(ABC4) – Ryan Nielsen found a pretty good hobby during the pandemic.
The 37-year-old father from Sandy and longtime professional wrestling fan has spent the past few months or so crowning local sports figures and others with the ultimate sign of supremacy: a metal-plated leather championship belt.
The belts, built under his brand Salt City Swagger, have graced the sidelines of BYU and Utah football, found their way into Utah Jazz games at Vivint Arena, and have even been commissioned by local businesses looking for a unique way to recognize their employees.
It all started, however, with a single belt he made for his 9-year-old son to wear at a Jazz game. Nielsen imagined that his son, holding a giant, professional-quality championship belt, would be a shoo-in for a jumbotron or TV appearance.
“I grew up a wrestling guy and so I’ve always loved belts, and even before I made one, I had them,” Nielsen, who calls Hulk Hogan his favorite wrestler, explains to ABC4.com. “And so I kind of just had this idea to make a Jazz one.”
When the Nielsens, along with their belt, made it to Vivint Arena last May, the dad boasts that he and his son stood out, a lot. Of course, they made it on the television broadcast, and not long afterwards, folks started blowing Nielsen up on social media, asking where they could get a belt of their own.
“It’s kind of just evolved from here,” Nielsen says, adding that the demand has grown so large, he hopes to turn his belt-making hobby into a full-time job.
Since then, he’s made dozens of belts. A belt he held during BYU’s win over Arizona at the start of the season was given to the football program and used by the team to celebrate defensive turnovers throughout the year. Another belt honoring deceased Utah football players Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe was given to the Utah football team.
Nielsen also made belts for the Jazz’s entire broadcast team as his way of thanking them for their coverage of the team. He says the experience of having his daughter give a belt to sideline reporter Holly Rowe was especially memorable.
“Holly couldn’t have been sweeter with her. She took some really cute pictures and reached out to me directly and thanked me and posted videos of it,” Nielsen recalls. “I have two girls and so I’m personally very appreciative of the things that she’s done, so I was really, really excited that my daughter was able to give her the belt.”
While rubbing shoulders with the sports personalities mostly seen on TV has been a blast, Nielsen says his biggest thrill has been bestowing children who are fighting cancer with belts of their own.
Jack Troxel, a 12-year-old battling a brain tumor in Vancouver, Wash., had one of the best reactions yet when he opened a box with his belt a couple of weeks ago.
Nielsen came across Troxel while watching BYU’s basketball team play Oregon in Portland on Nov. 16. Troxel, a BYU fan, had been invited by head coach Mark Pope to attend the game and was shown on ESPN holding a sign reading “Taking a break from beating cancer to watch BYU! Go COUGS!!”
A sign worthy of a championship belt-holder, Nielsen thought.
After getting in contact by crowd-sourcing a connection on social media and sending the belt up to Washington, Nielsen received a video of the unboxing from Troxel’s dad, Ryan.
The emotions were overwhelming for the beltmaker, who had also beat cancer earlier in his life.
“I was at my sister’s house and I kind of stepped aside by myself and I watched it and I just broke down in tears watching him,” he says, remembering thinking how much he felt for Jack and his family. “To see his response and how he’s kind of breathless, it took his breath away a little bit.”
The next part where Troxel excitedly declared he was going to put on the belt right then and there made Neilsen laugh and smile. It had been worth it.
Troxel’s dad says the gesture from Neilsen, who he has never met in person before, was “just amazing.”
“I’ve seen the belts on the sidelines that he’s made for the football team and stuff and we’ve always thought how cool those were,” he says. “And just that he reached out to me, it’s just very touching.”
So far, Neilsen has made four belts for a cancer-fighting child. Remember Noah Reeb, the kid who got a shoutout from Tom Brady and a hat from the legendary quarterback at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game in November? He got a belt from Neilsen too. And Neilsen and his son got a new friend in exchange. When they went to drop off the belt at Reeb’s house, the two little boys hit it off. Now, they’ll be going to each other’s birthday parties.
To Neilsen, those are the kinds of things that make his new hobby – and a potentially very successful business – worthwhile.
“I’m trying to stay true to why I started it and it was for my kids, to hopefully raise them to enjoy life and have fun but also to give back and help others in need as well,” he explains. “And so we’ve been able to do that a little bit and it’s just been really, really cool to see.”
Troxel’s family has set up a GoFundMe page for his treatment here.