Dick Nelson passes torch after 37-year career

Steven Garber

An irregular heartbeat caused broadcaster Dick Nelson to de-board a plane that was scheduled to fly the Grand Valley State University football team to its semifinal game at Northwest Missouri State University last December. It was a frustrating experience for Nelson, and quite an unusual one: It was just the second game he had not covered in 37 years.

Nelson’s health concerns finally caught up to him. After having his first heart attack more than three decades ago at age 48, his heart condition seemed to worsen. This summer, the 79-year-old decided the task of traveling with the team was no longer an option.

But in hindsight, it seems more fitting that Nelson’s last game, a 35-28 home victory over West Texas A&M University, was a win because the “Voice of Laker Football” called 326 of them in his storied career. GVSU was 326-106-2 with Nelson in the press box and, in that span, the Lakers won four NCAA Division II National Championships, 14 GLIAC titles and 32 of 45 postseason contests.

Nelson was a beloved member of the Laker football family. His signature line (“Touchdown Lakers!”) will certainly be remembered by those close to the program, as GVSU coach Matt Mitchell pointed out with a tweet on Aug. 28:

“Losing a legend in the radio booth as Dick Nelson announces retirement. Will miss ‘Touchdown Lakers!!!’ coming thru my headphones.”

GVSU Director of Athletics Tim Selgo also spoke highly of Nelson, calling him a great man that everyone enjoyed being around.

“No matter your age, no matter your role within Grand Valley – you loved Dick Nelson, and he loved you,” Selgo said.

Nelson originally planned to call it quits in the early 2000s, but decided to stay true to the team. It paid off, as GVSU “finally got a winner” in 2002 by taking home an NCAA Division II National Championship.

The memory is one of Nelson’s favorites. It was the reward, the culmination of years full of competitive success. He was hooked once again and stuck it out for more than a decade as the winning tradition – which he saw develop for 37 years of the program’s 43-year history – continued to grow.

He first started in 1977 as the play-by-play commentator for GVSU radio broadcasts – a gig he had originally planned on taking for just one year – and eventually went on to call basketball and baseball games. After putting in so much time for the Laker programs, he was inducted into the GVSU Hall of Fame in 1992.

“He’s a special person in the history and tradition of Laker athletics,” Selgo said. “He’ll still be with us in spirit.”

GVSU sent Nelson out on a high note despite a season-ending loss in 2013. The Lakers closed out their 2013 campaign as the NCAA’s all-time winningest college football program.

For Laker fans, it was a pleasure to have Nelson and his wife, Laurie, as part of the family. For Nelson, providing a voice for Laker football fans was an honor.

“I love the school and I love the program,” he said. “I was proud to be identified with it.”

Even though he will no longer be calling games for GVSU, his voice will still be heard at Lubbers Stadium. “Touchdown Lakers!” will be played through the PA system whenever GVSU scores a touchdown, and Nelson can also be seen at home games in taped segments called Laker Legends, which will air at halftime.

On Sept. 13, Steve Lloyd-Jones will take over radio broadcast responsibilities when GVSU hosts Ohio Dominican University for its home opener. Nelson said he hopes to be in attendance to personally pass the torch, or hand over the mic.