Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt first encountered Jordy Nelson in 2006, when Whitt was coaching at Louisville and Nelson was a junior at Kansas State. He warned his players then about Nelson, and he warns rookie defensive backs every year about him when they join the Packers' roster.
No matter what long-held stereotypes might say about white wide receivers, Whitt says, don't make any assumptions about Nelson. According to Whitt, a few Chicago Bears defenders made those assumptions about Nelson before a late-season game last year, and by the time the two teams met again in the NFC Championship Game, those players were admitting their mistake to Nelson.
''I remember on the field in Chicago, the (Bears') DBs before the game coming up to Jordy saying, `We didn't know you were that fast.' They don't know how fast he is, how big he is, how strong he is until he gets behind them, or until he gets his hands on them. And then they're like, `Oh, my goodness,''' Whitt explained Friday. ''I tell my guys, `When you get here, you hear about `85' (Greg Jennings). You hear about `80' (Donald Driver). But I tell them, `That '87,' until you figure out how to play him, he's going to wear you out.'''
The color of Nelson's skin became a topic of conversation in the Packers' locker room this week after quarterback Aaron Rodgers shared a conversation he had with cornerback Charles Woodson, a 14-year NFL veteran and former league defensive player of the year, in the waning moments of the Packers' 45-7 victory over Minnesota — a game in which Nelson caught two touchdown passes from Rodgers.
''I was talking to `Wood' in the fourth quarter and he said, `When you see Jordy out there, you think, ''Oh well, he's a white wide receiver. He won't be very athletic.'' But Jordy sort of breaks all those stereotypes,''' Rodgers recounted during his weekly radio show on Milwaukee’s WAUK-AM. ''I am not sure why he keeps sneaking up on guys.''
Jennings, Nelson's fellow wide receiver and friend, knows exactly why Nelson keeps sneaking up on opponents: He's white.
''They underestimate him. And honestly, he uses that to his advantage,'' Jennings said. ''Seriously, a lot of it has to do with the fact that guys look at him and say, ‘OK, he's the white guy, he can't be that good.' Well, he is that good, he's proven to be that good and it's because of the work and the time that he's put in — not only on the field but in his preparation off the field.''
Nelson enters Sunday's home game against Tampa Bay with 34 catches for 633 yards and seven touchdowns. He ranks second on the team in receptions and yardage to Jennings (51 catches, 755 yards) and the two are tied for the team lead in touchdown catches. In the NFL, Nelson ranks tied for 44th in catches but 15th in yardage and tied for first with Carolina's Steve Smith in yards per reception (18.6) among receivers with at least 20 receptions.
By Friday, when even conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh devoted time to the subject, Nelson could only shake his head. An avoid-the-spotlight person, all the attention was a bit much.
''I told you not to let the secret out,'' he said with a laugh.
The trouble with the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson is that he's playing so well, the secret has been out.
Nelson has caught touchdowns of 50, 84 and 93 yards this season, plus a 64-yard catch against San Diego two weeks ago. (The 93- and 84-yarder give him two of the five longest receptions in the NFL this year.) He's shown he can go deep or turn a relatively short pass into a big gain (the 93-yarder only traveled 25 yards in the air) and also exhibits strength and power, as he did on a 17-yard touchdown against the Vikings on Monday night, when the final 12 yards came after he stiff-armed Minnesota's Cedric Griffin.
He also has a keen football mind, which he showed on his other touchdown, when he and Rodgers were on the same wavelength on a broken play that turned into a 4-yard touchdown.
''(There's) just a lot of comfort and confidence when I'm throwing him the football,'' Rodgers explained. ''I really feel like Jordy sees the game like a quarterback does, which is directly related to the number of conversations we have had in meetings or after meetings. I enjoy the way that he asks questions, and I think there is a lot to say about the way that you ask questions — what types of questions you are asking, the whys, the fine details — because that goes a long way.''
For his part, Nelson doesn't compare himself to anyone ("I wasn't trying to emulate my game after anyone because I didn't play the position'') but does acknowledge that the white-receiver stereotyping does permeate the league.
''Honestly, I think it is (a factor). As receivers, we've talked about it,'' said Nelson, who first gained national attention for his performance in the Packers' Super Bowl victory in February (nine receptions, 140 yards, one touchdown). ''I know Joe Whitt tells me all the time, when all the rookies come in, he gives them the heads-up: `Don't let him fool ya.' That's fine with me.
''(But) I don't really care. I like what (opposing cornerbacks) are doing, whatever it is.''