was the fourth selection overall.
But somebody forgot to tell John Nevens about the natural order of professional football. He arrived in the Gold’s rookie camp with every intention of starting, which he earned by leaving a wake of bodies littered across the field during the exhibition season.
“He’s got this little sparkle in his eyes,” said Mouse Davis, Gold coach, his own eyes sparkling in admiration. “Let’s just say he’s extremely aggressive. He was flying all over the field during the exhibition season.”
Nevens has hardly touched down yet. The 6-foot, 230-pounder is the team’s second-leading tackler with 68 tackles and 54 assists and has 2 fumble recoveries and 2 interceptions.
“My goal was to be a starter,” Nevens said. “Fortunately, they let me start.”
Midway through the season, Davis decided to relieve Nevens of special-team duty because he was putting in so much time at linebacker. Later in the game, however, Davis decided he’d made a mistake, and Nevens was back eliciting “oohs” from the crowd and “oofs” from kick returners.
“His behavior on kickoffs really picks up our special-team play,” Davis said. “He was playing so much, I took him off for a while, but our coverage team play really suffered appreciably. So, I put him back out there on kickoffs.”
At Fullerton, Nevens had a habit on the opening kickoff of flattening an opponent and then sort of bouncing up and down on him for a few seconds before leaping to his feet and exhorting his teammates to join the fun.
His routine hasn’t changed.
“The opening kickoff is the most important play of the game,” Nevens said. “It sets the tone and I try to motivate the whole team on that one play.”
Last Thursday night against the Express, however, it was Nevens who was left prone on the floor of the Coliseum after the opening kickoff. That’s not the way it usually works out, though.
“I aggravated a pinched nerve in my neck,” Nevens said. “I bounced off (former Cal State Long Beach linebacker) David Howard and had my head bent funny when I made the tackle on (Express kickoff returner Duane) Gunn.”
Nevens already has put a few opponents down for the count. In the Gold’s second game of the season, against Birmingham, he hit Leon Perry so hard on the opening kickoff that the Stallions’ returner had to be carried off the field on a stretcher and hospitalized for observation.
He also leveled Houston quarterback Jim Kelly with a tackle determined to be late by the league office. It cost Nevens $300.
Those familiar with Nevens, know he’s been known to wreak destruction on friend and foe alike.
In 1983, Nevens ended Lee Miller’s season when he smashed into the Titans’ all-conference cornerback trying for an interception. Miller suffered a broken arm.
Nevens’ reputation as a vicious tackler wasn’t the only thing that preceded him to Denver. He missed half of his sophomore season (1982) after being shot in the leg.
He was helping a friend install seats in a van when his protruding leg became the random target for a passing motorist. The bullet remains embedded in the calf.
“We would have flown our No. 1 pick out here to meet you guys,” Davis told the Denver media on draft day, “but we couldn’t get him through the metal detector.”
The public address announcer at Mile High Stadium always includes “Scrap Iron” when introducing Nevens but few realize that he carried the nickname long before he carried the slug.
“Oh, you know they jumped on that story,” Nevens said of the shooting incident. “People are always gonna be asking me about that and I don’t mind. They’re calling me ‘Scrap Iron’ and the fans have been great. Hey, I’m lovin’ it.”
So is the Denver front office. And Davis, who said he was pleasantly surprised when the Express didn’t exercise their territorial rights to Nevens making him available in the open draft, is flashing his best Cheshire Cat grin.
“We had scouted Fullerton and then put it on the back burner because they were in L.A.'s area,” Davis said. “When the Express let Nevens go, we jumped.”
The Gold also selected Titan fullback Todd Gerhart on the 15th round and he’s become the team’s No. 2 rusher with 278 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Both former Fullerton players spent a few extra minutes on the field after the game last Thursday night, visiting with relatives and friends.
The game against the Express meant more to Nevens than another step toward the playoffs. It was a chance to see his son, Johnny Daniel Nevens, Jr., 2, who lives with his mother in Compton.
“He always says, ‘That’s my daddy when I walk in,’ ” Nevens said, a mist momentarily replacing that sparkle in his eye. “He sat on my lap and ate cheesecake. I really miss him . . . this is a special time in his life. I wish I could be with him more.
“But I’ll always support him. That’s why this is the time for me to play the best football of my life. My son is going to go to college someday and I don’t want him to have to sell his body for a scholarship.
“I’m enjoying myself, but football is hard, hard work. And it takes it’s toll.”
Especially when you play the John Nevens’ way.