Eric 'Big E' Nelson to make special appearance at boys basketball game vs. Esko

Nelson was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in November and has since been hospitalized as he undergoes treatment.

Long-time Bemidji High School custodian Eric Nelson, affectionately known as “Big E,” was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in November and has since been hospitalized as he undergoes treatment.
Courtesy / Misty Moments Photography

BEMIDJI — Some people have such a presence that they only have to go by one letter.

Over the past few months, this presence has been missing at Bemidji High School and throughout the broader community, which has been rallying behind a person who has rallied behind so many others.

Long-time custodian Eric Nelson, affectionately known as “Big E,” was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in November and has since been hospitalized as he undergoes treatment.

As he continues his battle, the public has come together to support Nelson in a myriad of ways. One method of support will take place during Thursday night’s matchup between the Bemidji High School boys basketball team and Esko, for which Nelson will be in attendance.

“Our basketball boosters and boys basketball team have been working hard on putting things together,” BHS activities director Kristen McRae said. “They’re working on giving him a nice grand entry, giving him a little spin around the gym so people can greet him."


She added lightheartedly, "I just hope people don’t charge the gym floor to greet him, because you could get a technical (foul) or something."

Supporting students

Such an opportunity to welcome Nelson back to his stomping grounds of nearly 30 years has stirred up fond memories and stories from students, staff and community members alike.

BHS senior Asher Geller considers Nelson a friend, and in wanting to honor all of his friends, helped to dedicate the Unified Basketball game against Menahga last Wednesday to Nelson.

“It felt wrong not to have him included in that. If he had watched that game (on Wednesday), I guarantee he would’ve loved it,” Geller said. “When I got bullied at the beginning of the year, Big E was one of the first people who I told about it and he told me, ‘Just keep looking up.’ I miss him and I wish he was here.”

Sophomore Philip Hodapp crossed paths with Nelson while being active in football, Nordic skiing and baseball. He noted Nelson’s support for all BHS athletics and activities.

“When playing football, we always let him come to the sideline and be with us during our home games, which was pretty cool,” Hodapp said. “He’s always there to support all the students and give us a lending hand.”

Activities secretary Linda Newby has known Nelson for around 12 years. On top of her own experiences, Newby has children in the district who have gotten to know him as well.

“Something I’ve always really admired about him … he does his job, but his favorite part is being around the kids,” Newby said. “And I have kids here now, and I’ve gotten to see him through their eyes.”


Musing on memories

Whether it was Nelson’s pep talks prior to games or the jingling of his keys as he walked down the high school hallways, Newby noted Nelson’s absence has certainly been noticeable.

“We’ve definitely felt his presence missed, especially this winter with our sports seasons starting,” Newby added. “We were at a loss without him. There were a lot of things that people didn’t know that he did.”

BHS principal Jason Stanoch credited Nelson as the reason he became employed at BHS, as Nelson checked Stanoch’s references and told the district he was “good to go” to be hired.

Stanoch also noted Nelson’s assistance in building the district’s workforce, particularly its custodial staff, and that Nelson goes above and beyond his required job duties in the interest of helping people.

“He’s done things like keep the gym open for a couple students so they can take an extra 100 free throws,” Stanoch detailed. “Realistically, he’s got enough work to do. He doesn’t have to do those things, but he does those things for people.”

McRae said that Nelson does his job to the nth degree — even when students wanted him to chaperone a past winter formal event.

“He shows up in a nice pair of his black jeans and a white T-shirt that has a tuxedo print on it,” McRae recalled. “Toward 10:30 or 11 at night, I look out and there’s Big E in the middle of the dance floor with his flashlight making sure that everybody was staying a little bit away from each other.”

Former activities director Troy Hendricks has known Nelson since the mid-1980s and considers Nelson an educator despite his custodial title.


“He’s got a lot of the same qualities that I look for in a coach, somebody who looks for the good in people and can put a smile on your face,” Hendricks said. “He would always brag about everyone who played and looked for their best qualities, and that hasn’t changed.”

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The Bemidji boys basketball team stands for the National Anthem in the shape of an "E" prior to a game on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, at the BHS Gymnasium.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Giving back

Along with being a man of many duties, Nelson has forged an impressive network over the years. Stanoch detailed Nelson’s connection with former Minnesota Twins baseball player Dan Gladden.

“I happened to be at the game when Gladden was put in the Twins Hall of Fame and Big E had texted me that he was up in the suite,” Stanoch said. “I thought he was joking, and he sent me a picture (of him in the suite). I mean, the guy’s got connections all over.”

Most notably, Nelson’s network closer to home has a chance to give back during his time of need.

The public can support Nelson by donating to his GoFundMe, "Let’s help ‘Big E’ in his fight against cancer!" and attending Thursday night’s game.

“I’d just want to say to him,” Geller left off, “‘thank you and get well.’”

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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