“When I left school [in 1963], I couldn’t finish school in my spring year,” explains Bell, who was then 13 credits short of his recreation, park and leisure studies degree. He got drafted by the American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs and played in a couple of all-star games, but “I knew I’d come back next year.”
“Next year” eventually became last week when Bell, now 74 years old, received his sheepskin during his college’s undergraduate commencement at Mariucci Arena.
A star on Minnesota’s last national championship football team (1960) and last Rose Bowl champion (1962), a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy winner, and later, a Super Bowl winner, Bell has been inducted into both the pro football and college football halls of fame. But his greatest achievement may have been fulfilling a promise made to his dad when he was leaving his Shelby, North Carolina home to attend Minnesota in the late 1950s.
“I promised my daddy if they gave me a scholarship that I would get my degree,” recalls Bell. “He said, ‘You can do it.”
The son of the late Pink Lee Bell wanted what people who look like him were often denied in the segregated South — a fair chance. “I had a lot of people in Shelby say I couldn’t do that,” says Bell. “I wanted to go to a big school. All I wanted out of it was the same opportunity as everybody else.”
Bell’s original plans back then included returning to Shelby with his Minnesota degree and opening parks and swimming pools for all, not just for Whites. But football, followed by starting several restaurants over the years, pushed him further away from that plan.
Most importantly, over all these years he never forgot that promise to his dad.
“They [Minnesota] sent me a plane ticket — I had never been on a plane before. My dad walked up to me as I got on the plane. He said, ‘Boy, come here.’ He reached in his pocket and pulled out this gold Bulova watch and gave it to me. He said, ‘I want you to be on time. You need a good watch.”
As he spoke to local reporters before the graduation ceremony, Bell checked the time on his left wrist: “It still works,” he says proudly of the “53-year-old watch.”
Bell took two on-line courses and “a directed study” in social science along with a couple of projects, including writing a 45-page youth football manual approved by Connie Magnuson, his faculty adviser and Education and Human Development professor.
“That was the best way for him to finish up,” said Magnuson in a brief MSR interview prior to the ceremony. “He put in an incredible amount of work. This was not an honorary degree. I made him work for it.
“I’m very glad he was in my program,” says Magnuson proudly.
“I love Connie,” adds Bell. “She helped me a lot.”
Bell’s Gopher legacy already is cemented — his name and that of his late teammate Sandy Stephens, the only two Blacks whose jerseys are retired, can clearly be seen in the school’s football stadium. “Although they got my name on the stadium,” he says, “I want to say I’m an alumnus.”
More importantly, he fulfilled a promise: “I know my dad and my mom are looking down. I know he’s saying, ‘Boy, I knew you could do it.”
Read more on Bobby Bell going back to school here.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.