PEORIA – The words “Colin Strong” are ubiquitous around the Centennial High School campus. They can be seen on orange rubber bracelets and T-shirts, they are showcased on the electronic welcome board in front of the school and posted as the mantra of a Facebook page dedicated to Colin Nelson, the embodiment of the word strong.
Diagnosed with leukemia in June 2020, when he was 17 and a pitcher at Centennial, Nelson has been undergoing treatment for over 15 months and still has another year left. Despite the pain and uncertainty of what lies ahead, it has not affected his love of baseball. This spring Nelson will be part of the staff that has unwaveringly supported him – this time as a coach of the Coyotes.
“You don’t expect a 17-year-old kid out of the blue to be diagnosed with leukemia and it hit us all really hard,” said Jeff Gahan, Centennial’s assistant baseball coach.
Nelson was on a vacation with his family when his illness became more evident. Lethargic and unlike himself, he was taken to the doctor who said it was likely infectious mononucleosis. With no reason to think his illness was more severe, the Nelson family accepted the diagnosis.
But as Nelson’s health continued to be an issue, he returned to the doctor for a second opinion and blood work. That’s when he learned he had leukemia.
“You hear the C word, cancer, and the worst things come to your mind first,” said Duane Nelson, Colin’s father.
With the diagnosis confirmed, Colin began what would be a two-year treatment plan. If all goes well, his treatment will be finished by next October.
His treatment began with intense chemo treatments, with office visits several times a week for the first three months. Since he was physically unable to take himself to the appointments, his parents were by his side throughout.
Colin’s progression allowed him to move to treatments spaced out by two months, and eventually he gained the strength to attend by himself. In March, Colin began his maintenance phase with eight days of radiation for precaution. His response to treatment continued to be positive, putting him in good spirits to return to baseball.
Colin made it a priority to be back on the diamond the following spring, for his final season as a player.
“Him having baseball in the spring (was) a great motivator to make it through it,” Duane said. “His goal was to be able to be on the baseball team.”
Centennial never closed the door on his return to the team. When he was ready, he was warmly welcomed back.
Early in his return, Colin’s determination was already on full display. In his first appearance back in the batter’s box, he struck the ball hard. Treatment had altered his coordination, causing him to trip on his way to first, but with gathered mental and physical strength he got back up and reached base. A mob of teammates, shouting with excitement and pride, greeted him.
“We right away said no question, he’s going to be part of our team,” Gahan said.
The coaching staff wanted Colin back, in whatever way that looked like for him. The consistent support led Colin to continue as a coach after he completed his senior year.
“There’s a familyhood around here, especially with the baseball program,” Colin said.
Colin reached out to his former coaches the summer following his senior season. He knew he wasn’t done on the baseball field and felt especially confident about working with Centennial.
“When he graduated I knew I was going to miss him but when I found out he was going to come back and coach for us I was super excited,” said Tanner Humphrey, a Centennial senior. “I just loved having him there as a teammate, he was a great teammate, probably one of the best I’ve ever had.”
Humphrey, who played with Nelson during his final season at Centennial, said shock ran through the team when they learned of Colin’s diagnosis. They considered him a brother, a great guy on and off the field. They were happy to have him back for his final season as a player, and now as a coach.
Gahan described Colin’s start to coaching as seamless and Colin also felt that his transition was smooth, believing he has the attention of the players and the staff trusts him to get things done the right way. Colin said he always felt respected by his coaches but now feels that has elevated since he joined the staff.
“He’s the one that knows the game like a coach,” Duane said. “He has always been a coach on the field.”
Colin’s passion for baseball has always been evident. He knew he wanted to be on the field even after he was done playing. The coaches at Centennial knew he could handle the responsibility, and trusted him to take the role seriously.
Baseball played a big part in Colin’s recovery, said his father. The entire Nelson family embraced the support from the Centennial community. Colin referred to the team as a “bunch of brothers.” He said the biggest lesson learned from his tough experience is to not take anything for granted and love everybody.
“He lives and breathes baseball,” Duane said. “Without baseball, I don’t think he would be where he is today.”