Standing 'Penn State' Proud
Feb. 12, 2010
By Larry Watts
Like any other business owner trying to sell big-ticket items in today's economy, Curt Warner admits business has been a little slow. But it sure beats the days when he was growing up around the coalmines in Pineville, W.Va.
"My old man was a coal miner for 40 years, talk about a rough way to make a living,'' says Warner, who has owned Curt Warner Chevrolet in Vancouver, Wash., for the past 15 years. "He passed away in 1986. He had been affected by black lung disease and arthritis. That's a place that just beats you down.
"I tell people you don't know how tough it is until you actually look back upon it. When you're in it, you just deal with it. Obviously, you're on the lower end of the poverty line, but my parents did a great job taking the resources available and making the best of them.''
A three-sport athlete in a class of 96, Warner, now 48, made the best of his situation to escape Pineville through a scholarship to play football at Penn State. That led the explosive 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back to 42 Nittany Lion records, an eight-year career in the National Football League (NFL) and eventual selection into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
While Warner was doing the work on the field, his high school English teacher, Libby McKinney, was getting the word out. Acting as his publicist, she sent off letters to a number of Division I head coaches to tell them of his exploits. One of those letters hit the desk of Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and he turned it over to recruiting coordinator Tim Curley, who is now the school's director of athletics.
"I dealt with Tim through most of the recruiting process and he's still one of my best friends,'' Warner says. "He finally brought Joe down to Pineville in the middle of a freezing winter night on a Cessna plane, landing on a little airstrip in the middle of nowhere. He kept telling Tim, `This kid had better be worth it.'''
"I visited Pitt, West Virginia and Penn State,'' he says. "I was scheduled to go to Notre Dame and Nebraska but got snowed out and I never rescheduled.
"West Virginia was running the veer offense and I was more of an I-back thinker than veer thinker. Penn State had that winning tradition, academics and all the things that came along with it, so when I put it all together, it was an easy choice. It (State College) was a small town, similar to what I was used to, and it was geographically within reach so my parents could come see me play.''
As a freshman reserve behind Matt Suhey, Warner rushed for 391 yards and two touchdowns in 1979. The following season, he gained 922 yards and helped lead Penn State to a 10-2 record and No. 8 ranking in the final national poll. Against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, he rushed for a Penn State bowl record 155 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown, and was named the offensive player of the game.
He broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier (1,044) and scored eight touchdowns in 1981, when he was named a first-team All-American. Penn State finished No. 3 nationally after defeating USC in the Fiesta Bowl, where Warner rushed for 145 yards, 60 more than Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen, and was named the outstanding offensive player for the second year in a row.
Warner again collected All-America honors in his senior year after rushing for 1,041 yards, ending the season with five straight games with over 100 yards on the ground. In the Sugar Bowl and the battle for the national championship, he overcame cramps in the second half to lead the No. 2 Nittany Lions to a 27-23 victory over No. 1 Georgia. He rushed for 117 yards, 14 more than Herschel Walker, and two touchdowns.
"What really set up that game was the week we spent in New Orleans,'' he says. "There were a lot more Georgia fans than Penn State fans down there early and all we kept hearing was `How 'bout them Dawgs!' After about three, four or five days of that, it kind of rubs you the wrong way and we were ready to play. I don't think there was ever a point where we didn't think we could beat them.''
Also a kick return specialist, Warner set the school record with 341 all-purpose yards, including a career-best 256 yards rushing, against Syracuse in 1981. He is the only Penn State player to accumulate over 1,000 all-purpose yards in all of his four years. And most importantly, Penn State was 18-0 when he rushed for over 100 yards in a game.
"You have to remember, we were an independent back then, we hadn't joined the Big Ten yet,'' says Warner, who scored 33 touchdowns in his career. "We pretty much played everyone; our schedule was loaded.''
And Warner thoroughly enjoyed the Penn State experience, which included four bowl games and a degree in speech communications.
"It was a blast,'' he says. "Not only did I get to play in some great football games with some great players, but we were also right in the mix of things on campus. Players didn't have separate living quarters at the time, so we got to interact with everyone. I got a chance to share so much with people who weren't athletes.''
And though he had the uncanny ability to cut and make would-be tacklers miss on the field, he didn't always elude stern lectures from his head coach. One of those lectures came in front of the team after Warner, then a senior, let it be known he wasn't happy with his number of carries after a victory over Temple in the season opener.
"I wanted the ball,'' Warner says with a laugh now. "Joe was a tough man to play for, but he stood on his principles. And he let me know it in front of the team.
"There were times when he would call me out and I would prefer he call me out than not call me out. I wasn't the only one; I wasn't the Lone Ranger to get called out. But that's what makes him who he is and if you get out of line, he is going to let you know it in front of the team or in his office. I got called out in both situations, but it wasn't the end of the world and we moved on.
"What are you going to say?'' he added. "If you argue with him, you go to the doghouse. I've seen guys in Joe's doghouse and it's not a place where you want to be. It's like being the father figure of a whole bunch of prima donnas and when those prima donnas get out of line you have to hold them in check. He did a pretty good job of that.''
And in the end, Warner says he learned a lot of life lessons while playing for the legendary coach.
"It's important to be consistent and stand up for what you believe,'' he says. "Life is a lot like football, You always want to put your best foot forward. He always said these guys around you will be your best friends. That is such a true statement because I'm still very good friends with many of the guys I played with.''
The draft of 1983 has been rated as one of the best, if not the best in NFL history. Known as the `'quarterback draft,'' six quarterbacks were selected in the first round, which would include nine future Pro Bowlers. Among the quarterbacks in that class were top pick John Elway, Warner's teammate Todd Blackledge at No. 7, Jim Kelly (14) and Dan Marino (27). Warner was selected by Seattle with the third pick, behind Elway and running back Eric Dickerson.
A four-time Pro Bowl selection and one-time All-Pro honoree (1987), he played seven seasons with the Seahawks and his final year with the Los Angeles Rams. He rushed for 1,449 yards and 13 touchdowns in his rookie year, leading the AFC in rushing and helping the Seahawks reach the conference championship game for the first time. Warner wound up with 6,844 yards rushing and 56 touchdowns for his career.
"It (the NFL) is completely different from college, more business than anything else,'' he says. "The game itself is tougher and faster and it's played at a level you can't even imagine until you actually get in it. That jump that you take from high school to college is the same type of jump you have to make from college to pro.
"You have some crazy people out there; they're just nuts. The players are more intense, so you have to be more intense. Had it not been for that Penn State experience, there was no way I could have made that jump.
"Obviously, you have to be in the right place at the right time with the right system. I think Seattle was the right place for me with Chuck Knox at the helm.''
And it didn't take Warner long to figure out why there are so many short careers in the NFL. He suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the season opener against Cleveland in his second season.
"AstroTurf takes years off your career; it was basically like playing on concrete,'' he says. "That would have been the one thing I would have changed about the game. I suffered knee injuries, ankle injuries and had bone spurs removed. Playing at that level is tough enough, but then you have to play on that surface. Something has to give and if you're a running back, it's a matter of hits you take, not years. Eventually it gets to the point where you can't take it anymore.
"The unfortunate thing is you're always the last one to figure out it's over because you always have that drive to compete. Then you go, `OK, maybe they were right and I wasn't right.'''
In hindsight, Warner wishes he had spent his last season in Seattle, but negotiations broke down and he headed off to Los Angeles. Seattle brought him back in 1994 to be inducted in its Ring of Honor.
"The moral of the story (leaving Seattle) is not to make business decisions based on your emotions,'' he says. "If I had it to do over again, I would have worked it out with them. The way they handled the situation and the way I interpreted it could have been handled a lot better. We could have sat down and talked about it, but that wasn't the case.''
Retiring at the end of the 1990 season, Warner spent four years in the National Automobile Dealers Academy to learn about the industry and then took over his Chevrolet dealership, which he has now owned for 15 years.
Now living in Camas, Wash., he and his wife, Ana, have three sons -- 17-year-old Jonathan, and 15-year-old twins, Austin and Christian -- and a daughter, Isabella, who just turned four.
The twins are both autistic, so the Warners created the Curt Warner Foundation for Autism six years ago to assist other families in the same situation.
"It's more my wife's plan than anything else because she is more of the expert on the applications and protocols going on with autism,'' he says. "There are certain needs that have to be met regarding behavior issues and long-term approaches in dealing with autistic children. We're just trying to find a way to open the door for them to communicate a little better and make their quality of life better as well as for the parents.''
Warner has also been serving as the running backs coach at Camas High School, where his son Jonathan plays wide receiver.
"It's too early to tell if he'll be playing in college, but he's a pretty good athlete,'' the proud father says. "Fortunately, I don't have to coach him. You can have all kinds of credibility and credentials, but when it comes to your own children, they don't care.''
Last year, Warner entered the College Football Hall of Fame with the likes of Heisman Trophy winner and Miami quarterback Gino Torretta, Notre Dame receiver Tim Brown and linebackers Chris Spielman and Larry Station of Ohio State and Iowa, respectively.
"The Hall of Fame is kind of like an exclamation point to the career,'' he says. "It's one of those things where you don't really think you'll be inducted even though you're on the ballot. You're not playing the game to get there; you're playing the game because you love it. It's like icing on the cake and you don't know how to react other than to say, `Thank you.'''
Nearly 20 years has passed since Warner last carried the football, yet Paterno is still walking the sidelines at Penn State.
"You know what? He still may be there another 20 years,'' Warner says with a laugh. "You get a chance to talk to him and you see he's still very active and involved.
"Don't let the number of the age fool you; he's all there with regards to his thinking and awareness. One can only hope when you're 83 you're going to be that active. I still follow him and the team faithfully. I am Penn State proud.''
"But the difference between being in North Carolina and Minnesota was still like night and day,'' he says. "Even though they knew you were black, they treated you like a human being. It was an adjustment for them as well.
"I would be in my dorm room and there would be a knock at the door. I'd open it and there would be one of the white students. He just stood there staring at me up and down. For many of them, the only time they had seen a black person was on TV.''
Following the freshman football campaign, Bell planned on joining the Golden Gophers' baseball program. However, Warmath had other plans.
"He told me I was going to play both ways, at offensive tackle and defensive end,'' he says. "I just laughed and asked him if he was serious. It wasn't until later that I figured out what he was doing because they had three pretty good quarterbacks, including Sandy.
"When I got up, I told him I didn't care because I wanted to go to Minnesota and play in the Big Ten. As I walked out of the room, I told him if they could coach me, they could turn me into anything they wanted because I'm coachable. But I knew zero about playing offensive tackle and defensive end.''
Once Bell, who would grow to 6-4 and a shade under 230 pounds, made the switch, he never came off the field when the game was in doubt, unless there was an injury. He even moved over and did center snaps on all the special teams.
With his 4.5 speed, Bell could have been a standout at any of the skill positions. Although Warmath recognized the versatility, he said, "He (Bell) was of maximum value to us at tackle.''
With Bell and Outland Trophy winner Tom Brown fortifying the line in front of Stephens at quarterback, the Golden Gophers pulled off an amazing turnaround in 1960, posting an 8-1 record and sharing the Big Ten title with Iowa.
At that time, the four major bowl games were only considered exhibitions, so a panel of sports writers elected the national champion at the end of the regular season. Minnesota, which was ranked No. 4 heading into the final week, wound up winning the national title in a close vote over Mississippi and Iowa. As a result, the Gophers earned their first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl, where they fell 17-7 to No. 6 Washington.
In 1961, with Carl Eller now joining Bell on the offensive line at the opposite tackle slot, Minnesota finished second (6-2-1 overall) to unbeaten Ohio State in the Big Ten race. However, the Ohio State faculty council decided academics took a premium over athletics and voted to keep the Buckeyes home. Although the Big Ten prohibited teams from playing in back-to-back Rose Bowls, the Gophers were given an exemption and sent to Pasadena, where they defeated UCLA,21-3, and Stephens was named the MVP.
It was during that 1961 season when Bell's parents got to see him play for the first time at Minnesota. However, he suffered a rib injury early in the second quarter and was removed from the game.
"My dad is in this big overcoat and comes into the locker room at halftime to see what was going on and I'm laying on the training table with cracked ribs,'' he says. "I'm in a lot of pain and my dad walks over and says, `Hey boy, I didn't come all the way up here to see you lying on this table. I said, `Yes, sir' and he walked out.
"I had the trainer tape me up, but Murray said I couldn't play. I went back out there and sat on the sidelines in my uniform, but then I looked up into the stands and saw my dad staring at me. I got up off the bench and substituted myself without the coaches knowing it and played the rest of the game. I even played in the Rose Bowl with a special cast because those ribs hurt for nearly a month afterward.''
In 1962, Bell's senior year, Minnesota finished second to Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings. But because only one Big Ten team could go to a bowl game at the time, Bell's college career was over. However, he did win the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman, earned his second All-American honor and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
"I think the Heisman Trophy voters were trying to figure out how they could give it to a black player two years in a row because Ernie Davis had broken the barrier the year before,'' Bell says. "And on top of that, I was a lineman and no lineman had ever won the Heisman.''
Because of his play and the national publicity he received at Minnesota, Bell noticed a significant change in attitude back home in Shelby.
"Everyone in town had always been good to my parents because they had lived the right type of life and I had kept my head on straight,'' he says. "But when Shelby started being mentioned with my name, even the white people would walk up to my dad and ask him `How's our boy doing?'''
Bell laughs when he thinks back about a trip back to Shelby following his junior season. His brother picked him up at the airport and, on the way home, he had a taste for barbecue sandwiches from Red's.
"The whole time I worked there, I never went in the front door,'' he says. "But as soon as my brother stopped, I was so excited that I went running in that door. My brother was yelling for me to stop, but it was too late.
"When I came through that door, that restaurant got so quiet. Red's wife looked up from the cash register and ran over to give me a big hug. Then she took me back to see Red in his office, where he shook my hand and we visited for a little while. Then I must have ordered about 8-12 sandwiches, but he wouldn't take any money from me.
"It was so quiet in that restaurant that finally one of the waitresses had to tell the customers, `That's Bobby Bell. He's an All-American at Minnesota and played for the national champions. He's one of us and he worked here!' Meanwhile, my brother was still waiting outside for them to throw me out.''
After his collegiate career was over, Shelby gave Bell a parade and he was presented with the key to the city.
"I was standing at the courthouse talking to some of the people and I told them what I really wanted was to be able to walk in the front door of the local ice-cream parlor and get a cone,'' he says. "All I wanted was to walk into a restaurant, sit down and eat. That would eventually come later.''
The attention Bell and his fellow black teammates brought Minnesota eventually drew more interest from the black community. He was the first to break the color barrier on the basketball team but saw limited action due to his participation in two Rose Bowls, but the legendary Lou Hudson from Greensboro became the first black player to be awarded a scholarship in 1962.
"However, Minnesota didn't want to do the right thing (financially),'' Bell says. "Then Lamar Hunt selected me in the seventh round of the American Football League draft.''
Hunt owned the Dallas Texans and had started the American Football League, considered by many to be inferior to the NFL. Bell surprised everyone by signing with Hunt.
"Best thing that ever happened to me,'' Bell says. "I never made it to Dallas because they moved the franchise to Kansas City (in 1963). I think if it hadn't been for Lamar starting the AFL, the NFL wouldn't be what it is today. He gave the opportunity for blacks to play football when the NFL wouldn't give many of us a chance to play. There weren't any black middle linebackers in the NFL like Willie Lanier and they said a black quarterback couldn't win the big game, yet Sandy Stephens led us to the national championship, won the Rose Bowl and was the game's MVP.
"Lamar didn't care and reached out to the black schools like Grambling, Prairie View and Morgan State. On the Chiefs, we had guys like Lanier (Morgan State), Buck Buchanan (Grambling) and Emmitt Thomas (Bishop College), and they all made it to the NFL Hall of Fame.''
In Kansas City, Bell would play for the late Hank Stram, who introduced Bell during the 1983 Hall of Fame ceremonies and would later be inducted himself in 2003. Bell's versatility again came into play as Stram placed him at left linebacker in his "stack'' defense. Because he lined up over the tight end, he rarely blitzed yet still ended up with 40 career quarterback sacks to go along with 26 interceptions and nine touchdowns, six coming off interceptions and two on fumble recoveries.
Like he had done in college, Bell didn't give it a second thought when he was told to switch positions.
"I just wanted to play; I didn't care where they put me,'' he says. "It went back to the same old thing -- I'm coachable.''
Stram would say of Bell, "He could play all 22 positions on the field, and play them well.''
"Stram was a lot like coach Warmath,'' Bell says. "He loved to win and didn't care if you were white, black or green. He just cared if you could play football and he wanted his best players on the field.
In 1966, Kansas City lost to Green Bay in the first AFL-NFL Championship, now known as Super Bowl I. Three years later, the Chiefs defeated Minnesota in Super Bowl IV.
"Just think, if I had gone there (to Minnesota) I would never have won a Super Bowl,'' Bell says with a laugh. "There aren't many players, maybe 64, who can say they played in the first Super Bowl. Who would have thought it was going to grow into what it is now today?
"I'm sitting there in the stadium at that first Super Bowl thinking, `Who's going to pay $7.50 to $12 for a ticket to this thing. That first game wasn't even a sellout. The tickets went for $15 to Super Bowl IV and it was a sellout. Now you can't get a ticket for less than a thousand bucks. Our first press conference was held at a swimming pool and everyone was sitting around wearing shorts. Now the press conferences are some of the big events leading up to the Super Bowl.''
After his retirement in 1974, Bell opened three Bobby Bell's Bar-b-ques in Kansas City. He went back to Red Bridges for some recipe advice. The restaurants turned into a big success and Steve Sabol of NFL Films even did a feature on Bell while he was working at one of the restaurants.
"They showed that clip during halftime of the Super Bowl,'' Bell says. "It would have cost me $300,000 to get that kind of advertisement. All of a sudden, I would be walking through an airport in Chicago and people wanted to talk to me about my rib place and they didn't want to know anything about football.''
Bell, now 69 and the father of three children and five grandchildren, held onto the restaurants until he was 50 or 51. That was when he decided there was more to life than working 80-90 hours a week.
"Buck Buchanan died at 51 and (defensive lineman) Jerry Mays died at 54,'' he says. "That's too young. I said I needed to enjoy life a little, so I sold the restaurants and am now playing golf and doing speaking engagements.''
Bell, who has been the grand marshal at two homecomings for his alma mater, tries to return to Minnesota two or three times a year for home football games. He and Warmath, now 96, were the honorary captains for the coin flip at the inaugural game of TCF Bank Stadium this past fall.
"I saw his daughter at a recent book signing. I hadn't seen her since she was a little girl. We must have hugged four or five times. That's how much that family means to me.''