How this UCLA linebacker gives back through gaming

For patients at Mattel Children’s Hospital, Hayden Nelson hopes to brighten their day with video games

A video game console and a little bit of free time are the tools UCLA football player Hayden Nelson uses to brighten the days of young patients at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.

When looking for ways to give back, the 6-foot-4, 248-pound linebacker sensed playing video games with these patients would be a great way to take their minds off the illnesses they’ve been fighting. In doing so, he says, he finds fun, empathy and because of his own experience with injury, a sense of kinship.  

On days when he’s available, Nelson and some of his teammates head to “The Zone,” located on the fifth floor of Mattel. There they play some of the children’s favorite video games such as Mario Kart, Minecraft and Super Smash Bros.

Sam Summa, left, Hayden Nelson and Chase Griffin make their way to "The Zone" at Mattel Children's Hospital. (Photo by Nick Carranza/UCLA Health)

“The biggest thing they enjoy is having someone sit next to them, play with them and spend time with them,” Nelson says.

The children at Mattel are not really impressed with Nelson’s status as a football player, he admits. For them, it’s more about connection with another person.

“They’re not super into sports all the time, so the fact that I’m a football player doesn’t really move the kids,” he says. “They like having someone there they can spend time with while having a bit of fun in the process.”

In the spring of 2022, Nelson was working at a paid internship with the nonprofit organization Athletes for Hope, co-founded by the great UCLA and Olympic track-and-field athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. It was then he stumbled upon another organization called the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which creates hospital wear and portable gaming stations for child patients.

“They had these cool hospital gowns with superheroes on them,” he recalls. “Then I noticed they had created a portable Nintendo Switch gaming station.”

Nelson used $2,000 of his internship money and fundraised an additional $3,000 to purchase the $5,000 console on wheels. “I thought it would be a cool project to have one of those for the children at Mattel.”

Adversity sparks generosity

Nelson has his own experience with injury and illness. In 2020, while playing football during his senior year at Brookefield Central High School in Milwaukee, he experienced a devastating injury that almost caused him to walk away from the game.

Hayden Nelson and Isaac go head to head as Chase Griffin and Sam Summa look on. (Photo by Nick Carranza/UCLA Health)

“The correct medical terminology for it is posterior dislocation of the sternoclavicular joint,” he says. “My collarbone got pushed backwards into my neck.”

Nelson’s heart, nerves and arteries were at risk of being severed by the position of the dislocated collarbone. For the surgery to repair it, a heart surgeon was flown in to make sure Hayden’s cardiovascular system was not harmed.

“God carried me through that injury. The whole time I just prayed and listened to worship music,” Nelson recalls. “Football was in the back of my mind at that point.”

Although his doctor told him he’d make a full recovery within six months, he wasn’t sure he’d ever play again.

Isaac and Hayden Nelson engaged in an intense game of Mario Kart. (Photo by Nick Carranza/UCLA Health)

Nelson told coaches at Syracuse University, where he had a football scholarship waiting, that he wouldn’t be coming to New York.

Instead, he elected to come to UCLA, where he had been accepted for his academics.

“My plan was to get my health right while going to a great school, since football was sort of out the window at that point,” Nelson says.

The moment he arrived on campus, Nelson decided to change the plan. He tried out for the UCLA football team as a walk-on player, not wanting his injury to get in the way of his fire to play again.

Still, Nelson’s voyage as a Bruin has had its challenges.

He suffered a concussion during practice at the beginning of fall camp. He is currently recovering from surgery after a labral hip tear that has sidelined him so far this year.

His injuries, he says, just strengthen his commitment to giving back to the young patients at Mattel.

“These children are going through battles that we can’t even understand,” he says. “My hip injury is a temporary issue. Some of these kids have been fighting for their lives for years. It gives me a new sense of perspective.”

As Nelson heals from his injuries, he’s planning more gaming sessions at the hospital.

Hayden Nelson stands with the gaming console outside of Wasserman Football Center at UCLA. (Photo by Nick Carranza/UCLA Health)

“I love seeing the joy on the faces of the kids when we come into the room,” he says. “My goal for UCLA is to have a program where student-athletes can continue to be a part of these kids’ lives. If they need me to be that middle-man or want me to find someone, I can do that. We can make this process a whole lot bigger.”

Nelson believes that other hospitals can turn his gaming idea into a wider movement to create a positive impact for children with illnesses worldwide.

“I want this to become as big as it can.”

Lean more about UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute.


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