The Coachable One
Feb. 2, 2010
By Larry Watts
Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jim Lynch said this of teammate Bobby Bell: “He was the best athlete I’ve ever physically seen until Bo Jackson came to Kansas City to play for the Royals.’’
When Bell became the first Chiefs player to be inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in 1991, he looked out into the Canton, Ohio, audience at former Minnesota football coach Murray Warmath and said, “I told you I was coachable.’’
In a nutshell, this was Bobby Bell. The son of a textile worker in Shelby, N.C., took his first venture, and plane ride, out of his home state in 1959 and played a key role in bringing attention to black football players at both the collegiate and professional levels.
By the time his career ended in 1974, he was a two-time All-American tackle, Outland Trophy winner (1962), finished third to Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker in the 1962 Heisman Trophy balloting, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, a six-time first-team All-Pro, a member of the AFL All-Time Team and a member of the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team. His No. 78 has been retired by Kansas City and his locker is on display at the University of Minnesota.
Until he was discovered playing six-man football for all-black Cleveland High School by former University of North Carolina assistant coach Jim Taylor, Bell, who played both quarterback and safety, seemed destined for a black university or junior college.
“We had maybe 25 students in our senior class and all the grades, from kindergarten to 12th grade, were in the same school,’’ says Bell, who was 6-foot-1 during his prep days. “I played football, basketball and baseball, which was probably my best sport. Once we started winning, people were coming from all over to watch us. We won a couple of state titles in basketball and our scoreboard only went up to 99 points, so our goal was to ‘bust the board’ (break 100) and we did it often.’’
Like many of the textile workers, Bell’s family, which included his older brother and sister, lived on the land around the mill, or the “suburb’’ as he likes to call it. His father would often chauffeur the owner and other top executives to the local country club and golf course.
“Sometimes I would go with him,’’ he says. “I would watch the people playing golf, but I couldn’t play there. I asked my dad if he thought I could do that. He wasn’t one to say much, but when he did, it was awesome. He told me one of these days you are going to be able to get out and play golf.’’
When he wasn’t playing sports, Bell used to work at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, a job he held from the age of 12 through his senior year of high school. He also did some work at the textile mill.
“I was friends with several of the sons from the white families who worked at the mill, but they would all go off to private schools or military schools,’’ he says. “I remember going into their rooms and looking at the yearbooks. I looked at the pictures and always dreamed of going to big schools like that and playing ball.’’
Taylor took notice of Bell while he was playing in an all-black All-Star game in Greensboro following his senior year. Knowing he couldn’t bring Bell to North Carolina, which had yet to break the color barrier, he placed a call to Minnesota coach Murray Warmath, whose Golden Gophers were just wrapping up a 1-8 campaign in 1958.
“He told Murray there was a helluva player down here,’’ Bell says. “At this time, Minnesota was last in the Big Ten and people were throwing garbage all over his lawn. He kept telling Murray that he had to come see me.
“Then Coach Taylor called me and asked me if I would like to go visit Minnesota. I had never heard of Minnesota. Then the Minnesota coaches started calling me.’’
But there was still a hurdle to overcome. The coaches at Minnesota wanted to see some game film, which didn’t exist at Cleveland High School.
“Coach Taylor called my principal at Cleveland and told him that he thought he could get me a scholarship to Minnesota, but they needed to see some game film first,’’ Bell says. “My principal told him we could go over to the Shelby Star and get some snapshots, but there wasn’t any film to send out.
“The next thing I know, I’m being sent over to (all-white) Shelby High School so their coach could put me through a workout and evaluate me. After that workout, he told Minnesota I was a helluva player, so the next thing I knew I had a plane ticket to Minnesota.’’
The visit to Minnesota was an eye-opening experience. While the all-white southern schools had yet to open their doors to black players, there were four on the roster at Minnesota — Sandy Stephens, Judge Dickson, Bob McNeal and Bill Munsey. Bell would eventually become the fifth.
“Sandy and Judge picked me up at the airport and I was led around the campus to see the classes and dormitories,’’ he says. “Then I went over to the stadium — a horseshoe with 66,000 seats. I had only seen pictures like this in books.
“That first night I called my dad and told him if I could go here it would be awesome. Everyone back in North Carolina was saying I should not go, but my dad told me if I liked it I should go. That’s when I made up my mind.’’
Warmath’s recruiting practices were not winning over fans in Minnesota. His 1959 team, when Bell was a quarterback on the freshman team, went 2-7 and added more fuel to the fire. One of the local papers ran a map showing where all his players came from.
“No. 1, people were upset that he was wasting his scholarships on players outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin,’’ Bell says. “And No. 2, he was giving some of those scholarships to black players.’’
According to Bell, many of the white students were experiencing a culture shock as well. Other than the football players, the only other blacks on campus were either graduate students or students who came from overseas to study.
“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.
When it came time for a professional career, nearly everyone thought Bell would remain in Minneapolis to play for the Minnesota Vikings, who selected him in the third round of the NFL draft.
“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.’’