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Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history: No. 20 Walter Nielsen

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Position, years at UA: Back, 1936-38

Honors, accomplishments at UA: Was a Little All-American in 1937. … Was the first UA player to appear in the East-West Shrine Game, doing so in 1939. … Became the first first-round NFL draft pick in school history.

Why he made our list: Walter Nielsen, from Los Angeles, picked UA over USC to help control his asthma, and his first game with the Wildcats showed the player he could become.

A UPI story from 1936 said Nielsen earned his nickname “Hoss” during the season-opening 32-6 victory over BYU. The UPI wrote: “(H)e carried a trio of Brigham Young University tacklers a good 10 yards pickaback after he had already negotiated 23 yards through a broken field.”

Nielsen, a 220-pound fullback who also was a sprinter and competed in field events, was UA’s best runner in the first half of the 20th century, helping lead the talented 1937 “Blue Brigade” that opened with a 20-6 victory over Arizona State and ended with a 20-6 victory over Oregon, the latter propelling the Ducks to swipe coach Tex Oliver from the Wildcats.

Following his All-American season in 1937, “Hoss” was limited by a knee injury in 1938, but he was healthy enough to leave a big impression on Marquette late in the season.

The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that Marquette hadn’t met “such a combination of size, brute strength, amazing speed and passing and punting ability all wrapped up in one human package.”

Life after college: The New York Giants selected Nielsen with the 10th pick in the 1939 draft, although he played that season with Jersey City Giants, a farm club of the NFL team, because he “succumbed to hay fever,” according to a wire story from the day. He played for the New York Giants in 1940, rushing 73 times for 269 yards, then joined the Army and never returned to football.

Nielsen landed on Omaha Beach in France two days after D-Day, according to a 1994 story in the Tucson Citizen, which wrote that he “would continue by serving in a reconnaissance mission and driving armored cars ahead of the Allied tanks to scout out Nazi positions.”

Nielsen told the Citizen: “When we landed, we were in 4 feet of water while we unloaded. We moved in behind the infantry and settled in their area. We went across Europe fast and we were the first Americans to arrive in Belgium since we were out in front.”

He worked in private business upon his return to Arizona, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

Nielsen died in September 2006 in Tucson. He was 89.

In partnership with the Arizona Republic, we are counting down the top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Leave your top 10 at AG’s Wildcat Report on Facebook, and check out azcentral.com for the countdown of ASU’s Top 50 football players.

Arizona’s top 50

No. 50 — LaMonte Hunley

No. 49 — Hubie Oliver

No. 48 — Rob Gronkowski

No. 47 — Jim Donarski

No. 46 — Ontiwaun Carter

No. 45 — Steve McLaughlin

No. 44 — John Fina

No. 43 — Glenn Parker

No. 42 — Bobby Lee Thompson

No. 41 — Marcus Bell

No. 40 — Fred W. Enke

No. 39 — Ka’Deem Carey

No. 38 — Juron Criner

No. 37 — Dana Wells

No. 36 — Tom Tunnicliffe

No. 35 — Bruce Hill

No. 34 — Chuck Osborne

No. 33 — Brandon Sanders

No. 32 — Sean Harris

No. 31 — Mike Thomas

No. 30 — Bobby Wade

No. 29 — T Bell

No. 28 — Joe Salave’a

No. 27 — Eddie Wilson

No. 26 — Chuck Levy

No. 25 — Allan Durden

No. 24 — Nick Foles

No. 23 — Tony Bouie

No. 22 — ‘King Kong’ Nolan

No. 21 — Bill Lueck

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