Tustin Police officer shows major league determination

By Keith Sharon

Determination wins.

There’s no more flowery, roundabout explanation for how Robert Nelson got where he is. He was determined enough to make it happen.

Determination can take you from a high school gang fight to a college scholarship to the World Series to a respected position as a Tustin Police officer.

Robert Nelson is one of the most determined guys you will ever meet. Just ask the Major League Baseball players who work with him and know him well. Just ask his academy class police recruit peers who honored Nelson with “The Character Award” at their graduation ceremony.

He’s a rookie police officer in Tustin working patrol. But his story is so much deeper than that.

Officer Robert Nelson of the Tustin Police Department.

Officer Robert Nelson of the Tustin Police Department. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

 

Nelson, who is about to turn 30, was born in Compton. He was an athlete, a track and basketball star, so the gangs in his rough neighborhood stayed away from him. He went to Dominguez High School, known for producing athletic superstars like the NBA’s Tyson Chandler and the NFL’s Richard Sherman.

In 2001, Nelson was a sophomore sitting in a creative writing class when a gang fight broke out on campus. It wasn’t the violence that shocked him (he’d grown up around so much violence). He decided he wanted a better educational setting.

“I had an epiphany,” he said. “Something told me I needed something better. I needed a better place to get an education.”

He thinks now that voice in his head was God, letting him know that there was another path.

Nelson called his mother. “I want to change schools,” he said.

His friends thought he was crazy. His mother thought it was a good decision.

Nelson transferred to Torrance High.

*****

He set the Torrance High School record in the long jump (23 feet, 10 inches), ran 10.7 in the 100 meters and rose as high as pre-calculus in math.

He was recruited by USC, Cal State Northridge, the University of Miami, Washington and Long Beach State.

He chose Long Beach, and he’s happy he did. He kept getting injured in college, which is not the good part. The good part is that he met an athletic trainer named Hollie, who became his wife.

This is where the Nelson story takes a bit of a twist. While he was rehabbing an injured ankle before the start of his senior year, he began going to Long Beach State’s baseball practices.

Every day, he would sit along the third base line. His ankle was in a cast.

He drew the attention of Coach Mike Weathers.

“What are you doing here?” Weathers asked.

“Watching,” Nelson said.

“Do you play baseball?” Weathers asked.

“Maybe one day,” Nelson said.

Since he played T-ball at age 5, Nelson had never played in a game or practiced baseball.

After that brief chat with the coach, baseball became his obsession. Nelson began showing up at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, a baseball training center. He met a couple of ballplayers — Johnny Washington and Andrew Toussaint, who were still chasing their dreams in professional baseball.

Nelson began hitting off a tee while still in his cast. He went to the Academy every day. And once he got healthy, he ran a blistering 6.1 60 yard dash. Scouts took some notice. Nelson asked scout Chuck Stone to write him a letter of recommendation to Mike Weathers at Long Beach State.

Weathers offered Nelson a spot on the team as a walk-on. Nelson was so determined to play baseball that he agreed to decline the last year of his track scholarship. He played a few practice games for the Cal State Long Beach Dirt Bags during the fall.

One huge problem: He turned in his opt-out paperwork too late.

In 2008, Robert Nelson was declared ineligible.

*****

Nelson left Long Beach, and attended Compton Community College. He played baseball one season, hoping to get drafted. He thought his speed and athletic ability would prompt a major league team to take a chance on him.

But in June of 2008, his name was not selected in the major league amateur draft.

Baseball was finished. Or so he thought.

In the first week of June, he proposed to Hollie in Signal Hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

She said yes. They now live in Lakewood with their daughter.

He stopped playing baseball, but he found his niche in the game. Nelson became a speed coach. He quickly developed a clientele that included Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Dee Gordon, Matt Kemp, Peter Bourjos and lesser known players like Aaron Hicks, Jaque Peterson, Gary Brown and Matt Duffy.

“Baseball guys have no idea how to run,” Nelson said. “I try to eliminate all their wasted motion.”

He started his own business called “Third Gear.” Duffy, an infielder for the San Francisco Giants, got a base hit in the World Series and posed with Nelson for a photo after the game.

Nelson plans to be in Arizona and Florida for short stints this spring training to work with some of his clients.

*****

So far, this story about a police officer has very little to do with policing.

When Robert Nelson was rolling with his baseball training business, he began to think it wasn’t enough. He wanted to do something to help more people – not just ballplayers.

And he loved the show “Criminal Minds” on television. Fascinated by crime scene investigation, Nelson took a job in fingerprint analysis.

Then, he saw an advertisement for a CSI job in Tustin.

He joined the Tustin Police Department in 2013.

He had grown up in a culture where people didn’t like police officers.

“I was socialized not to like the police,” he said. “That’s the culture I was raised in.”

It was his new co-workers at the Tustin Police Department who convinced him to go to the academy.

“I love the guys here. They pushed me to be a cop,” he said.

In 2014, Robert Nelson became a full-time police officer.

He made an impact right away. When Nelson was in the academy, he and his 42 classmates donated $20 per week for various charities around Orange County.

When they graduated, they thought all the funds had been spent. But there was a unexpected balance of $1,700. Instead of using the money for a year-end party, Nelson suggested a Christmas-time shopping spree at Toys R Us.

Police officers from Tustin and Signal Hill, who had graduated from the academy together, bought gifts for kids at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

“These families already have a lot of stress and have more to worry about than providing a good Christmas for their children,” Nelson told Behind the Badge. “We wanted to do as much as we can to help.”

When he goes home to visit his mother in Compton, she is proud, and he notices he gets more respect.

“People come up to me and ask me if I’m a police officer,” Nelson said. “When I tell them yes, they say ‘Good for you. It’s all good.’”

Now his goals have changed.

“I want to change the perspective of the people who don’t love the cops,” Nelson said.

Don’t be surprised if some day in the not-too-distant future, Nelson runs for City Council in Compton. He loves his hometown, and he wants to help make it a better place.

Robert Nelson is a determined guy.