More than 50 years later, football great Bobby Bell fulfills college dream

Bobby Bell
Former Minnesota great Bobby Bell talks to the media before an NCAA football game between Minnesota and Northwestern, Saturday Oct. 2, 2010 in Minneapolis. Bell's jersey was retired during the game.
Paul Battaglia | AP file 2010

One might think winning both a Super Bowl and the college football national championship would be accomplishment enough for one person.

Or being named to both college and pro football halls of fame.

Or parlaying that fame into a chain of restaurants.

But not for former University of Minnesota football star Bobby Bell. To him, something has been missing for more than 50 years: a college degree.

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Today, the 74-year-old football giant will finally receive the one honor that has eluded him all this time.

"I should have [done] this a long time ago," Bell said. "I promised my dad that I would do it."

When Bell was a teenager in segregated Shelby, N.C. in the 1950s, college was more of a dream than an expectation. Bell cut the lawns and cleaned the houses of families living at the town's country club, and when their kids would return home from college, they'd show him their college yearbooks.

"It was something I'd never seen before," he recalled. "I said, 'Wow.'"

But educational prospects were limited for Bell, the black son of a handyman and chauffeur for the local textile mill owner.

He heard about small black colleges late in high school — but they were tough to afford without a scholarship. Big southern schools such as Duke, Alabama and the University of North Carolina were closed to him because of his race.

Bell had no idea that football could be his ticket to a college education, since no scouts had ever come to watch him play quarterback at his small, all-black Division-A school, the now-defunct Cleveland High.

He wasn't noticed until his senior year. Through a stroke of luck, he was asked to play running back during an all-star game among larger AA schools.

At that game was Jim Tatum, head coach for North Carolina. Impressed with Bell, Tatum contacted University of Minnesota football coach Murray Warmath — a pioneer recruiter of black athletes — and urged him to give the promising young player a close look.

Bobby Bell with Murray Warmath
This Oct. 2, 2010, file photo shows former Minnesota great Bobby Bell, right, posing with his former coach Murray Warmath before an NCAA football game between Minnesota and Northwestern.
Paul Battaglia | AP file 2010

When people in Shelby heard Bell was aiming for Minnesota, some said he wouldn't make it — that he'd get lost up north.

"One of the things that drove me is that — 'Nah, nah, you can't do that,'" Bell said. "But my dad said, 'Yes, you can.'"

Warmath flew Bell to Minnesota — the young man's first time in a plane — where Bell got his first taste of a Big Ten life. For two days, coaches looked him over and showed him around campus.

"I was just walking around looking up at the sky — all these buildings and stuff," Bell recalled. "[One of the coaches] asked, 'You want to go to the Rose Bowl?' I said, 'Yeah, man, I'll go to the Rose Bowl.'"

Bell then asked: "What is that, man — Rose Bowl?"

After receiving a football scholarship, Bell promised his dad he'd use it to earn a degree. He said he had the responsibility of Shelby on his shoulders.

"I wasn't only going to Minnesota for me," he said. "I was going to Minnesota for my dad, my mom, my brother, my sister, kin folks and all the blacks there in Shelby. I could not let these people down."

Bell remembers being one of just a handful of black football players at Minnesota, where members of the group kept each other in line.

"We lived in a glass house," he said. "We made sure that we were going to do the right thing."

He ate, lived and studied with the rest of the student body at a time when athletes didn't have separate residence halls.

Bell said he experienced no racial problems at the predominantly white school — but did have his odd moments.

Soon after he moved into Territorial Hall his freshman year in 1958, he said, a white student knocked on his door.

"He looked at me," Bell recalled, "and I said, 'Yeah, did you want something?'"

When the white student kept looking at him, Bell asked, "What's wrong?"

"I've never seen a black person before," the student replied.

Bell noticed he was different in another way: He didn't have other students' college-prep backgrounds. As an average student in high school, Bell said, he knew "the basics" — just enough to get into college.

"I had to bust my butt," he said.

That meant hitting the library practically every night until midnight. He'd study while his roommate slept, and read prep books on subjects so he could do his assignments.

"I had my roommate saying, 'Yeah, I [already] took that in high school,'" Bell recalled.

His coaches drove him to keep hitting the books, a point Bell made sure to share with the audience at his 1983 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.

"With Coach Warmath, it was a never-ending battle," he said then. "It was academic. There was that determination that he instilled into us athletes: Student first and athlete second. ... [Another coach] told me: 'Bobby, I can read about you in the newspaper — but be prepared for life after football.'"

As a Gopher, Bell switched from quarterback to the defensive line. With him, the team went on to win the 1960 national championship, play in the 1961 Rose Bowl and win that bowl in 1962.

KC's Bobby Bell brought down Dan Reeves in 1970.
Dan Reeves, of the Dallas Cowboys, gets the first down before Kansas City's Bobby Bell, moves in to bring him down, Oct. 26, 1970.
AP file 1970

Just shy of receiving his degree in recreation leadership, Bell left school in 1963 to play pro ball with the Kansas City Chiefs.

The paycheck wasn't the fortune it is today, Bell said — even after he and the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in 1970.

The way he describes it, back then football was more like a part-time, temporary job. Like many of his teammates, he took a second job to make a decent living. Throughout his football career, he said, he worked full time in labor relations for General Motors and used his vacation time to attend training camp.

Even though GM accommodated his football schedule, Bell said he didn't have time for any study. After he retired from football in 1974, he went on to own a handful of restaurants in the Kansas City area called Bobby Bell BBQ.

But not having a degree long bothered him.

"I was busy and kept putting it off," he said. "I'd keep saying, 'Next year, and next year would come around and I'd end up opening another restaurant."

He eventually sold the restaurants, and has since worked as a motivational speaker across the country — often telling students that they need to complete their education.

"I want to be able to tell the kids that I did get my [own] degree," Bell said. "I want to be up in front of the kids at the university, talking to them: 'Hey, man, I'm [an alumnus] of the University of Minnesota.'"

Finally, early last year he told himself, "I've got to do this."

Bobby Bell and George Adzick
Former Minnesota great Bobby Bell receives a replica of the Outland Trophy he won in 1962 from M Club Director George Adzick, Sept. 15, 2012.
Paul Battaglia | AP file 2012

Connie Magnuson, director of the U of M's recreation, park and leisure studies program, said it took several weeks to find Bell's transcript in the "dust boxes" of the archives and figure out what courses he still needed to take.

They added up to about a semester. Between May and December, Bell took two online classes — "Ways of Knowing in Social Science" and "Ecology and Society" — as well as a directed-study program in his major.

Once again, Bell had to accustom himself to college-level academics, and found himself in his old late-night reading sessions. After a day of public appearances on the road, he said, he'd camp out in his hotel room and use his iPad to keep up with his classwork.

"It was rough," he said. "But I'm a fighter."

For his two major-related projects, Bell wrote a 40-page manual on youth football and ran a one-day youth football training clinic in September. For help with the latter, he flew to Minnesota to consult head football coach Jerry Kill and his staff.

Bell could have skated through to graduation. But just as he had gone to college to make his community proud, he seemed to want to do well by his teacher.

"He wanted to do a very good job for me," Magnuson recalled. "And that's what he always would say in his emails: 'I want to do a very good job' ... essentially [so] I would be proud of his accomplishment as a student."

Kill, who grew up watching Bell play in the 1960s and '70s, also was impressed with his work ethic. In an email, the coach said Bell's story "lets people know that they can get their college degree at any time if they put their mind to it and do the work."

Looking back, Bell said he didn't need a degree to do what he's done in life. He said college work did teach him how to relate to people and different ways of thinking, to manage his time and even give interviews, thanks to a class in public speaking.

Bell's experience at the university holds what he said could be his most powerful memory.

"The thing that tops it out," he said, "is being able to turn around and look up in the stands and see my dad and mom up there — and they say, 'Hey, that's my son out there on the field. They say it couldn't be done.'"