When the trade was consummated, Ricky Bell smiled.
He smiled. And smiled. And smiled. And smiled. And smiled. He smiled toward friends. He smiled toward relatives. He smiled toward old teammates and new teammates and strangers who wished him well. He smiled toward business partners; toward his barber; toward waiters and repairmen and bellhops.
Ricky Bell -- brand new member of the 1982 San Diego Chargers -- could not stop smiling.
Over the past few years, Bell had resided within a sort of tropical football hell. The front office of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- the team that selected him first overall in the 1977 NFL Draft, then decimated his body by having him run behind one subpar offensive line after another -- had repeatedly questioned his heart and dedication. The organization had quietly told reporters covering the team that its star tailback was a shell of his former self, and that he was an overrated, money-motivated player with a possible drug problem. Owned by Hugh Culverhouse, a notoriously cheap man who was distrusted by many of the team's African-American players, the Buccaneers were an organization that perfected the art of alienating and offending its stars. "Culverhouse was not someone who was particularly liked," says David Lewis, Tampa's star linebacker. "Sometimes the bottom line seemed to be money, not success."
Bell had wanted to go down as one of the organization’s first great professional athletes.
Oh, Bell had wanted things to work out in Tampa Bay; had wanted to go down as one of the organization's (and city's) first great professional athletes. When, in 1979, he ran for 1,263 yards and seven touchdowns, helping the fourth-year franchise shock the league by reaching the NFC title game, Bell could do no wrong. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated; selected as the team's MVP; asked to appear at this event and that banquet. He became a spokesperson for the United Way, and the stories of his good deeds and charitable endeavors overtook the city. There were likeable football players, there were loveable football players -- and there was Ricky Bell, whose gap-toothed smile came to symbolize a fan base's love-fest with a team. "As great a person as you'll ever meet," said Richard Wood, Bell's teammate with the Bucs and at the University of Southern California. "I can talk about Rick all day. He was a special guy."
In professional sports, however, special guys are only special so long as they put up numbers. And, following his breakout season, Bell's production plummeted. Battling a bruised knee that forced him to miss two games, Bell ran for just 599 yards in 1980, and fans blamed him for Tampa's dreadful 5-10-1 finish. The ensuing year was an even bigger disaster, as Bell carried only 30 times for 80 yards. There were excuses -- a chip fracture in his shoulder caused Bell to miss eight games, the offensive line was as porous as ever, and the coaching staff wanted to give more carries to James Wilder, a highly touted rookie tailback out of Missouri.
Yet behind the words and thoughts and actions, an unspoken truth seemed to linger. "Ricky," says Lewis, "just wasn't Ricky."
It was obvious. But, in a way, not so obvious. Ricky Bell still looked like Ricky Bell -- the high hips, the miniature Afro, the letters B-E-L-L stitched atop the number 42 on his creamsicle-and-white jersey. He walked with a regal gait, signed one autograph after another, spoke of better Sundays to come. And yet, Bell was ... iffy, and his teammates and coaches knew it. Back in 1979, when quarterback Doug Williams handed off to his halfback, Bell burst toward the line with the force of a cue stick slamming into the ball. All power. All energy. Now, he seemed sluggish. Bell still ran hard, but minus the speed and power. More often than not, he reached the first defensive player and fell backward. John McKay, the Buccaneers' head coach, had coached Bell at USC, and often compared him to a young O.J. Simpson. He selected him over Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett with the first pick in the 1977 Draft, and knew what type of weapon he could be.
This wasn't that Ricky Bell.
"Me and Ricky lived in the same apartment complex on Dale Mabry (Highway)," says Lewis, a former teammate USC. "That last year in Tampa, I spent a lot of time helping him into his apartment. I didn't think anything of it. I just thought it was soreness and wear and tear. He played a tough position, and got hit a lot. It never occurred to me that something might be wrong with him."
It never occurred to Bell, either. Though rarely one to publicly blame his blockers or cite a nagging injury to the press, Bell became increasingly convinced that his problems were beyond his immediate control. How could he run when there were no available holes? How could he explode when parts of his body were either black and blue or numb (or both)? He craved physical contact. Loved physical contact. But he was one man, carrying the hopes (and mounting anger) of a city longing for a Super Bowl. The task was an impossible one.
That's why, when Bell received the call on March 9, 1982, he could hardly contain his giddiness. The Buccaneers were sending him to the San Diego Chargers for a fourth-round draft pick. A Los Angeles native, Bell had desired to finish his career back near the sun and the beaches and the casual groove that was Southern California. So what if the Chargers' starting halfback was Chuck Muncie, an elite talent coming off a 1,144-yard, 19-touchdown season? So what if San Diego's famed Air Coryell offense was primarily about the passing game? So what if the Chargers' backfield was overcrowded?
This was the chance of a lifetime.
"It was," says Natalia Jacke, Bell's widow, "a fresh start."
* * *
The requisite clichéd narrative is slotted to begin here.
You know whereof we speak -- the triumphant return to the place where it all began. Think Tom Seaver taking the Shea Stadium mound as a Met again on Opening Day, 1983. Think Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings' legendary quarterback, in the purple duds once more following five seasons as a Giant. Think Reggie Jackson back in Oakland, think Denis Savard wrapping things up as a Blackhawk.
Think about them all.
This is what was supposed to unfold; what Bell knew, in his heart, was about to commence, his triumphant return to SoCal. Shortly after the trade was announced, Jack Gurney, a reporter with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, reached Bell at his home in Los Angeles. "I come to the Chargers fired up to play football again," he told the scribe. "I wish the season would begin tomorrow. I am prepared to do whatever asked of me here. It's hard to believe any team could be more offensive than the Chargers, but whatever I can add to their attack I will try."
"I come to the Chargers fired up to play football again."
The offseason had been a busy one for San Diego, the defending AFC West champions who fell one game short of meeting the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. Around the league, the consensus was that the Chargers needed only to upgrade their 26th-ranked defense in order to take the next step. Conveniently, the Buccaneers (the NFL's thriftiest outfit) were in a seller's mindset. Before long, the Chargers had traded for two of Tampa's best players -- linebacker David Lewis and defensive tackle Dewey Selmon -- and hired Tom Bass, the team's outgoing defensive coordinator, to fill the same position in San Diego. Hence, when the Bell trade came to fruition, the media treated it as a quirky, yet relatively minor, transaction. There were no banner headlines and few interviews. Bell, by his family's recollection, did but a single local TV appearance, and it lasted for all of two minutes. "It wasn't a big thing," says Rick Smith, the Chargers' media relations director at the time. "Ricky was a nice guy and he had a good career. But it wasn't like he was coming in to challenge Chuck Muncie. He was a backup. Generally, backups don't get much attention."
Upon closer inspection, however, the back story here was a remarkable one. Born on April 8, 1955, Ricky Lynn Bell was the fifth of Ruthie Lee Tatum's seven sons (from three different men). He was initially raised in a converted garage inside Houston's Fifth Ward, a crime-ridden section northeast of the city's downtown. Ricky shared quarters with two of his brothers, Lee and Chester, and his mother, his aunt and a cousin slept in an adjacent room. "There wasn't much opportunity for blacks in Houston in the 1960s," says Lee Moore, one of Ricky's two younger siblings. "The jobs were out west."
One night, Ruthie, who worked long hours as a housekeeper in a white section of Houston, dreamed that God or Jesus or Moses or someone important told her to relocate to California. Upon waking up, she flipped open her bedside Bible and landed upon Philippians 3:14 -- "But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." It was, she believed, meant to be.
"My mom had $60 in her pocket," says Moore. "There were two bus services back then -- Greyhound and Continental. Continental was the cheaper one, so she boarded the three of us [the oldest four brothers -- including noted soul singer Archie Bell -- were already out of the house] and we moved to Los Angeles when Ricky was nine. All because of a dream ..."
What awaited the family, however, was a nightmare. Ruthie and the children found a dirty, discarded, cardboard box-sized apartment at 1131 East 71st St. -- the center of gang-infested South Central Los Angeles. "Our place was a shotgun shack," Moore says. "Me and Chester shared a bed, all of us shared one bathroom. It wasn't a good scene. Crime everywhere, violence everywhere. Pretty hopeless."
Strapped for money, Ruthie (who found work in an auto parts shop) was unable to pay for her children to play in the local sports leagues. Instead, Ricky and his friends would retreat to one of two places: An asphalt court overtaken by broken bottles and crumpled fast food bags, or a dusty field down the street, located behind a Salvation Army thrift shop. Always big for his age, Ricky dominated sandlot games, slugging baseballs into the far off sky and, in football, running over older opponents as if they were pillows. "As a trick, he used to pick other kids up and hold them over his head," says Moore. "I still get reminded of that."
At Edison Junior High, young Ricky began his gradual development into an Adonis. Muscles sprouted from muscles that sprouted from more muscles; his legs took the form of tree trunks; his forearms were granite ("Ricky was given the strength of Samson," his mother once told People magazine. "And that's amazing because he was an anemic baby.") A gym teacher, Richard Adams, organized after-school football games for the children who couldn't afford youth leagues, and Ricky was, in his brother's word, "untouchable."
By the time he reached Fremont High School in the fall of 1970, Bell emerged as a terror, earning All-Los Angeles City Section honors as one of California's elite prep fullbacks and linebackers (before rushing for 995 yards as a senior, Bell excelled as a blocking back for Chet Lemon, future Detroit Tigers centerfielder). Equally important, he ignored the siren call of gang lifestyle. As those around him turned to the streets, Bell focused upon school and sports. "I never had the urge," he told the Sporting News' Dwight Chapin in 1976, "to go around beating anyone up." Indeed, when his mother worked the late shift at the plant, Ricky was responsible for making Lee and Chester dinner, then putting them to bed. "Chicken, rice and Kool-Aid," Ricky once said. "I grew up fast taking care of my brothers."
As one college recruiter after another showed up at Pathfinder practices, Bell's dreams grew bigger and bigger. One warm summer night, he sat out front of his home, alongside Lee, and talked of a future without gunshots, without drug dealers. "I'm gonna make the NFL," he said, "and the first thing I'll do is buy Mama a house. We have to get out of here. We have to..."
"He had dreams for his son. But in order for them to happen, his dreams had to come true, too."
Problem. During his junior year, Ricky impregnated his girlfriend, a pretty gymnast named Carolyn Estres. When Ruthie heard the news, she broke down. How many times had she told her boys that the one thing -- the very one thing -- they must not do is have babies while in high school? How often had she warned Ricky that his path could be easily destroyed by a single misstep? "A lot of people were very disappointed in Ricky," says Moore. "We all liked Carolyn. She was a nice girl. But when that happened, there was this belief that Ricky had possibly ruined his future, and that football wouldn't happen anymore."
Ricky heard the words, soaked in the heartbreak and, says Moore, "acted responsibly." He was inside the hospital when his son, Ricky Bell, Jr., was born on Feb. 13, 1974, and spent as much time with the infant as possible. "Ricky had plans for him," says Moore. "He had dreams for his son. But in order for them to happen, his dreams had to come true, too."
After paying visits to Colorado, Oregon, Cal, Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and USC, Bell -- at his mother's behest -- chose the Trojans. "It's the only school," she told him, "that you can ride a bike to from home." McKay, the legendary coach, recruited Bell as a future fullback. Early in the 1973 season, however, a Trojan outside linebacker named Dale Mitchell was injured, and Bell was inserted into the starting lineup in his place. "He was a freshman when I was a senior, and I got on him really hard in a game against Arkansas," says Wood, a fellow linebacker. "But he got it together really quickly. Great athletes are great athletes, and Rick was friggin' great."
Bell alternated with Dave Farmer in 1974 at fullback as a sophomore, blocking for Anthony Davis, helping the running back finish second in balloting for the Heisman Trophy. Then, five days before spring practices closed in 1975, McKay yelled out, "Ricky! Line up there at tailback and let's see what you can do from there!"
Vince Evans, a Trojan quarterback, handed Bell the ball. Whooooooosh!
"From that day on," Sports Illustrated's John Underwood wrote, "history was born."
His debut as a featured ball carrier came on Sept. 12, 1975, when the Duke Blue Devils traveled to the Los Angeles Coliseum for the season opener for both teams. It was a warm, breezy California evening, and 56,272 spectators filled the building to watch the Trojans presumably destroy an overmatched opponent. "I was real scared," Bell said. "I felt like throwing up."
What ensued was something few Duke players have ever forgotten. Bell carried the ball 34 times for 256 yards, breaking C.R. Roberts' 19-year-old single-game team record. That USC won, 35-7, was lost in the new halfback's brilliance. "Bell is as great as any tailback John McKay ever had at USC," Mike McGee, Duke's coach, said afterward. "How could any others be better?"
"As far as I'm concerned, he's the best football player of all time."
Over the next two seasons, Bell -- who rushed for 1,957 yards as a junior and 1,433 as (an injury-plagued) senior -- morphed from standout to star to Trojan legend. In a game at Washington State during his final season, he carried 51 times for 347 yards and two touchdowns, prompting John Robinson, USC's new coach, to note, "As far as I'm concerned, he's the best football player of all time." Bell, who placed second to Dorsett in Heisman Trophy balloting, was unlike any other Southern Cal tailback -- nearly as explosive as Simpson, only with a Mack Truck's physicality. Nearly as fast as Davis, only with sharper instincts. Teammates nicknamed him "Bulldog," and with good reason. Bell's running style was uncomplicated and devastating. He tucked the ball under his arm, lowered his helmet, raised his knees and powered straight ahead. There were no tricks or gimmicks; no slick attempts at misdirection. Defenders knew Bell was coming toward them, and that he wouldn't make much of an effort to duck or sidestep. It was Ricky Bell's shoulders slamming into your chest. "He was as good as anyone who ever played for us," says Dave Levy, the Trojans' offensive line coach. "USC had so many great running backs, but he's right near the top."
What most separated Bell from many Trojans was his off-the-field approach to life. Here was the anti-stereotypical jock; a kid who took his academics seriously (A speech major, Bell was placed on academic probation as a freshman, worked diligently with tutors and returned to USC to wrap up his degree requirements in 1979), and who committed himself to his mother. He lived at home his first three years of college, so that the rental supplement check supplied by USC could go to household needs, and worked a series of summer jobs to help make ends meet. Bell served as a janitor and a playground instructor, and midway through college appeared as an extra in such shows as "The Six-Million Dollar Man" and "The Rockford Files."
"You can't say I wasn't poor, poor," he once said. "I always had clothes on my back and food to eat, but that was about it. I remember when I got my first car. See, I always worked, selling newspapers or something. But this time, I got a job selling for a sporting goods firm in the summer. I guess I was 18. I know I saved $250 and bought this '64 Chevy and it set me going. I'd done something, man."
During the mid-1970s, USC's linebackers were coached by Foster Andersen, whose young son, Christian, used to bound along the sidelines. Bell became the boy's unofficial babysitter -- "he took me everywhere with him," says Christian, who later became a producer for Fox Sports. "He came to my elementary school and spoke to a full auditorium. I still have a photograph Ricky signed for me hanging downstairs." Bell's inscription to the then-seven-year-old: YOU'RE MY BEST FRIEND.
Midway through Bell's senior year, he and some pals visited a Los Angeles club, Disco 9000. No longer attached to the mother of Ricky, Jr., Bell spotted a pretty young woman named Natalia Laidler, and asked her to dance. "I was only 17, but my friend and I knew the owner of the club so we got in," Natalia says. "Well, when Ricky found out I was 17, he said, ‘Oh no, are you serious?'"
"I am," she replied.
"Well," said Bell, "I'm 22. We can't date. But give me the date of your 18th birthday, and I'll call you."
The following Feb. 12, the phone rang in the Laidler household. Ricky and Natalia married three years later.
"Ricky was extremely honorable, very respectful," says Natalia. "When we dated he came to pick me up the first time, and my mom was mopping the floor. He took the mop from her and said, ‘I'll do that for you.' It wasn't an act -- Ricky was just that way.
"He was just really, really good."
* * *
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quickly found this out.
Ricky Bell was really, really good. He worked hard, he rarely complained, he fulfilled every request with a smile on his face. Need someone to visit a hospital? Call Ricky! Have a bunch of kids requesting autographs? Ricky! His first big purchase after signing a five-year, $1.225 million contract was a $184,000 home for his family in the tony Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles. When presented the keys, tears streamed down his mother's cheeks. "Talk about culture shock," says Moore. "We went from one bathroom to five! Five! Who needs five bathrooms?"
When McKay selected Bell over Dorsett (who went second overall, to the Cowboys), he explained to the media that a smaller halfback (Dorsett was 5-foot-11, 192 pounds) wouldn't survive behind the Bucs' inexperienced offensive line. Yet the reasoning made little sense. Dorsett was shifty -- he could make his own holes. Bell was a north-south runner, with the elusiveness of a desk lamp. For such a running back, there was no worse place to begin a career than Tampa. The Bucs had completed their inaugural season with a 0-14 record, and ranked 24th in the league in rushing yards. "You knew one thing," says Dewey Selmon. "It wasn't going to be easy for Ricky."
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It was worse than anyone could have ever imagined.
The Buccaneers lost their first 12 games. The starting quarterbacks -- Gary Huff and Randy Hedberg -- combined to throw for three touchdowns and 23 interceptions, and the leading receiver, Morris Owens, had but 34 catches. Bell made his professional debut on Sept. 18, 1977 at Philadelphia, running for a scant 53 yards on 15 carries in a 13-3 defeat. The Eagles stuffed the line to stop Bell -- a tactic used week after week by Tampa Bay's opponents. At the same time, while Dorsett was rushing for 1,007 yards en route to a Super Bowl title with the Cowboys, Bell was being manhandled by defensive linemen and booed by the hometown fans.
His frustrations boiled over during a Week 11 loss to Atlanta, when he was forced to leave the game with a knee injury after running for 11 yards. As Bell sat on the bench, simmering, a handful of hecklers taunted him from behind. Bell turned and, uncharacteristically, screamed, "Come on down here! If it's that bad, just come on down!" When the exchange intensified, Bell charged the nearby retaining wall in order to climb into the stands. George Ragsdale, a kick returner, pulled Bell away. Afterward, sitting by his locker, Bell felt humiliated. "I know I shouldn't have done it," he told the assembled media. "I've never been a fighter. But it was just the frustration ... everything."
When Tampa completed its disastrous 2-12 campaign, Bell's stat line (148 rushes, 436 yards, an average of 2.9 yards per carry with only one touchdown) appeared to tell the saga of a first-round bust.
"What nobody seemed to understand was that he was running against 11 guys," says Wood. "Ricky was courageous that year, man. Never whined, never made an excuse. But he didn't have a shot. Not a shot in hell."
Bell's second campaign was only slightly better (he ran for 679 yards and six touchdowns for the 5-11 Buccaneers), but in 1979 something in Tampa Bay clicked. After four seasons of adding high draft picks (and competent offensive linemen), the Buccaneers of Bell, Williams and Lee Roy Selmon captured the NFC Central with a 10-6 record, shocked the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, then lost to the Rams 9-0 in the NFC Championship Game. Bell's 1,263 rushing yards ranked sixth in the NFL, and the sports' chroniclers began speaking of him not as a bust, but as a rival to Houston's Earl Campbell and Chicago's Walter Payton as the league's most physically dominant ball carriers.
"That year," says Dewey Selmon, "Ricky was the best he'd ever been."
* * *
Now, just three seasons later, he was a Charger. The good times that were supposed to ensue in Tampa Bay never ensued. Injuries mounted. The line fell apart. By 1981, McKay, Bell's biggest defender, lost faith. He wanted the Ricky Bell of USC; the Ricky Bell who resembled a freight train chugging along a downhill track.
Instead, Bell seemed to be tiptoeing and pussyfooting. So much natural talent, so little resemblance to the bull he once was. "He just wasn't the same running back at the end of his time in Tampa," says Wood. "He had absorbed a lot of pain, and it took a toll." Jerry Eckwood, a third-year player with 1/100th of Bell's natural talent, took over as the starter. Bell silently stewed, and suggested to McKay that, perhaps, he should be moved elsewhere. The coach did not take to this kindly. He had brought Bell to Tampa Bay, and this was the thanks he got? This was the appreciation?
"Hell," McKay said to the press, "we couldn't even get a postage stamp for Ricky."
The words crushed Bell.
He'd show McKay. He'd show Culverhouse. He'd show Tampa's fans -- the ones who booed and accused him of maligning.
Ricky Bell would show them all.
"I said, 'Holy cow! If he's still the same guy he was, we want him.'"
"I remember when our GM [John Sanders] called and said we had a chance to get Ricky Bell," says Dave Levy, the former USC coach who now oversaw the Chargers' offensive line. "I said, 'Holy cow! If he's still the same guy he was, we want him. We definitely want him.'"
Bell rented a condominium in the Scripps Ranch area of San Diego, and moved in with Natalia and their 3-year-old daughter, Noelle. For the first time in years, he was genuinely excited about football. If Bell wasn't lifting weights, he was running the beach. Or doing sit-ups. Or studying the Chargers' offense. "He looked like he was OK," said Smith, the media relations director. "I can still picture him doing physical labor on the roof of his condo."
Come May, Bell reported to the campus of the University of California at San Diego for minicamp. He was handed a No. 42 jersey and greeted by Earnel Durden, the team's backfield coach. Entering his ninth season on the job, Durden was excited to have a player boasting such a résumé among a motley crew of rookie hopefuls and castoffs. "I remember those first days -- he was bubbly and he seemed healthy," says Durden. "I honestly thought, ‘This is just what we need. He'll fit in perfectly.'"
Bell felt the same way. He told Durden and head coach Don Coryell he'd do whatever the team needed -- block, run, return kicks, return punts. Few NFL teams boasted San Diego's running back depth (along with Muncie, the backfield candidates included John Cappelletti, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Penn State, James Brooks, a second-year standout who ran for 525 yards as a rookie, and Hank Bauer, a respected sixth-year veteran), and Bell figured he needed to fight for a roster spot.
Beginning that first day of camp, Bell eagerly lined up behind the quarterback, looking comfortable and sleek in his shiny lightning bolt helmet. With each snap of the ball, he charged forward, opening his arms to receive a handoff. It was just like the glory days of Tampa all over again, with one slight difference.
Ricky Bell was awful.
"he just didn't have that explosiveness."
"I watched him during minicamp, and there was no zip on his fastball," says Bauer. "I played at a Division III school in California (California Lutheran), so I knew how great Ricky had been at USC. I mean, he was one of the best ever. But he just didn't have that explosiveness. I'd played with some special running backs -- Chuck, Lydell Mitchell, Johnny Rodgers -- and they all exploded when they got the ball. Ricky had no explosion. None."
"He just looked like he didn't like getting hit anymore," says Levy. "That happens with old backs who have been beat up. But he wasn't old."
Durden noticed the same thing, but the team chalked it up to rust. Plus, Bell was, without much debate, the classiest pro they'd ever seen. He attended every meeting with a smile on his face; complimented awe-struck nobodies when they made good plays. One of the other running backs in camp was Russell Ellis, a former UNLV standout who'd spent the previous season playing for the Twin City Cougars of something called the California Football League. Ellis' odds of making the Chargers were, approximately, zero. "Well, one day he picks me and another player up and takes us to the beach," says Ellis. "He didn't have to do that. There was nothing to gain. He was just a really kind man looking out for another Los Angeles guy. I'll never forget that. Ever."
Two months later Bell returned to UC-San Diego for training camp, and so did the sluggishness. Though somewhat able to conceal his struggles alongside the likes of Ellis in minicamp, now -- compared to Muncie and Brooks -- Bell seemed to be running through a bowl of applesauce. When pressed, he described a dull achiness that was creeping through his legs. "As soon as we started, it was clear he wasn't right," says Lewis, the new Chargers linebacker. "Ricky wasn't one to complain, but this was different. I think the complaining started during the preseason games. He was hurting, but he didn't know why."
"It was hard to watch, because he was playing his heart out and it wasn't there," says Bauer. "It was never a question of effort. We all just scratched our heads and wondered, ‘Where's the Ricky Bell we all know?'"
Despite his struggles, Bell made San Diego's opening day roster. He dressed for the Week 1 visit to Denver, but played little in a 23-3 win. The following Sunday, during a 19-12 loss at Kansas City, Bell returned one kickoff for 10 yards. "I remember seeing him the morning after that return, and he was in a lot of pain," says Ricky, Jr., who was visiting his father from his home in Seattle. "He had this look like, ‘This ain't happening anymore.'" The discomfort and inactivity were depressing, as was the 57-day players' strike that ensued. Yet what really concerned Bell was the weight loss.
It began innocuously enough. A few pounds dropped here, a few pounds dropped there. Professional athletes monitor their bodies like few other Homo sapiens, and they also specialize in making excuses for any discernible changes. The weather had been hot. The work days had been long. Bell wasn't eating enough. He was sweating an awful lot. He needed to change his diet. He needed more sleep. "He was declining," says Natalia. "Only we didn't know why."
"The weight loss was pretty eye-opening," says Lewis. "It didn't make sense."
The season resumed on Nov. 22, and Bell -- shrinking before his teammates' eyes -- stood along the sideline for games against the Raiders and Broncos. He finally returned to action on Dec. 5, late in a 30-13 decimation of the lowly Browns at Cleveland. With the outcome long decided, Coryell sent Bell in to play halfback. He took a handoff from quarterback Dan Fouts and ran for four yards. Three weeks later, in a landslide win over the dreadful Colts, Ed Luther, San Diego's backup quarterback, gave the football to Bell, who made it two yards before being tackled to the ground.
The play, insignificant by all possible measures, exists somewhere on a reel inside the bowels of the NFL Films offices.
Nobody has ever asked for it.
Nobody has seen it in years.
It shows the final moment of Ricky Bell's NFL career.
* * *
And, with that, he vanished.
Bell's locker stall, uniform No. 42 dangling from a hanger, sat empty. His shoes remained, literally, unfilled. When asked, years later, what he recalled of his time coaching Bell in San Diego, Ernie Zampese, the Chargers' offensive coordinator, paused awkwardly. "The USC guy?" he said. "I don't remember him at all."
the day San Diego mercifully placed him on the reserve list, Bell was nearly unrecognizable.
By Dec. 31, 1982, the day San Diego mercifully placed him on the reserve list, Bell was nearly unrecognizable. His weight had plummeted from 225 to 198 pounds. The severe pain and swelling in his joints was unbearable. Blisters were beginning to sprout up on his palms and feet. Some with the Chargers had assumed Bell was suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis. He wasn't.
He went through a bevy of tests, and then the team referred him to Dr. Michael Weisman, an arthritis specialist at the University of San Diego. "Right off the bat I knew there was a serious problem," Weisman told the Los Angeles Times in 1984. "He had swollen hands and feet, and open sores on his fingers and toes." In January 1983, Bell was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, an inflammation of the skin and muscles that affects all of its patients differently. Many go on to live long, productive lives. A small handful develop cardiomyopathy, which affects five in every million people. Ricky Bell was one of the five. "It's a disease where the muscles and arteries are attacked and may be started or triggered by a virus," Dr. Allen Metzger, Bell's physician, told the Times. "The muscles get inflamed, causing profound weakness. The blood vessels within the skin become severely inflamed to the point where you're unable to use your muscles. The weight loss comes from the body trying to fight off the disease."
Chances of survival: Less than 30 percent.
Bell refused to hear it. So, for that matter, did his family. He would beat this, just as he beat the odds of escaping South Central; just as he beat the Bears and the Lions and the Packers. Moore liked to think back to the time his brother -- still in college -- returned home from a summer job at a factory that produced rims for cars and trucks. Ricky was told to buy a pair of steel-toed boots, but went to work one day in tennis sneakers. "A rim came off the belt, landed on his toe and busted it," Moore says. "That night, he came in and took off his shoe, and his sock was filled with blood." Ricky removed an old Swiss Army knife from a nearby drawer, wedged the blade under his toenail and popped it off. "Blood was shooting out, and the next day he was back at work as if nothing had ever happened," Moore says. "That's the kind of toughness Ricky had. He could handle anything."
Like many athletes, Bell viewed the disease as an opponent.
Like many athletes, Bell viewed the disease as an opponent, no different than Mark Gastineau or Lyle Alzado, but one for which there was no cure, just a series of drugs to treat various symptoms and the dim hope of a miraculous remission. He began skipping doctor appointments, not wanting to hear any more bad news. He tried acupuncture and various forms of alternative medicines. Throughout 1983, myriad newspapers ran blurbs updating Bell's recovery. RICKY BELL IMPROVED read a small New York Times headline from June 24, 1983. Shortly thereafter, Bell told the Sporting News, "My health has improved since January by about 50 percent." He even attended minicamp with the Chargers, though only as a spectator, ultimately expecting to be better than ever.
"I was in denial, he was in denial," says Natalia. "I knew he was sick, but I always throught he'd go in remission and get better."
As the months passed and the weight failed to return, Bell begrudgingly acknowledged that he would never again play football. On Aug. 12, 1983, he issued a statement announcing his retirement. He didn't say goodbye to his old Charger teammates, or return to the facility to pick up his belongings. After just six seasons, his career was over, and he needed -- emotionally, mentally -- to sever ties. He, Natalia and Noelle returned to Los Angeles, to live in the house he bought his mother six years earlier. "I honestly thought he'd recover and be back for 1983," says Dewey Selmon. "That's just the way I figured it'd go ..."
For a man whose body was systematically betraying him, Bell refused to act the part. The disease was beginning to spread to his lungs and heart, developing into cardiomyopathy, and the strain took an increasingly severe physical toll. Bell became increasingly tired, and needed to sleep long hours and nap regularly (with an oxygen tank by his bedside). He would often wake up screaming from the muscle pains shooting through his legs, and the inability to pick up Noelle broke his heart. But, outside of his immediate family, he never let on. He invested in a pair of Popeye's Chicken franchises and purchased a bulk storage facility. He studied to attain his real estate license, and used the time away from football to forge a bond with, Ricky, Jr., who moved to Los Angeles to live with his father and attend fifth grade at nearby View Park Elementary. When people inquired about his health, he was always armed with a standard reply ("I'm doing much better!"), even when the inevitability of death seemed to loom.
"He didn't waste time being angry," says Ricky, Jr. "He knew how blessed his life was, and he showed that in his actions. We used to watch all these Bruce Lee movies together -- he loved them. There was this one film we watched a lot, and in it the guy's nose was bleeding. I'd wake up the next morning to my dad dripping water on me, trying to get me to think it was his nose.
"My dad had a unique spirit. He liked the rain at night ... the feeling of the warm air and the rain falling on him when it was dark. For some reason, that sticks with me. Him, happy in the rain."
* * *
On the morning of Nov. 28, 1984, Lee Moore was lying in bed when his telephone rang. It was his mother. "Ricky just called and told me to get to the house," she said. "Can you go over there?"
Moore jumped in his car, drove the handful of miles to 4259 Enoro Dr. and sprinted through the front door. "The paramedics were already there," Moore says. "They had attached a monitor to him. He was slumped over, and when he saw me, he told me his back was killing him. He asked me to come over and rub it." Bell was placed on a gurney and taken to Daniel Freeman Hospital in nearby Inglewood. Moore had Ricky, Jr. brought home from school, and then drove with the boy to the hospital. "I parked, walked up to the information desk in the emergency room and told the receptionist that I was Ricky Bell's brother," he says. "My mom was trying to get hold of Natalia, who was back at school (Bell's wife was working on a master's degree in history at Cal State, Los Angeles). We had a seat in the waiting area ..."
Without warning, a voice came over the loudspeaker. "Is there any family for Ricky Bell here?" Lee and Ricky, Jr. were escorted toward a small office. From the corner of his eye, Lee spotted two panicked nurses sprinting past. "We were pushed into this office, the door was closed and we were told to wait," Moore says. "We were sitting there for a while. I had no idea what was going on. I just wanted to see my brother."
A doctor entered. The time on the clock read 11:06 a.m.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm Lee, Ricky Bell's brother," he said. "And this is Ricky's son."
A pained, awkward silence.
"I'm sorry," the doctor said.
The year is 2013. Moore is telling the story. He is sobbing, as if the death happened moments ago.
"Sorry for what?" said Lee.
"Your brother. He just expired."
Ricky Bell was 29.
The year is 2013. Moore is telling the story. He is sobbing, as if the death happened moments ago. His voice cracks, then cracks again. "Little Ricky begins to cry," he says. "I knew I had to get to a phone, to call my mother ..."
He dialed the number, and Ruthie Lee Tatum picked up.
"He's gone," Lee said.
Ruthie wailed. And wailed. And wailed. "My baby ..."
Natalia was pulled from her class by a security guard and informed that Ricky was in the hospital. During her 40-minute drive from campus, she refused to turn on the car radio for fear of hearing the news she dreaded. When she entered the emergency room, she saw Lee. "Tell me he's OK," she cried. "Please, tell me he's OK ..."
Lee shook his head.
Moments later, the wife and the brother were escorted into a room where the body of Ricky Bell, eyes closed, rested atop a table, dead of a heart attack, the end result of his disease. He was down to 180 pounds, but looked larger in death than he had in life. The doctor asked if they wanted to hear his last words.
"Yes," said Natalia. "Of course."
"Your husband told me he didn't want to die," he said. "That he had kids to take care of and so much to live for. He kept saying he was sorry, and that we had to keep him alive.
"All Ricky wanted to do," the doctor said, "was be alive."
* * *
Nearly three decades have passed. Ricky, Jr. lives in Seattle, where he is a managing real estate broker for Allegro Realty and raises his son -- a fabulous 11-year-old athlete named Ricky Bell III. Noelle, 33, works in the music business in New York City. She looks exactly like her father, from the smile to the eyes to the hair. "I recently started going through some old fan mail he received, but never opened," she said. "I love it, but it's really sad. I barely remember my father. I wish I did, but ..."
Natalia spent much of her career as the manager of legal affairs for Warner Bros Pictures Music -- a job she recently left. She has been married to H. Clay Jacke, a judge on the Los Angeles County Superior Court, for more than 20 years. They have two children together. She still thinks of her late husband, but too often those ponderings are accompanied by pain. "He's missed," she says. "He really is."
Ricky's younger brother, Lee, is a custodial worker in a San Diego school district. He is occasionally haunted by what his role model could have become; what he would have been. "I look at Magic Johnson, and his business success after basketball, and I think of Ricky," he says. "He could have had the same level of excellence. I truly believe that. He was so much more than just a football player."
As the thought fades away, Moore is asked how often his brother creeps into his mind. Time, after all, has a way of turning fresh images into faded newsprint. Can he still hear Ricky's voice? Can he still see his face?
Moore pauses to collect himself.
"When I was little, my mom always had Ricky tie my shoes at the start of every day," he says. "It was always, ‘Tie your brother's shoes ... tie your brother's shoes.' Well, Ricky got tired of it, so he decided to teach me to tie my own shoes. It was a painstaking experience, I'm sure, but he showed me repeatedly, until I got it down for myself.
"I'm an adult now. Old. And every morning, before leaving the house, I bend down to put on my shoes. And every time, I think of my brother. I can't help but think of my brother.
"That," says Moore, "makes me very happy."