BEREA — David Nelson was back with Browns teammates and coaches Tuesday for the start of mandatory minicamp.
The lanky receiver didn’t join them in the huddle as he continues to rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in last season’s opener. But he worked on the side with trainers, ran some routes, watched practice, attended meetings and restarted the bonding process. He referred to himself as 90 percent healthy and expects to be ready for the start of training camp July 26.
Nelson’s presence was noteworthy. While his teammates were in town and working together for the better part of the last nine weeks, he kept a different schedule.
He was signed as a free agent from Buffalo on April 8, spent a few weeks in his new home, then departed for Dallas to continue rehabilitation with the trainer he trusts. The offseason program is voluntary and Nelson conferred with coach Rob Chudzinski before leaving town, but some could view his absence as selfish.
Not the time he spent outside of Dallas.
Nelson, 26, traveled to Haiti for three days and plans to open an orphanage with his brothers, Daniel and Patrick. He also went to Oklahoma to volunteer in the aftermath of the first deadly tornado last month.
“I’ve been a benefactor a long time, sending money, sending prayers, helping people out behind the scenes, and then when I finally got to meet a couple of the kids and got to be in that environment, I couldn’t just sit back and watch anymore. I had to be a part of it,” Nelson said. “I wanted to get my hands dirty and actually do something. I wanted to be on the front line and go and do something and be a difference for these kids.”
He and his brothers founded i’mME, a faith-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of orphans. His interest in Haiti was sparked by a trip a year and a half ago.
“It was something that tugged at my heart,” he said. “It’s one of those things that when you go and meet these kids you are never the same.”
The latest trip was a scouting endeavor to view buildings and orphanages and see how they’re run. In addition to showing love to the kids.
The plan calls for eight cottages instead of the traditional one-building orphanage. He referred to it as “family style” with six to eight kids and a house mom in each dwelling.
“It’s really a special deal,” Nelson said. “Each kid feels like they’re part of a family, instead of just a number. Each kid’s going to be loved and be told they’re special and help these kids find a purpose.”
Nelson’s brother will live in Haiti and oversee the operation. David will keep tabs from Cleveland in his free time, but he assured Chudzinski football is his priority.
“I knew that a lot of people thought my mind was different places,” Nelson said. “I wanted to let him know that I’m 100 percent focused on football and I’m 100 percent committed to this football team.”
Nelson said he had never been injured before the ACL and was dedicated to getting the recovery right. He trusted trainer Sheri Walters from their three years together and picked her and Dallas over the Browns’ medical staff and being around his new team.
“It was a Catch-22,” he said. “I wasn’t able to physically be here and experience the camaraderie with my teammates, which was the hardest part for me. But then what good am I if my knee isn’t ready to go when training camp rolls around?
“I didn’t want to be a distraction, didn’t want it to look like I was putting myself above the team. I definitely talked to the coaching staff, talked to a few of my teammates as well, and cleared it with them before I left. I wanted to let them know that I wasn’t just abandoning them and I wasn’t going for a vacation.”
He talked about the decision multiple times with Chudzinski, who was glad to have Nelson back Tuesday.
“He’s in good shape. He had a great rehab with somebody he is real familiar and comfortable with,” Chudzinski said. “He is a sharp guy. He has picked things up.”
Technology made the decision easier. He watched every practice on his iPad, followed the installation of the playbook and communicated with the coaches.
“Even though physically I wasn’t in the meetings, mentally I was there,” Nelson said. “It’s been an amazing four weeks for me to able to do that, get everything accomplished and come back today and feel like I haven’t missed a beat mentally.”
Nelson is an intriguing option at receiver. He’s the tallest on the team at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds and started 13 games for the Bills in 2011 with 61 catches for 658 yards, a 10.8 average and five touchdowns.
He can work in the slot with Davone Bess, whom the Browns traded for after signing Nelson, or shift outside with Josh Gordon and Greg Little. Speedster Travis Benjamin is also expected to get playing time at a position that suddenly has depth.
“The guys are motioning, that’s the way that Norv (Turner) likes to run his offense — to keep people guessing,” Nelson said. “You never know where somebody’s going to be at any given time.
“The No. 1 thing Chud talked about when I signed here was bringing in competition and competition only makes you better. I’ve had to be part of it my entire career.”
Nelson was undrafted out of Florida before working his way into a starting role.
“Going into my third year I was going to be one of ‘the’ guys,” he said. “To have it ended in Week 1 was a crushing blow for me.”
He’s ready for a fresh start. And to get started in Cleveland.
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