Bobby Bell recalls a social science class discussion last fall at the University of Minnesota. The 74-year-old Bell told his much younger classmates that he felt like an immigrant when he first arrived on campus back in the late 1950s.
“When I got to Minnesota in 1959,” says the Shelby, N.C. native, “I basically was like an immigrant coming to Minnesota trying to better myself. I came up here because I couldn’t eat in restaurants. I had [to go to] separate bathrooms. I couldn’t drink out of a certain fountain.
“I looked at coming to Minnesota like coming to another country,” he continues. “All I wanted was an opportunity to do what Bobby Bell was capable to do — a fair chance.”
Bell traveled north to play football and study recreation, park and leisure studies. Jim Tatum, the then North Carolina coach advised the late Gopher coach Murray Warmath to sign him out of his small high school — Southern schools still were at least 10 years away from bringing Black players on their campuses.
He joined four other Blacks, including the late Sandy Stephens, who later became the first Black quarterback to lead a team to a national championship in 1960. “We came up here as a group. We all became like brothers. You want to fight one, you had to fight [us] all. We were that close. We had to be accountable [to each other],” he says.
“The [Black] community really welcomed us,” says teammate Judge Dickson. “We would go to church and they would invite us to lunch. The support system for us in the Black community was amazing. We couldn’t have made it without it.”
However, being on campus was shocking at first to Bell, who points out, “Talk about culture shock — it was. I got to Minnesota [and] I was competing against kids from all over the world. My [high] school had 168 [students] — I go into a history class and I had 280 people. Then I go to the auditorium and there are a thousand kids in there.”
“All of us got their degrees, except me,” says Bell of his fellow Black teammates. But last summer, over a half-century later, Bell changed all that by taking online classes, a couple of on-campus courses and completing assigned projects. He proudly wore his cap and gown in the May 14 College of Education and Human Development undergraduate commencement ceremony at Mariucci Arena.
Completing his coursework — Bell needed 13 credits — to graduate wasn’t easy. Colleges these days don’t use paper and pencil as was the case when he was a full-time student. “It’s nothing for me to ask for help,” admits Bell on the technical assistance he got from Dickson and others. “I wanted to do something and I wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to be the guy who falls behind.”
Without his degree, “I was lucky… I had four businesses and I made a lot of money,” says the pro football and college football hall of famer. “How many people can say that they traveled all around the world, know some of the greatest people in the world… like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan…that’s what I got by playing football here.”
After he spoke to local reporters, Bell said in a brief MSR interview before the ceremony, “It’s not too late to get your degree. Here’s a 74 year-old man — in three weeks I’ll be 75. You still can learn. It feels good.
“I kept putting it off, but I got it,” Bell concluded.
Read more on Bobby Bell in this week’s Another View.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.