Aug. 25—BLUEFIELD — For years, high school football fans listening to the Beaver-Graham game turned their radios' dials until they heard broadcaster Jim Nelson speaking to them Mitchell Stadium, but they need to listen carefully tonight because there will be a new Voice of the Beavers behind the microphone.
Zach Helton, director of broadcasting for athletics at Bluefield State University, will be taking over for Jim Nelson, the broadcaster who was among his mentors.
Originally from the Richlands, Va. area, Helton played football for Richlands High School before he graduated. He grew up listening to sports on the radio with his grandfather, Roger Ferrell.
"I think one of the cool things when I was a kid, I really started to love the radio aspect of sports broadcasting," Helton recalled. "Me and my grandfather would ride around and listen to Virginia Tech games and Bill Roth would be calling the games, so I've alway loved sports."
Helton enlisted in the military right out of high school and served in the Army National Guard in Virginia before coming to Bluefield State and graduating. During his time at Bluefield State, he started going into the broadcasting profession.
"When I was a student here, my athletic career was kind of over," he stated. "I was past my prime in that and I wanted to stay in the game somehow. Coaching was always a thought, but interestingly enough Mr. (Jim) Nelson was working here in the same capacity as now when I was a student."
His mentorship under Jim Nelson started.
"I picked his brain about broadcasting and I would definitely consider him one of my mentors in this industry," Helton said in the university's studio. "That was back in 2012. And I would pick his brain about certain things. How to get in, how to get out of things and we actually started an internet-based radio program right in that room there when I was a student here. It didn't go very long. My co-host was actually going through the teaching program here, so he had to go student teach and I couldn't quite do it by myself at that point."
After graduating from Bluefield State, Helton went to Charlotte and attended the Carolina School of Broadcasting. He worked in broadcasting in places including western Nebraska, upstate New York and Maryland before returning to West Virginia in 2017. All of this media work gave him plenty of experience calling sporting events.
"The first play-by-play broadcast I did was probably 2013, almost a decade," he said. "A little over 1,200 games under my belt, so it's pretty comfortable for me. There's things that happen in a live broadcast that you've got to overcome, but I feel really comfortable on the mic. I really enjoy telling the story of what's going on on the field or on the court."
Helton said he has been at Bluefield State since 2020 when Athletic Director Derek Price and President Robin Capehart decided that the university's growing athletic program needed more media coverage, so the Big Blue Sports Network was created.
"We broadcast most of the sports here at Bluefield State. I got to work alongside Jim with what he does here at the school and we'd chat a little bit and I actually filled in for Jim some during Covid for basketball, so I was really comfortable with how the station worked and everything," Helton said. "Back in the spring me and Jim were talking and he said, 'I think I'm going to retire. Would you want to take over?' I was a little taken aback by that and said, 'Are you sure?' and he said, "I think I am.'"
Helton asked Nelson if they could think about it during the summer. Other Bluefield State sports including soccer, volleyball kept Helton busy along with a weekly coaches show.
"We've got a really busy schedule, so I had to kind of think about how to work around and navigate and things like that. We touched base in the middle of the summer and I said, 'Are you sure?' and he said, 'I think I'm sure I'm going to retire.' and I said, 'Well, if you want me to take over for you.'"
It was a moment when the torch was passed.
"It was kind of hard to say no," Helton recalled.
Helton has done the play-by-play broadcast for Beavers basketball games, but tonight will be his first Beavers football game and first Beavers-Graham game. He has been preparing for tonight's event at Mitchell Stadium.
"It's exciting. You know, I've brought Rusty Coburn, former quarterback, on as my color analyst," he said. "He and I played together and we've been friends for well over a decade. We're very comfortable with each other and that's a lot of what goes into broadcasting. You've got to be comfortable with who you have in there with you. I feel really comfortable about that."
Helton added that the coaches and administration at both schools have been very helpful, plus he is very familiar with Mitchell Stadium.
"I played there as a kid and now I broadcast for Bluefield State games from there," he said. "If you're following your hero in this industry, it's very comfortable environment to do it in. I'm familiar with the stadium and this big game that is coming up."
While Helton mentored with Jim Nelson, he is still a new person behind the microphone.
"And I've told people I'm no Jim Nelson. No one is. And I want people to take that into account when they listen," he stated. "There's a lot of things that Jim did great that I won't be able to do, but there's some things that I can bring to the broadcast maybe Jim didn't bring to the broadcast. I feel very confident about what we will put out there, but I want people to know that Jim is Jim. I learned a lot things from Jim, but we're a little different in that aspect."
Instead of listening for Jim Nelson tonight, football fans can tune their radios to 100.9 WKOY, The Eagle, for the game. Helton said that his wife, Hannah, understands why doing these broadcasts is important to so many families.
"We kind of flow back-and-forth and she's very supportive of what I do," he said. "She realizes what we're doing here and what it's about to broadcast it to people and make sure that people who can't make it to the game get to hear about their kids, things like that. She gets it and she's very supportive of me."
He remembers when his parents, Aleita and the late Doug Helton, listened to his games on the radio because they couldn't attend in person.
"My mother and father, when I was growing up playing sports, they worked a lot and they couldn't quite make it to games," Helton said. "Sometimes the only way they could keep up with what I was doing was listening to the radio, so that was kind of what gravitated me towards radio because there's a lot of young kids out there whose parents can't quite make it; and, you know, if they're listening to the radio while they're working and finding what their kids are doing, that's a tremendous things we can do."
— Contact Greg Jordan at email@example.com
Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org