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Minnesota legend Bobby Bell fulfills promise to earn degree

5/14/2015
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Bobby Bell receives college degree at 74

Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Bell receives a college degree at age 74, keeping his promise to his father that he would get a degree from the University of Minnesota.

The son will walk across the stage, hearing the pride in his father's voice, feeling the warmth of his father's smile. Pink Bell has been gone 12 years now, but his presence remains with his son, Bobby. Pink had what most would consider a good life in the segregated South: a steady job at the textile mill, a wife and kids whom he could support. But he knew there was more out there, beyond the borders of tiny Shelby, North Carolina. So when Bobby asked about doing extraordinary, exciting, scary things -- attending the University of Minnesota, which had an enrollment twice that of Shelby's population; competing in a Rose Bowl for the Gophers; playing in championship games for the Kansas City Chiefs -- Pink would always answer in the same way. Yes, it's possible. You can do it. I know you will do it. And Bobby did it, all of it, especially on the football field. His accomplishments include a national championship, a Rose Bowl championship, two first-team All-America selections, the 1962 Outland Trophy, two AFL championships, one Super Bowl championship, six AFL All-Star selections and three Pro Bowl selections. He's a Hall of Famer at the pro and college levels. His No. 78 is displayed at both Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium and Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. After football, he opened a barbecue restaurant chain in Kansas City, then became a motivational speaker. "I was a busy boy," Bobby said.

The downstairs room in Bell's Kansas City home could double as a sports museum. But when Bell stood in there last year, surrounded by awards, something was missing. "My dad always said, 'You're going to finish up there and get your diploma?'" said Bell, who left Minnesota several credits shy of graduating to pursue his professional career. "I kept saying, 'Yeah, I'm going to do it.' But I just kept putting it off. "Last year, I said, 'I've got to do it. I'm not going to put if off another minute.'" Thursday afternoon at Minnesota's Mariucci Arena, Bobby Bell will fulfill his promise to his old man, as an old man. Fifty-six years after he boarded an airplane for the first time and arrived on Minnesota's campus, and 52 years after he left campus for the Chiefs and a job at General Motors, Bell will graduate from Minnesota with a degree in recreation, park and leisure studies. The 74-year-old completed his coursework in December but will walk with his classmates Thursday. "I wish I had done it a long time ago," Bell said. "A lot of time I might have been scared. It's time for me to go ahead and do this thing." Bell's decision to return to school was the biggest step, but he faced other obstacles. His football records at Minnesota had been safeguarded and celebrated, but his academic record at the school had vanished. After Bell told Dan O'Brien, Minnesota's senior associate athletic director for football, of his plan, O'Brien set out trying to locate Bell's transcripts. It took several calls to the records office and weeks of waiting. "They were on some ratty piece of paper written in pencil," O'Brien said. "It's amazing that something like that wasn't archived or long trashed." Bell's original major, recreation leadership, had changed, and Minnesota had switched from quarters to semesters, so his original course load had to be compared with the current curriculum to determine what he had left. Fortunately, Bell needed only two liberal education courses and nine credits in his major to finish his degree. Bell wanted his return to be kept quiet. He didn't have time for distractions. He learned he could take the liberal ed classes online. He met with Connie Magnuson, the director of Minnesota's recreation, park and leisure studies program, to map out projects he could undertake at home to complete his major requirement. Leaning on Bell's background, they determined he would write a 45-page manual on the fundamentals of youth football, and create and run a youth football clinic.

"It was hard setting up your computer, doing PowerPoints and stuff. Hell, I'm 74 years old."

Gopher legend Bobby Bell on some of the trickier parts of going back to school.

"It's a major undertaking to write a manual of that length," Magnuson said. "It wasn't something he was trying to submit to get it over with. He was very diligent about wanting to do a good job and produce a great product. The most important thing is you have to be a willing participant and Bobby was very willing." The coursework didn't concern Bell. The method of completing his assignments, meanwhile, seemed more daunting. He went from using a computer to check email to lugging around a laptop and an iPad everywhere, asking everyone for help. "It was hard setting up your computer, doing PowerPoints and stuff," Bell said. "Hell, I'm 74 years old." Bell met last spring with Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and some of Kill's assistants, picking their brains as Bell mapped out his football manual and youth clinic. Kill, a native of Cheney, Kansas, grew up watching Bell on the great Chiefs teams. He has welcomed Bell around his team as much as possible, often having Bell speak to sidetracked players. "We talked about the lost art of football, that we're not teaching fundamentals to young kids," Kill said. "We spent quite a bit of time giving feedback." Bell chose to hold his youth clinic in Pittsburg, Kansas, coordinating with a local Minnesota alum, Dick Coleman, and Pittsburg State University, where Kill had started his coaching career. They expected 50-60 kids to show up, but more than 100, ages 8-12, participated on a sunny September day. Bell sent several drafts of his football manual to Magnuson during the fall before submitting the final project in December. He completed an ecology course in the summer and a social science course in the fall. Academics didn't come easily to Bell when he started school at Minnesota in 1959 -- "I was an average student, not the smartest guy in the world," he said -- but he drove himself to finish strong. "I got some A's," he said. "Hey, man, if you're going to win the game, you've got to go for the marbles." For a social science project on immigrants to the U.S., Bell interviewed Michael Sharma-Crawford, an immigration attorney in Kansas City. As Bell learned about the immigrant experience, he realized his own parallel path in segregated North Carolina. "I couldn't eat at a restaurant, I had to go to an all-black high school," Bell said. "You had a white water fountain, a black water fountain, a black bathroom, a white bathroom. I was like, 'Immigrant? I was an immigrant and I was American.'"

Despite an incredible high school athletic career, Bobby couldn't attend North Carolina, Duke or any of the major regional schools because he was black. Big Ten schools, namely Minnesota and Michigan State, had started recruiting more black players from the South, and Gophers coach Murray Warmath offered Bell the last scholarship he had, sight unseen. He played on trailblazing Minnesota teams that featured standouts like Sandy Stephens, the first black quarterback to earn All-America honors, Carl Eller, Judge Dickson and others. "We had to be accountable for each other," Bell said. "You couldn't mess up. A lot of people said, 'No, don't go to Minnesota. Go ahead and get you a 40-hour job here in Shelby.' When I went to Minnesota, there was no way I was going back home as a failure. "I could not put my head down and crawl back to Shelby." Pink Bell never discouraged his son from leaving town. When Bobby told his dad of his academic struggles and asked if he would pull through, Pink told him he would if he worked hard. Bobby remembers the first time Pink got to see him play at Minnesota: 68,000 fans in the stands, national TV cameras rolling. Pink also made it to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. "He talks about his dad all the time," said Coleman, who often travels with Bell to Minnesota games. "His dad always told him that if Bobby put his mind to it, and worked hard enough at it, he could do and be whatever he wanted. That's been Bobby's philosophy and credo his whole life. "Going back to school and finishing, that was kind of on his bucket list. That's what he did. It will all come to fruition." Coleman and Bell will fly together Thursday to Minneapolis along with several members of Bell's family, including his sons Bobby and Joshua. Some of Bell's former Gophers teammates, including Dickson, as well as Stephens' sister and brother -- Barbara Stephens Foster and Ray Stephens -- are expected to attend the ceremony. Bell owned the stage during his football career. After 52 years, he'll walk across one as a college graduate. "It's going to be awesome," he said. "I know one thing: I'm going to be looking up for my dad. I can see the big smile on his face. I can see him now saying, 'Yeah, boy, you can do it.'"