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“He’s just a special person”: Community shows support for custodian undergoing cancer treatment


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    BEMIDJI, Minnesota (WCCO) — He goes to school every day but never plays or coaches a game. Still, he’s a big part of the Bemidji Athletic Department. His real name is Eric Nelson, but in Bemidji, it’s just Big E, and he’s special to the kids.

“I think the biggest thing about Big E is that he’s been such a role model for me,” said one student.

“Even when I’m down, he will always be the one to make jokes and make you feel better,” another said.

But these streets are a little more depressed — not because of winter, but because Big E is fighting cancer.

“He said he’s going in every other day and it’s more for giving him an IV so he can stay hydrated. The cancer has spread. I don’t think that it’s an ideal situation that he’s in right now,” said Troy Hendrickson, former athletic director and football coach for Bemidji.

That’s brought out the best in Bemidji, including visits outside his hospital.

“We had a wide range of people show their support for Big E outside his hospital window,” said Kirsten McRae, Bemidji’s Athletic Director. “I mean, you had little kids, we had pets, we had families, graduates from the past, community members.”

See up here, if a coach was wondering about a student athlete’s mindset, they could ask Big E.

“Ask Big E a question about a student, like, ‘hey E, what’s going on with Joe,’ and he would likely have the answer. ‘Hey, he’s going through this situation or that situation, something going on at home.’ But I would go to the custodian to figure that out,” said Hendrickson.

Because up here in the hallways, Big E was in touch, encouraging and caring about those kids.

“He likes being around kids and supporting everyone,” a student said.

“Anytime I needed help, he would be busy doing something but he would drop whatever he was doing to come and help me,” a student said.

It was not just the home team — it was those that visited Bemidji that also benefited from Big E.

“As teams are coming in, they’re always asking, ‘Hey, where’s Big E,'” said McRae. “He’s that guy.”

“That guy” has made a difference in the lives of the people he cared about and they care right back because people like Big E make the school a better place, the town a better town, and the people he comes in contact with better people.

“He’s just a special person to so many of my staff throughout the course of the years, and, of course, his love for the kids never went unnoticed,” said Hendrickson.

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