Nelson's Gunnar Nelson on his Heisman lineage, MMA's Gunnar Nelson & more
As the sons of teen idol Ricky Nelson and actress Kristin Harmon, and the grandsons of actor and bandleader Ozzie Nelson and actress Harriet Hilliard, Matthew and Gunnar Nelson are part of the third generation of famous Nelsons. Matthew and Gunnar's debut studio album After The Rain, released under the "Nelson" moniker, hit stores in 1990. It sold more than three million copies, its first of four hit singles went to #1.
The Nelsons released another album through Geffen Records, 1995’s Because They Can, before going independent. And simply put, Matthew and Gunnar have never stopped touring or recording. 2015 brought the Peace Out and the holiday-themed This Christmas. 2016 brought a followup to the latter, This Christmas Too. The Nelson brothers currently have multiple touring configurations including a rock show (Nelson), a holiday show ("Christmas With The Nelsons"), a live show with an orchestra, a tribute to their father ("Ricky Nelson Remembered) and a fun hair-metal tribute ("Scrap Metal").
I spoke to Gunnar Nelson by phone in the midst of the 2018 holiday season and had the chance to ask about his sports history. Beyond sharing a name with an MMA fighter, Nelson's uncle Mark Harmon -- yes, the NCIS actor -- was a quarterback for UCLA, while Tom Harmon was a Heisman Trophy winner. Furthermore, Gunnar Nelson is a lifelong follower o martial arts beyond being a three-sport athlete in high school. The full interview recording is embedded below, while Q&A about the Harmons is transcribed below.
Everyone knows of your family's musical pedigree, but not everyone realizes the Heisman lineage you also have on your family tree. Was sports ever a consideration as a career for either of you?
Gunnar Nelson: It was. I loved sports, it was really a natural fit for both of us. I lettered in three sports in high school and really enjoyed running track, really enjoyed playing baseball, really enjoyed playing football. I also went to John Wooden basketball camp and had a great time doing that too.
But as far as going into that, two things would have had to happen. I would have had to go to college, which I wasn't able to do. My father died when I was 18 years old and the whole family was upside down, as was our lives. So basically my lifeline at that point was making music and getting a record deal and getting signed and doing that.
But I also followed my uncle Mark's lead. My uncle Mark played quarterback for UCLA, he was a fabulous quarterback, incredibly talented. But I remember him telling me when he was a teenager, his father's friends were coming over to the house -- his father, the legendary Tom Harmon of University Of Michigan, Heisman Trophy winner as you mentioned -- Tom's friends were coming over to the house, they were young men and they were all hobbling.
They were all on crutches and feeble from the wear and tear that had taken out on them. So he made a decision when he was still at UCLA that he was going to shift majors and start studying acting.
Of course, that worked out for him. He was such a great quarterback, but he's now Gibbs on NCIS, Planet Earth's most successful TV show, and he's worked his whole life for that. So way to go, Uncle Mark. We pretty much followed his lead in that you can do things like that, but you've gotta keep the long game in mind. That's what Matthew and I have always, always done.
But man I loved playing quarterback, I loved being a free safety, big shoes to fill because as far as college players are concerned, there are very few that had played the game as well as Tom Harmon back in the day, looking at some of those films. We're talking before face-masks and leather helmets. Man, he was tough and he was really talented, a triple-threat. They just don't make men like that anymore.