Nelson Paul never says a word — not on the field and not during the game. He doesn't have to. He lets his play do the talking.
Nelson Paul knew this summer was going to be a long one. Paul would have to survive nearly three months without playing a sport. No track and field, and, most importantly, no football. But he was determined to be prepared for next season.
So, while other kids celebrated the end of tests and homework with vacations and naps, Paul got to work.
Monday through Friday, Paul would spring out of bed early in the morning to train. He didn’t have a workout set at home. So instead, he would walk over a mile to the house of a friend who did.
“I’d set up everything if he wasn’t home,” Paul said. “I’d do push ups and sit ups until he got back. I did that almost every day. Except for Saturday and Sunday. Saturday, I rested. And Sunday was for church.”
Now, as Paul — a star defensive end at Flagler Palm Coast High School — walks off the practice field at FPC, the results show. He stands at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, sculpted and well-defined, especially for a 17-year-old in his junior year. And even after a grueling practice, he looks fresh, rejuvenated and ready for another go. He doesn’t tire out. Not when the postseason is so near. Not when a chance at history is close enough to taste.
“I don’t like to rest,” said Paul, who leads a Bulldogs team that went undefeated in the regular season for the first time in school history. “Hard work pays off. That’s what pushes me through day-in and day-out.”
When Paul was 11, he had never touched a football before. So, when he ran onto the field for his first practice with his Pop Warner team in West Palm Beach, the Falcons, he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to wear over his pads. He decided on a stylish polo with red-and-white stripes. Paul later passed out from exhaustion during warmups.
“I was definitely second-guessing myself after that,” he said. “But I kept pushing.”
Just keep pushing: That’s the motto Paul lives by. It’s what drives him to be better than the competition. It’s what led him, even after his blunder at practice, to terrorize the opposition in middle school as a bruising running back.
“I was plowing through people,” Paul said. “They had to take more than one person to take me down. I was playing on both sides of the ball and not getting tired.”
By high school, he was a standout.
So, when Mainland defensive coordinator Travis Roland was named the head coach of the Bulldogs, one of the first things Roland did was watch Paul’s highlight tape. The attraction was instant: Roland knew he had a star player on his hands.
“Speed. Explosion. Just all those things you want to see in a football player,” Roland said. “I mean, I had everything that you could ask for. You saw power. You saw speed. You saw strength. You saw everything.”
But his best quality?
“How humble he was,” Roland said. “You wouldn’t know he had that in him looking at what he can do on the field.”
A dream realized
When Paul was told he had received his first scholarship offer, he thought his coaches were lying.
Just a sophomore at the time, Paul was offered by Valdosta State, a Division II school in Valdosta, Georgia. Since then, Paul’s recruitment has picked up. He has since received an offer from Division I program Florida Atlantic and has garnered interest from Georgia Tech.
For Paul, the offers were a weight off his shoulders. For his father, Wilner, who immigrated to the United States from Léogâne, Haiti, in 1981, the chance for his son to achieve a college education — something he never got to experience — was a dream.
“It’s really good for our family,” Wilner said. “I’m so proud of him.”
The opportunity to suit up on a Saturday for a college football program is added fuel for Paul. It’s why he refuses to rest.
“I want to be someone who pushes hard to be successful,” he said. “I don’t want to be average. I just want to succeed and see how far I can go with hard work.”
A leader by example
The bad years are still burned into Paul’s mind. In his first two years at FPC, the Bulldogs won a total of seven games and lost to rival Matanzas twice in a row.
“It was hard,” Paul said. “Having a losing streak like that, it felt awful. It felt like a dream that wasn’t coming into place.”
The team — its coaches and its players — wasn’t together.
“It felt like we were moving backward,” Paul said. “We weren’t a family. We were always yelling at each other after every play. We wanted to get better, but we couldn’t.”
But with the a new head coach, a culture shift soon rippled through the Bulldogs’ locker room. The team feels like family now, Paul said. Almost like blood. Players interact even outside of the football field.
Family: It’s a mantra that has ingrained itself into every aspect of FPC football.
“You’re just not alone,” Paul said. “Even when you’re down, they’ll come beside you and stick up for you and be with you.”
The standout defender has played a role in the culture change, Roland said — all without saying a word. Paul doesn’t have to; he lets his play do the talking.
“When you see a kid like Nelson, who has the stats, who’s getting college interests and offers, when you see a kid like that working hard in the weight room and being the first guy in all of the sprints at practice — being always at the front, always at the top — it’s kind of hard for someone else to say they’re not going to work hard,” Roland said. “He’s a lead-by-example kind of guy. He’s not a very outspoken, loud person. That is not Nelson Paul at all. Do as I do, and then you do as I say.”
The Bulldogs are on the brink of program history, now, with their first playoff game set for Friday, Nov. 10, at FPC High School.
Roland has one expectation for Paul.
“To dominate,” he said. “In games like these, where speed and all that stuff is going to be even, he’s going to have to step up and make plays. He’s got to win.”