Bobby Bell, among the most honored outside linebackers ever to play professional football, took the long way around to reach his goals. Whether a more direct approach was desirable was irrelevant. Bell was born black in Shelby on the cusp of World War II, and the front door to opportunity was closed.
But Bell did not dream any less for being raised in a thicket of racial restrictions. He wanted to attend college, wanted to play intercollegiate sports, especially football, in which the fleet 228-pounder excelled. So he and his father, Pink Lee Bell, a man deprived of even a middle-school education because he was African-American in the segregated South, charted an alternate route that took the 6-4 athlete from a textile mill village to uncommon success.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” the 75-year-old said in a telephone interview the other day. Actually he did change something – just last year Bell finished the 13 credit hours necessary to earn his bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota, fulfilling a long-deferred commitment to his late father.
Tomorrow’s Super Bowl is the 50th edition of what began as a generically named battle between competing leagues. Of 44 starters in that inaugural championship contest for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, Bell was the sole North Carolinian.
“Nobody that I knew that played in that game ever thought it was going to be as big as it is right now,” said the 12-year Chief, recalling that January 1967 contest. “The AFL just got started (in 1960). It was new. We were just young players coming out. They were just giving us an opportunity to play football.”
Bell blazed a distinctive trail wherever he went. “He was the only player in my 30 years of coaching that had the ability to play any position at a football team, and that team would still win,” Hank Stram, his coach with Kansas City, said at Bell’s 1983 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When I came to Kansas City in ’63, you couldn’t live in certain places. Certain restaurants, I couldn’t go in.
Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Bobby Bell on race restrictions in Missouri
Bell was a nine-time All-Pro from 1964-72 and a member of the 1970 Chiefs squad that defeated Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. That ’70 defense was so dominating, in three playoff games including the Super Bowl it only gave up a combined 20 points. As for Bell, the linebacker had 26 interceptions and scored nine touchdowns during a pro career spent exclusively with Kansas City.
Bell was equally accomplished in college. Switched to defensive line after a year at Minnesota, he was a two-time All-American and won the 1962 Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman. He played on a 1960 Minnesota team considered the national champions, and appeared in two Rose Bowls, emerging on the winning end in 1962.
Along the way Bell became the first black basketball player at Minnesota. His number 78 jersey is among five retired by the school’s football program, and he is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Before Bell even graduated Shelby’s all-black Cleveland High School, he was spotted playing baseball in a boys club game in Charlotte, an hour’s drive from home, and was offered a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. He was tempted, but convinced by his father that pursuing an education was more important.
Steered out of state
The Bells lived on the single street in a Shelby mill village where African-Americans were allowed to reside. Bobby Bell, a star on football and basketball teams that won state titles, gazed longingly at the exotic college yearbooks shown him by white boys at the country club where he mowed lawns and cleaned houses. “I’d never seen anything like that,” he recalled of the images, wonder suffusing his voice even now. “I was just mesmerized. Oh, my God!”
When given the chance he accepted a scholarship offer from Minnesota, the “big school” of his yearbook dreams. Arriving there, he said, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Bell played quarterback in high school, the squads limited to six men until his senior year. Invited to a small school all-star game in Greensboro, he impressed Jim Tatum, the coach at North Carolina, who recommended him to Minnesota. In those pre-integration days, coaches at major North Carolina colleges and universities routinely steered promising in-state black players to friends directing programs in the Big Ten and Big Eight.
Bell was admonished by his father to behave impeccably at college because he already had “three strikes” against him as a black person. He encountered few other African-Americans on and around the Minnesota campus. He was such an oddity, a fellow student knocked on his dorm room door in hopes of getting a look at him. “He said, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen a black person before.’ And that’s the way it was,” Bell said. “I was kind of shocked.”
Living in Missouri as the Chiefs’ seventh-round draft choice, he was also surprised to encounter many of the same racial prejudices that haunted North Carolina. “When I came to Kansas City in ’63, you couldn’t live in certain places,” said Bell, citing several hundred rejections in trying to buy a house. “Certain restaurants, I couldn’t go in.” Now retired in Kansas City, after his playing career he ran a successful chain of five Bobby Bell’s Bar-B-Que restaurants in the area, serving beef and pork versions.
A chance in the AFL
His commitment to the community was more than pecuniary. Encouraged by Stram, their coach, when a riot erupted in Kansas City following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Bell and black teammates Buck Buchanan, Curtis McClinton and Otis Taylor met with angry African-American residents and counseled restraint.
The Chiefs organization and the American Football League were singularly hospitable to black players during the 1960s, according to Bell and the website remembertheafl.com. African-American athletes, their capabilities questioned, were widely excluded from decision-making positions in most U.S. sports, college and pro. That viewpoint remains lodged in some minds, as Cam Newton recently noted.
Yet the AFL had the first black No. 1 draft choice, pro middle linebacker, and starting pro quarterbacks. “On a per-team basis, the AFL had a significantly greater number of black players than the NFL, which had still not fully overcome the exclusion of blacks precipitated by the  entry into the league of overtly bigoted Redskins owner George Preston Marshall,” the well-sourced website states.
Bell said the much-demeaned AFL was more innovative defensively and offensively than the NFL, with which it split four Super Bowls as separate leagues. Most important, the AFL opened horizons for black players.
“We felt like, hey, the best thing that ever happened to the (NFL), it wouldn’t be where it is today if (Houston owner) Lamar Hunt hadn’t started the AFL,” Bell insisted. “He gave the opportunity to a lot of blacks to participate in the football game, on the same playing ground. All we wanted to do was just, give us an opportunity to show you that we could play the game, that we could play any position on the football field.”
So it was that, when the New York Jets upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III at Miami’s Orange Bowl, players from other AFL teams poured from the stands. “All of us, I was there, we ran into the locker room after the game,” Bell said. “We thought we won it, we won the game!”