Bell rang true, and was one of a kind


LOS ANGELES -- The late Ricky Lynn Bell, the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977 and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, is perhaps the most extreme of the famed USC Trojans tailbacks, just by the style and no-nonsense way he ran.

Originally a linebacker/fullback out of Los Angeles Fremont High in 1972, Bell was that proverbial bull in a China closet and then some.

At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds of muscle and athleticism, fans of that USC era will tell you while there have been faster Trojans tailbacks, ball-carriers with more juke and jelly legs and running backs presenting more finesse. But Rumbling Ricky ran fast enough, could accelerate if he saw an opening and had all the finesse of a jackhammer.

Trying to tackle Bell was like trying to derail a human freight train.

"He punishes tacklers like no one I've ever seen," USC head coach John Robinson said at the time.

"You watch all those defensive players patting each other on the back and shouting, 'We're gonna stop Ricky Bell!' And then you watch the next play, and their heads slam into the ground. He runs right over them."

In his USC career, Bell ran for 3,689 yards on 710 carries (a 5.2-yard average) and 28 touchdowns.

When Bell arrived at Troy, he was thought of as a linebacker but was soon moved to fullback and eventually tailback. Bell played a bit as a sophomore fullback and proceeded to lay crushing blocks when he wasn’t running the ball like a wrecking ball between the tackles.

USC sported a 38-8-2 career mark during his brilliant career and a two-time, unanimous All-American, Bell became the toast of Los Angeles, if not a symbol of the city’s strength.

Bell’s celebrity at USC extended even into the world of politics, as showcased when President Gerald Ford came to campus in October 1976 for a campus address.

“I will tell you one thing: I would rather run against Jimmy Carter than Ricky Bell any time,” Ford said.

Bell knew how to deal with fame thanks to his older brother Archie, who started a very successful R&B band called Archie Bell and the Drells, which had some late 1960s hits, including "She's My Woman" and "Tighten Up.”

One of No. 42’s most legendary games at USC was a record-breaking, 347-yard rushing performance on 51 carries against Washington State in 1976. It was a Herculean performance that left the defeated Cougars marveling in what they had witnessed first-hand in Seattle.

"It was the worst, as a team, we've ever been beaten up," said Dean Pedigo, a WSU nose tackle, after the game. "We were all stiff and sore.

“Bell is bigger and stronger than most of our guys on defense. You can't just butt him with your head or arm-tackle him. Three or four of you have to wrap him up. I could not believe he carried 51 times. We were really sticking him on every play."

Ironically, for a player that seemed almost indestructible, there was silent destruction looming literally at the heart of this legendary tailback. Those destruction forces were later identified as a combination of dermatomyositis and polymyositis, diseases that affected his skin, striated his muscles and various connective tissues of the body and heart, and eventually led to cardiac arrest.

Tampa Bay fans will always remember Bell -- who played for legendary head coach John McKay both at USC and with the Buccaneers -- as the back who helped bring them out of expansion-team darkness and to a division title in 1979.

Bell, born in Houston, was a hero in South Central Los Angeles. He spent time with the less fortunate away from football and was the kind of role model who did so quietly.

When Bell died on Nov. 28, 1984 at age 29, his death hit home, especially with his Buccaneers head coach and former Trojans teammates.

"Ricky Bell was one of the finest football players I've ever had the pleasure of coaching," John McKay said upon hearing of Bell’s passing. "He was an even finer man. This is a great tragedy.”

"It's ironic that someone with such a big heart would succumb to something associated with the heart," said Melvin Jackson, an offensive lineman who blocked for Bell at USC.

What struck Jackson so hard was that for all of Bell’s All-American and NFL accomplishments, it was all about the fact this big, bruising running back showed no pretense in his down-to-earth personality.

“I thought he was rare, and I'm not just saying that because he was my friend or because he died,” Jackson said. “What I loved about him was that he was sincere.

"I spent five years in the NFL and saw a lot of athletes get a lot of press for doing community things that were really staged. He didn't do that. A lot of things he did were never publicized. He spent a lot of time with kids in South Los Angeles. And he did it for free."

But perhaps former Trojans legendary tailback Anthony Davis said it best in an interview.

“He was a great player, but as a person, Ricky was a diamond,” said Davis, who was also a Tampa Bay teammate for a season.

“The question always bugs you. Out of all of us, why did it have to be Ricky? He was the good one, the jewel. Why him?"

Such was the star-crossed life of Bell that even Hollywood picked up his legacy and filmed a 1991 made-for-television movie called, "A Triumph of the Heart."

Ask those that tried to tackle Bell and they probably would have given the movie an alternative name.

For Whom the Bell Tolls.