Bemidji remembers Eric 'Big E' Nelson at final regular-season game of 2024

Mar. 1—BEMIDJI — Eric "Big E" Nelson will never be forgotten at Bemidji High School.

The Lumberjacks' beloved longtime custodian died on Thursday after a lengthy battle with renal cell carcinoma. He was remembered on Friday night at the Bemidji boys basketball team's home game against Alexandria.

BHS players formed an "E" shape on the court prior to the contest, much as they did when Nelson was honored during a home game last season.

"My main message to the boys was (that) when there are special people in your life that positively impact you, take the time to thank them while you can," said Jacks head coach Steve Thompson. "Because people as special as Big E don't come around that often, and we were lucky to have him."

Thompson noted that when he spoke with Nelson while the latter was battling cancer, Nelson would continually inquire about the well-being of those other than himself.

"I was able to visit with him a couple of times on the phone," Thompson said. "Big E was always asking questions about how you're doing, no matter how tough things were for him. Just a special person."

A number of BHS boys basketball players formed personal bonds with Nelson. Senior Dawson Oelrich fondly recalled their interactions in the school hallways.

"He was a local legend," Oelrich said. "He never said anything about himself. He was a really selfless guy and really humble, and we enjoyed having him around. ... He was kind of friends with my grandpa, and he would always make little comments to me. We had a couple of inside jokes. I'll remember his smile in the hallways when he saw me. He'd always call me pretty boy."

For Thompson, a longtime friend of Nelson, it meant a great deal to have an opportunity to honor Nelson at BHS, where he attended countless sporting events during his tenure.

"We were able to have him with us last year and share a moment with him," Thompson recalled. "That was really special to me and to the team. We closed out the season last year on our home court with a big E in the center of the court, and we were able to do that once again tonight to honor him and everything that he's done for us."

The Jacks closed out their 2023-24 regular season on Friday against the Cardinals, falling 74-30. Though it resides in Section 8-3A, Alexandria (21-5) looked like it wouldn't be out of place against any team Bemidji could face in the Section 8-4A playoffs next week.

"They're as good or better than any team that we'll see in our section, so it is a good test," Thompson said. "You're always hoping for better execution and a better finish to a game than what we had today. But overall, it's good to see a team as high-quality as they are moving into the playoffs."

The Lumberjacks (11-14) have endured an up-and-down regular season as they rebuilt their roster after losing two college basketball players and five overall college athletes from the 2022-23 squad.

As they prepare for the section tournament, seniors like Oelrich are hoping to make an impression in the final playoff opportunity of their BHS careers.

"Coach Thompson, all year long, he's said we're an effort team," Oelrich said. "We're always going to give 100% effort, and I appreciate the boys always giving everyone else 100% of their effort. I want to see that continue."

Thompson wants to see the Jacks tighten things up ahead of their playoff run.

"You have to learn from the things that you didn't do in execution and be better the next time," Thompson said. "So learning from it is first and foremost."

Alexandria 74, Bemidji 30

ALX 33 41 — 74

BHS 16 14 — 30

BEMIDJI — Boschee 7, Riewer 7, Luksik 6, Huseby 4, Zellmann 3, Sneide 2, Brown 1.

ALEXANDRIA — Thompson 12, M. Witt 12, Grove 11, Steffensmeier 11, Roderick 7, Gorghuber 4, Gray 4, Hagstrom 4, T. Witt 4, Roderick 3, Moore 2.