Mabel-Canton senior Mac Nelson lost his mother as a young child, then his father as a teenager. He has persevered, succeeding in multiple sports and is earning a near-perfect grade-point average his senior year.ANDREW LINK/WINONA DAILY NEWS
Mabel-Canton senior Mac Nelson lost his mother as a young child, then his father as a teenager. He has persevered, succeeding in multiple sports and is earning a near-perfect grade-point average his senior year.ANDREW LINK/WINONA DAILY NEWS
The doctors thought it was kidney stones.

They treated Mackenzie "Mac" Nelson's dad for those, but he wasn't getting any better. He could barely keep his meals down.

So they thought it could be gallbladder stones.

During a surgery to remove those, they found cancer.

It had already spread.

Only a month passed - if that - and Mac's dad was gone.

Finding inspiration

Mac Nelson, Mabel-Canton High School's selection for the 2014 Above and Beyond Award, has been no stranger to grief.

His mom died when he was just 8. It was a loss, Mac said, that took a while to sink in.

"It didn't impact me a whole lot then, because I was so young," he said. "But then as I was growing up, it hits a guy a little bit harder. Because then you realize everyone else has got two parents, and you only have one."

He got used to living with just his dad, which, Mac said, meant eating microwave meals or hamburgers almost every night for dinner.

It also meant lots and lots of cars.

Mac's dad had always been a great car-lover, and had an ever-growing collection of El Caminos, old Chevy Blazers - just about every car you could think of, Mac said.

He passed on that passion to Mac, and the two went to many car shows together over the years.

So when Mac's dad died last August - just 10 days before Mac's 17th birthday - Mac felt his absence strongly.

Soon came Mabel's 50s and 60s Day, which Mac and his dad had always attended together. Then came Steam Engine Days, which Mac's dad had loved, too.

Mac went to the annual town events with an aunt, uncle and cousins, with whom he'd been staying with since his dad's health began to really decline. That helped, but it still wasn't the same without him, Mac said.

Quickly, school started.

In his small town, all of Mac's teachers and coaches knew what had happened. They worried that he'd have a hard time making it through the year.

But Mac didn't use his grief as an excuse. He used it as inspiration.

"He's a young man who has probably had bigger challenges than a lot of kids his age," said Karl Urbaniak, a Mabel-Canton teacher and coach who has known Mac for about 10 years. "But I've seen him respond in a positive way to challenges."

Stronger than ever

Suddenly, Mac's grades shot up.

"(My dad) always told me that when I can drive, I need to get good grades for my insurance," Mac explained.

His senior-year grade-point average is a 3.897 so far - "a surprise," Mac said.

And he stepped it up in sports.

Before his dad died, Mac already had been improving, said Urbaniak, who coached Mac in football, basketball and baseball. He was beginning to take more of a responsibility for his mistakes, make some corrections.

But in the fall - with the loss of his dad just weeks behind him - Mac came into the season stronger than ever.

Assistant coach Paul Tollefsrud described him as someone he learned to count on to make plays and said he always came through.

Urbaniak said he saw him become one of the better players on the team throughout the season and one of the most improved.

Having the support of his aunt and uncle has helped him get through, Mac said, but still, he derives a lot of his strength from the memory of his dad.

"I guess it was more of a motivation than anything, you know?" Mac said. "Because he used to be there on the sidelines, so you want to make him proud."

Future plans

With football and basketball season behind him, Mac is focused these days on enjoying his final days at Mabel-Canton, where he's known as being well-liked and as someone who has many friends.

Mabel-Canton English teacher Bonnie Wenthold described Mac as thoughtful, as someone who has great inner strength.

Tollefsrud, who also has Mac as a student in shop class, described Mac as someone he can count on and who always tries to make people laugh.

Mac continues to keep busy with choir, FFA and student council. He holds an after-school job and volunteers with his church.

In the forefront of his mind, though, is finalizing his plans for the future.

He'd like to attend Mankato State University or Winona State University, where he'll either follow his dad's love for cars by studying automotive engineering technology, or maybe business instead.

Whatever Mac chooses, those who know him are sure he'll do well.

"Most of life is getting knocked down," Wenthold said. "The real test is if you can get up and persevere, and I think Mac has that kind of personality that he will be able to go on - he'll pursue his goals and he will get them."

About this series: The annual Above and Beyond Award spotlights area high school seniors who have either overcome adversity or given selflessly to their community. The scholarship program is sponsored by Winona State University, Saint Mary's University, Southeast Technical College and the Winona Daily News.