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Steelers' David Nelson leaves orphan mission work behind while at camp

LATROBE, Pa. -- David Nelson estimates he's been to Haiti about 60 to 70 times the last two-and-a-half years. He flies from Dallas to Miami to Port-au-Prince to reconnect children with their mothers and fathers after the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy.

His startup foundation interviews kids to see how he can help them, providing food and shelter until they find a home, preferably their original one. He makes endless calls from his Dallas office. He has a staff of six in Texas and four on the ground in Haiti. This has been his mission ever since he visited Haiti a few years back, and that mission is clear: Start in Haiti, take orphan aiding global.

Yet here he is in the hills of Pennsylvania on a sweltering August day, taking third-string practice reps with the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers, trying to learn enough of the playbook to take part in Sunday's preseason matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

The Steelers have allowed those two worlds to collide as Nelson pursues his passion this fall and his heart in the offseason.

"I'm doing more for those kids being here, especially with this fan base," said Nelson, who has helped 52 children successfully find a home. "This is the most loyal and rabid fan base there is in football. They support their players. I have to give them a reason to get behind me."

Make no mistake, Nelson is here to play, and play well. The Steelers understand that, which is why they signed him.

It should have been that easy in the first place. Nelson, 28, has 138 catches and 10 touchdowns in five NFL seasons. He has been injured the last two years but has shown he can provide quality depth on an NFL roster when healthy.

But as Nelson wrote in an essay in late July, he felt teams pressured him to decide on the NFL or his foundation.

Speaking Sunday to ESPN before practice, Nelson doesn't blame NFL teams, but instead America's corporate culture. He doesn't get into the specifics of which teams made him choose. But he's grateful for the Steelers, who didn't think twice about signing him, sensing a family atmosphere with a singular focus of getting better.

Nelson explains that he grinds on football during the season and in the offseason, but works tirelessly on his foundation during his free time. Right now, it's all football.

He didn't have to explain any of that to Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin.

"Wasn't even on their radar," he said. "They are comfortable with my skill set, comfortable with what I can do on the field, and that's it."

Nelson has a steep climb to make the team. He chose to join a loaded Steelers receivers corps. But it's worth noting that in Nelson's last healthy, complete season, in 2011, he caught 61 passes for 658 yards and five scores. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament early in 2012, then latched on with the New York Jets for 44 catches and 488 yards between 2013-14. A high ankle sprain made him expendable when the Jets traded for Percy Harvin.

Nelson never felt blackballed from the league this offseason, but he sensed enough skepticism with his perceived dedication to the game -- even though he worked out every day -- that speaking out became a way to reach people feeling their dreams are suppressed by corporate pressures.

"It's a mindset in our culture, go get your career, go earn money, go get your degree, do these things first," Nelson said. "You go around the world or other places, like in Australia, they don't have that mindset. You do what you want to do to be happy. Our generation, the Millennials, are starting to get more into what makes me happy more than what gets me money."

Nelson is part of a crowded receivers room, but as one of eight children, he's used to that. A large family is what drew him to orphan help. About 80 percent of orphans have a mother or father or both alive somewhere.

If a few more touchdowns bring awareness to that cause, everyone wins -- the team, Nelson's passion for football and his organization.

"I grew up in a family that loves and supports me whether I fail or succeed," Nelson said. "I believe every child should have that opportunity."