Alexandra Kuolt sat inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium as her son, Navy senior slotback Marco Nelson, scored three touchdowns against Stanford earlier this month -- and cried.

She heard the crowd of 35,670 roar as one of the smallest players in Division I-A football tried to carry his team to its first victory of the season, only to fall short, 41-38.

"It was just awesome to see him out there," she said. "I just thought about how far he'd come to make it to college and play college football. It was like he finally made it."

At 5 feet 7 and 178 pounds, Nelson has overcome more than a size disadvantage to earn a spot in the starting lineup. He grew up quickly as the third oldest of six children and knew the only way he would attend college was if he paid his own way.

Kuolt moved with Nelson and three younger siblings to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1998 while her two oldest remained in Oregon with their father. Nelson became the man of the house when he was just entering high school. One day he would be deciding how to punish his siblings; the next day he would be riding bikes and playing soccer with them in the front yard.

"Even to this day, when I do something wrong, like do bad on a test, Marco will be the one who decides what the punishment will be," said Kyrion Nelson, 18, a high school senior. "He's still like a father to me and the person who always set the example growing up. If he would have done something bad, I probably would have done the same thing."

Marco followed one simple rule of the house.

"You either got a job and worked, or you played sports," he said. "So sports became pretty much a year-round thing for me. It was better than working. Sports was pretty much my life because it was non-stop."

Sports kept Nelson's family together. Marco's football team was the center of the family's attention some nights, but other days Nelson cheered at Kyrion's football game, sister Tiahna's volleyball match or Elijah's baseball game.

On the field, Marco Nelson didn't have to worry about his mother, who worked as a secretary at a software company, trying to feed a family of five. He focused on earning a college scholarship, which would set an example for his siblings.

"We were poor growing up, but we always got by," Marco said. "I think all of us being involved in sports was a big reason why. We always had something to do, always had a game to play. I don't know what would have happened if we didn't have sports." Navy was the only Division I-A school that wanted him to play football.

He arrived at the Academy in 2002, didn't play as a freshman and spent more time on the bench than on the field as a sophomore.

Nelson finished last season with 135 yards receiving on five catches and 107 yards on 15 carries, but has flourished as a senior. After rushing for 10 yards on two carries and catching one pass for eight yards in a 23-20 loss to Maryland, Nelson gave one of the finest performances in school history against Stanford on Sept. 10.

In the first quarter, he scooped up a fumbled punt and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown. He scored again on a one-yard run midway through the second quarter to give Navy a 21-14 lead. After Stanford took a 38-24 lead early in the fourth quarter, Nelson caught a 54-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Lamar Owens to cut the deficit to 38-31.

Nelson will be counted on tomorrow when Navy plays at Duke (1-3), which has allowed 30.2 points and 300.75 yards of total offense per game.

"Marco has really come up big for us in our first two games and we need for that to continue," Coach Paul Johnson said. "He's a leader. He's not a vocal guy that will yell a lot. He's more of a leader by example."