Bobby Bell, as natural of a story-teller there is, didn’t pass on an opportunity to offer advice to the Kansas City’s top high school and collegiate athletes Thursday night at the Midland Theatre.
Fresh off his championship performance at the 2011 NFL Alumni Kansas City Chapter Golf Tournament Monday afternoon, Bell found himself back in the winner’s circle as the recipient of the Kansas City Sports Commission’s Lamar Hunt Lifetime Achievement Award.
The award was presented as part of the 39th Annual SPORTKC PROPS (Party Recognizing Outstanding People of Sports) ceremony.
“Lamar Hunt gave a lot of black players from the south an opportunity to play in the big leagues with the American Football League – I owe a lot to Lamar,” Bell said as he took the stage.
Then, Bobby Bell did what he does best. He inspired through personal experience.
Bell began by discussing the challenges of breaking the color barrier as a black quarterback from a six-man high school football team in Shelby, North Carolina. He eventually settled on the University of Minnesota as a place to play, starring the for school’s football and basketball programs (Bell was the first black basketball player in school history).
“I had never been on a plane before,” Bell recalled. “(Minnesota) had never recruited that far away. That was the first time that the northern schools started to recruit blacks out of the south. I was kind of like a pioneer, an anomaly at a place like Minnesota.”
At the time, Bell estimated he could count the number of African-American students attending Minnesota if he wanted to. He more than stood out amongst the 36,000 students on campus.
“This was a major culture shock to me, but I had made the decision that I was going to be there and I wasn’t going home,” said Bell.
After an uneventful freshman season, Bell was called into head coach Murry Warmath’s office and received some unwelcome news. Bell’s tenure as a quarterback was over. The Gophers saw a future for the future Hall of Fame linebacker at another position.
If Bell wanted to remain at Minnesota, he’d have to shift from quarterback to left tackle.
“I tell you what, that right there was a turning point for Bobby Bell,” Bell said smiling. “I made a decision right there that I was going to be a team player and do whatever it takes to win.
“I said to him, ‘Coach, I’m coachable and I don’t care where I play, but I’m not going home…there’s just no way.’”
And with that Bell’s unlikely move from quarterback to offensive lineman was complete.
Of course, Coach Warmath’s decision looked genius when Bell went on to become a two-time 1st Team All-America selection, two-time 1st Team All-Big Ten pick and won the Outland Trophy as the country’s top lineman in 1962.
The player who many believed was the “best offensive lineman they’d ever seen” played the position as a senior at 6-2, 217 pounds. Bell wasn’t the biggest, but he was certainly the toughest.
Bell credits the unwavering toughness that reigned over his collegiate years, and continued into his tenure as a pro, as an extension of his father “Pink.”
“I remember it was Father’s Day and my dad traveled all the way from his home in Shelby, NC to see me play in person for the first time,” Bell explained. “Then, I get hurt in the second quarter. Cracked ribs…
“They roll me into the locker room at halftime - and people still talk about this all the time – my dad had on a big overcoat and opens the door to the locker room. I’m laying on this table and my dad asks the trainer, ‘What’s wrong with him?’
“Everybody in the locker room is looking up like, who is this big black man that just walked straight in here?” Bell continued laughing. “He walks over to the table where I’m lying down and the first thing he says to me, ‘Hey boy, I didn’t come all the way up here to see you lay up on this table.’”
Sure enough, when the second half began, Bell had convinced the training staff to let him re-enter the game. He taped up his ribs and returned to action. Bell would play the rest of the season, including the Rose Bowl, with cracked ribs and not miss any time.
“I made my dad proud that he could see his son play at a big school,” Bell said. “The reason for that is that I always dreamed of playing at a big school and my dad was the driving force behind that goal. He always encouraged me that I could do it.”
During his time at the podium, Bell was forced to pause several times because of crowd laughter and applause. He touched on perseverance, teamwork and character – all important personal traits he’d later link back to Hunt.
At the end, Bell left Kansas City’s brightest young athletes with one final piece of advice. He stressed the importance of making the right decision and taking pride in that choice.
“If I had to do everything all over again, I don’t think I’d change anything,” Bell said. “I’m the type of guy who isn’t looking over his shoulder. That’s not the way I live my life. I’m proud of what I did and I’m proud of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years.
“If you’ve got a person who is always looking over their shoulder, they don’t have any direction. You have to be looking straight ahead and be proud of whatever you left behind you.”
Previous Lamar Hunt Lifetime Achievement Award winners include Jack Steadman (2007), Gale Sayers (2008), Len Dawson (2009) and Willie Lanier (2010).
39th Annual SPORTKC PROPS Honorees & Awards
Lamar Hunt Lifetime Achievement Award
Casey Award (Citation for Amateur Sports Excellence)
Tom Osborne (University of Nebraska)
Special Achievement Award for Professional Athletics
Sporting Kansas City Club
Special Athletic Achievement Award
Brady Tanner (Special Olympics Power Lifter)
Earl Smith Greater Kansas City Hall of Champions
Muna Lee (U.S. Track Team)
Fred Pohlman (Penn Valley Community College Basketball)
Larry Holley (William Jewell College Basketball)
Kansas City Male and Female Collegiate Athletes of the Year
Danielle Adams (Texas A&M Women’s Basketball)
Tyra White (Texas A&M Women’s Basketball)
Alec Burks (Colorado Men’s Basketball)
Aldon Smith (Missouri Football)
Joe McGruff Sports Journalist of the Year
Randy Covitz (Kansas City Star)
Kansas Male and Female High School Athletes of the Year
Le’Tristan Pledger (Washington High School)
Bubba Starling (Gardner Edgerton High School)
Missouri Male and Female High School Athletes of the Year
Shea Groom (Liberty High School)
Mathew Margritier (Rockhurst High School)
Alex George Male and Female Volunteer of the Year
Donna Noonan (FCA)
Dan Sudeikis (Big 12 Host Committee)
University of Missouri