Roanoke Times and World-News
July 24, 1982

Success story of Pvt. Jim Nelson goes from shoulder pads at Northside High School to turnbuckles along the East Coast

by Randy King, Sportswriter

Since graduating from high school in 1977, the life of James Kirk Harrell has been a metamorphosis.

No longer is he the 160 pound guy who used to play wide receiver and defensive halfback for Northside High. No longer is he the guy who’d never been to Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens or Atlanta’s Omni. And no longer is his name James Kirk Harrell.

Thank you, professional wrestling.

Harrell, a 23 year old Roanoke native, is known more prominently on the eastern seaboard as pro wrestler Pvt. Jim Nelson. You can’t kick sand in this guy’s face anymore because he weighs 240 pounds and, with Pvt. Don Kernodle, is the Mid-Atlantic tag team champion.


“It sure is,” Nelson repeated several times from his apartment in Charlotte, NC. “This past June when I had a match at the Roanoke Civic Center, I got to thinking about things. It was only five years ago when we had our high school graduation there. It’s hard to believe what’s happened in my life since.”

Nelson’s life is centered around wrestling rings from Toronto to Atlanta. It’s a vagabond life consisting of thousands of miles of travel, countless motel rooms, good money, and – oh, yes – hard work.

“But I don’t have to worry about leaving a wife and kid at home,” he said. “I’ve been able to go a lot of places that I’ve never been before. I had never been to Atlanta. Shoot, I had never been to places in Virginia like Richmond and Norfolk before I started wrestling. But this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Nelson knew he wanted to be a pro wrestler at age 14. He used to attend the cards at the Roanoke Civic Center every week.

“I was so small then that I didn’t have any idea that I’d get into it,” Nelson said. “My final year at Northside, I got interested in the weight program that Coach (Jim) Hickam started. I started going to the Y and started putting on a lot of weight.”

One day while pumping iron at the YMCA, Nelson met pro wrestler Rick McCord. It was his chance to get a foot in the door.

“McCord introduced me to a couple of wrestlers from Salem, Don Hogan and Steve Savage. I started wrestling in small places in Virginia with a semipro group. I spent all of my time watching matches and tapes. After a year, I went to Atlanta. I was in the right place at the right time and got lucky.”

In his first big-time match, Nelson and Mike Stallings went up against Ole Anderson and Ivan Koloff.

“I only weighed 210 and I had been watching those guys for years,” Nelson said. “To say the least, I got pitched around pretty good. They stayed on me like bees on honey. they about beat me half to death.”

Since that night, things have gotten better. Nelson, Sgt. Slaughter and Kernodle are among the top “bad guys” in the area. Despite his and the team’s success, there is one criticism of the sport that Nelson despises to hear – the charge that the matches are rigged or fake.

“I hear that all the time from some of my high school friends when I see them,” Nelson said. “And I’m sure I’ll hear plenty when I go to our reunion at the end of this month. But I’ve gone home sore or had times when I couldn’t even get out of bed the next morning. It’s those times when I say to myself I wish it was fake.”

Nelson said wrestlers’ biggest worries concern rowdy fans.

“You have to watch yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to watch fans that are in large groups. They might pull a knife on you or something. At first, my mother was worried about me getting hurt. But like I told her, you can get hurt in any sport.”

Looking back at his climb to wrestling prominence, Nelson still remembers people who made fun of his ambitions.

“You can do whatever you set your mind to do. My advice to anyone, whether it be sports or whatever, is go get it. The movie ‘Rocky’ inspired me. When I mentioned something about going into pro wrestling, I had some schoolmates who told me I couldn’t do it. I was 160 pounds and people laughed at me.”

Now the only one laughing is Pvt. Jim Nelson.

Special thanks to Peggy Lathan for transcribing this article, and to Jim's parents for saving it all these years!

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