Ex-Gopher Nelson free on bail; victim ‘fighting for his life’
By John Brewer and Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MANKATO — Two hours after he was arrested in Mankato, former University of Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson told police he didn’t remember kicking a defenseless Isaac Kolstad in the head after Kolstad had been knocked out by another man.
The kick, caught on surveillance cameras in the downtown bar district, might have fractured Kolstad’s skull and left him “fighting for his life” at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.
The kick also landed Nelson in the Blue Earth County jail, charged with first- and third-degree assault.
Nelson, 20, was arrested at 2:15 a.m. Sunday. Police are asking for the public’s assistance identifying an additional suspect and potential witnesses in the ongoing investigation.
“We know that there was at least one more person involved in this assault,” Todd Miller, director of public safety for the city of Mankato, said at a news conference Monday. “We have video of that individual, as well as video of a number of other persons that we are attempting to locate.”
Nelson appeared in court Monday wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, with his hands cuffed and his ankles chained. Afterward, his attorney, Jim Fleming, told the Associated Press it wasn’t certain who caused Kolstad’s injuries, suggesting the man being sought by police “threw a debilitating blow to the victim.”
Fleming said Nelson, who was later freed after posting $20,000 in bail, “was not an aggressor in this situation.”
Police were looking for a white man in his early 20s who was wearing a red T-shirt and jeans when he left the scene. The suspect’s shirt was torn during the incident. Police also said they’re looking for someone driving a white car with a sunroof — a potential witness.
On Monday, the Kolstad family released a statement through Mayo Clinic spokesman Kevin Burns, saying they have been “overwhelmed and extremely grateful for the warmth, love and prayers we have received over the last several days” but did not offer an update their son’s condition. The 24-year-old former Minnesota State Mankato linebacker was listed in critical condition Sunday.
The two young men clashed just after 2 a.m., as bars in the downtown entertainment district were clearing out.
According to the criminal complaint, Nelson had been out with his girlfriend and became angry when a bouncer tried to kiss her.
The two walked past Kolstad and one of his friends, and the friend told police that Kolstad and Nelson began to argue about something. The argument became heated, the friend said, so he talked with Nelson “in an attempt to de-escalate the situation.”
As the two talked, Kolstad punched Nelson in the upper back and knocked him and the friend to the ground.
Surveillance footage showed Kolstad walking away from the group when an unknown male in a red shirt and blue jeans ran up and punched Kolstad in the head.
Kolstad “immediately goes limp and collapses to the pavement,” according to the criminal complaint.
Nelson then pushes past Kolstad’s friend and kicks Kolstad at least once on the left side of his head.
A witness said Kolstad was motionless and “appeared to be defenseless” when he was kicked.
Another witness then summoned police, and several people pointed out Nelson as one of the assailants.
Later, while being interviewed in the jail, Nelson said that after being knocked down, he turned around to see someone punching the bouncer who had tried to kiss his girlfriend earlier in the evening.
He said he then left the area.
The officer asked if he recalled kicking Kolstad.
“Nelson stated that he did not,” the criminal complaint said.
On a CaringBridge.org page, Kolstad’s family said he is “fighting for his life” and that his “brain did sustain permanent damage.”
In an interview with police, a doctor at the hospital said he was not optimistic about Kolstad’s chances of survival. His injuries, including bleeding of the brain, a skull fracture, brain swelling, brain shifting and deterioration of the lungs due to a lack of oxygen, likely were due to being struck and kicked in the head, he said.
The doctor is cited in the complaint as saying that if Kolstad does survive, he “is not optimistic that he will make a good recovery.”
Nelson earned the Minnesota Mr. Football award as Minnesota’s top high school football player when he was a student at Mankato West High School in 2011.
He started the Gophers’ final seven games as a true freshman quarterback in 2012. In 2013, Nelson started nine of 12 games for the Gophers but decided to transfer after sharing quarterback duties with another player. In January he chose Rutgers University because, he said, it has a pass-oriented offense. He spent the spring semester at Rutgers.
Jason Baum, an associate athletic director with Rutgers athletics, said in an email that the school “is in the process of gathering information on the situation and (will) reserve comment until the legal process is complete.”
Kolstad attended Mankato East High School and played safety at North Dakota State before transferring to MSU-Mankato. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management from Mankato’s College of Business in December and has two daughters, according to his family.
Mankato East High School football coach Eric Davis said the school’s administration and counseling department are working closely to provide support to the family and students affected by the incident.
“It’s been a rough couple of days down here for everyone associated with Minnesota State University, Mankato East High School and our city in general,” Davis said in an email to the Pioneer Press. “Isaac’s family is showing a remarkable amount of courage in the face of this unimaginable challenge.”
Frederick Melo contributed to this report. The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.