By Chris Smith, Photographs by Jason Dailey
When Bobby Bell crosses the Mariucci Arena stage to collect his bachelor’s degree on May 14, the 74-year-old former Gopher star defensive lineman will complete an unlikely dream and fulfill a promise he made in 1958. “I want to show kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, how old you are, you can do it, man,” he says.
Just making it to Minnesota at all was “doing it” over long odds for Bell. Growing up in Shelby, North Carolina, he lived a childhood of segregated schools and businesses and limited opportunity, including for sports. Bell chose to pursue a recreation, park, and leisure studies major because of the difference a few dedicated men made in his life, building the first parks and pool for African Americans in Shelby and teaching him to play team sports. Encouraged by his father, Pink, Bobby set his sights on college. “Very few blacks in Shelby went to college,” he recalls. “But my father always told me it was possible.” Bell worked several jobs, including mowing lawns for white cotton mill owners. “They were sending kids to big colleges,” he says. “I wanted to have my opportunity to go to a big school.”
Football provided the opportunity. Minnesota’s Murray Warmath, one of the few major-college coaches then recruiting black players, offered Bell a scholarship. As he stepped onto an airplane for the first time, heading for a place that could not have been more different from Shelby, Bell promised his father he would not quit. “It wasn’t just for me,” Bell says. “It was for him, for my mom, my family, all the blacks in Shelby.” He and fellow trailblazing black players like Sandy Stephens and Carl Eller, who had their own families and hometowns to represent, held each other accountable. “We pledged that we would stick it out and leave as winners,” he says.
They did, winning a 1960 national title and the 1962 Rose Bowl. Bell finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year, an astonishing feat for a defensive player. Following a Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs, he worked for General Motors and opened a string of restaurants. “I was so busy,” Bell recalls. “But I never forgot that I promised my father that I would finish.”
Only three classes short of his degree, Bell arranged to take online courses from his Kansas City home. While easier logistically than coming to campus, it presented other challenges. “It all used to be in the library, but now it’s on the computer,” Bell says. “When I had to create a PowerPoint, first I had to learn to use PowerPoint. . . . It was double hard for me. But I just really started to enjoy it.”
In a lifetime of “you can do it” moments, earning his degree is right up there, Bell says. But having his father in the stands in Minneapolis to watch him play, he says, “is at the top of my list. It was the dream we had together that he would see his son play just like everybody else. That’s why I love this University. Can you imagine all this coming from where I did? Minnesota gave me the opportunity to have all this happen.