Dawson native part of MLB All-Star game’s ‘Tribute for Heroes’

A long-standing tradition of the Major League Baseball All-Star game has been the deliberate introduction of the teams prior to the national anthem. First the visiting team, this year the American League, from managers through starters is introduced one by one to the fans, followed by the home team. Each player takes his turn trotting from dugout and lining up down either the first or third base line.

On Tuesday, though, something looked different about the opening ceremonies to the All-Star game at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

Rather than taking their customary places along the base lines, the players had flipped halves of the diamond, lining up from first to second and second to third base. The reason was revealed while an enormous American flag unfurled in center field.

Major League Baseball, along with People magazine, teamed up to find 30 armed service veterans to represent MLB’s 30 teams for a “Tribute to Heroes.” The veterans, ranging from ages 26 to 92 and with combat experience in World War II through Afghanistan, joined the all-stars on the field for the national anthem, taking the players’ places nearest home plate.

Patrick Nelson, originally of Dawson and currently residing in Eden Prairie, was chosen to represent the Minnesota Twins during the tribute.

A veteran with 39 months of combat experience as a paratrooper in the United States Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, Nelson said he was honored to represent not only the Twins, but all the armed service men and women of Minnesota.

“In things like these it’s great to be honored like this, but my feeling is that I think every veteran should get to do something like this,” Nelson said. “Every veteran who has served honorably, they should get this opportunity to get recognized. In the end it is a numbers game. There are so many troops that it’s almost impossible.

“It was awesome,” Nelson added. “It was great to be able to represent the Twins and also other veterans from our area.”

Following the anthem, player representatives gifted 29 American flags and one Canadian (courtesy of the Toronto Blue Jays) to the servicemen and women. Each of the flags came from one a major league ballpark, with Nelson receiving the stars and stripes from Target Field, courtesy of Joe Mauer. Nelson took the opportunity to speak with the Twins’ all-star catcher and Minnesota native.

“We talked for a little bit. We were in the MLB Red Carpet Show earlier in the day and I said something to Joe quick, like ‘See you tonight,'” Nelson said. “We saw each other in the club house and dugout area before we went on the field. It was a lot of fun, Joe was very nice. All the players on the American League side came and talked to us quick. But Joe was very nice, very personable, very Minnesotan.”

After sharing a quick word with Mauer and before Nelson, as well as the 29 other vets, left the field, the record crowd of 45,186 gave the heroes one final ovation.

“It was very humbling, it was kind of weird,” Nelson said. “You come out to something like that and, I don’t know, personally I feel like I didn’t deserve it. There’s so many other military veterans that have sacrificed so much more than I have. I just wish they could have gotten that opportunity to enjoy that recognition. But it was very humbling.

“I just wanted to say thank you to all of them,” he added. “Even during the parade we were in, people were coming up and yelling thank you, pointing right at us and looking us in the eyes and telling us thank you. It was just amazing.”

Nelson, a 2001 graduate of Dawson-Boyd high school, made the trip to New York with his wife Shanna. The couple joined the other veterans and their spouses for more than just the All-Star game, forming fast bonds with his fellow honorees.

“It was all amazing, it was all just a first-class operation; but my favorite things were, one, meeting all the other veterans,” Nelson said. “There’s just something about military people, you can just meet them right away and it seems like you’ve known each other for years. I made a lot of good friends out there.”

The soldiers were also invited to the Home Run Derby on Monday and a VIP reception on the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier which now functions as a sea, air and space museum located in New York harbor. But of all the activities that were scheduled for Nelson and his fellow award winners, the private tour of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum was most memorable.

“As far as the other activities that we got to do, visiting the 9/11 memorial was by far the best,” Nelson said. “I was in New York City for the first time in my life on Memorial Day weekend of 2001, so just a few months before the attacks. I went back in 2006 after I had been wounded in Afghanistan and got to see Ground Zero. Now to see how far they’ve come and for them to have that space where everybody can enjoy, especially the families and the survivors, just to reflect on the events of that day and how lives were changed.”

Nelson enlisted with the National Guard at 17 and transitioned into the Army soon after the 9/11 attacks, serving nearly seven years of active duty. In June 2005 while engaged in a skirmish near the Pakistani border, Nelson was wounded in a rocket attack. He returned to Afghanistan after recovering from his injuries to continue fighting and received the Bronze Star Medal in 2008 for his service.

He also became the first-ever recipient of the NFL-Tillman Scholarship, honoring an individual who best exemplifies Pat Tillman’s legacy of service, while completing a double major in history and sports management at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2012.

Nelson started the nonprofit Real Combat Life, offering veterans an online forum to share their stories from combat with hopes of providing therapeutic results, but recently decided to pursue a career as a motivational speaker.

“I want to speak to anybody that will listen and tell my personal story of service and sacrifice and just overcoming adversity,” Nelson said. “There are so many people who go through adversity on a daily basis, whether it’s a big thing or small thing, but I feel like I have a good story to tell based on what I’ve gone through and what I’ve accomplished since I got out of the military.

“I’ve reached out to some people I know in school districts to see how they book their speakers, especially in Dawson,” Nelson said. “I’m hopefully going to be contacting a lot of the other schools in the area. I’d love to come back there and tell my story.”

Nelson will be honored by the Twins again on Friday, when he throws out the first pitch of their series opener against the Cleveland Indians at Target Field, home of the 2014 All-Star game.