Number 78 turns 76 tomorrow.
Bobby Lee Bell, Jr. was born in Shelby, North Carolina, June 17, 1940. His father, Pink Lee Bell, picked cotton and his mother, Zannie Lee Bell, worked as a housekeeper. Bobby attended segregated Cleveland High School in Shelby, where he was a three-sport standout in football, basketball and baseball. Bell was an all-state quarterback, and when the University of North Carolina refused to offer him a scholarship because he was black, he left the racially-divided South for the University of Minnesota, sight unseen. Before boarding the bus to Minneapolis, Pink Lee Bell gave his son a gold watch so he would “never be late for class.” At Minnesota, Bell was a two-way player, starring as a defensive tackle and offensive center, leading the Golden Gophers to the 1960 national title. In 1961, he was named All-American. The following year, he won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman and helped UM win the only Rose Bowl in school history. After finishing third in balloting for the Heisman Trophy [won by Oregon State QB Terry Baker] in December 1963, Bell was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the 1963 AFL Draft. Two days later, the Minnesota Vikings picked him with the 16th overall selection of the NFL draft.
The Dallas Texans were one of eight charter franchises in the American Football League’s inaugural season in 1960. After winning the AFL title in 1962, owner Lamar Hunt relocated the team to Kansas City and named them the Chiefs. In its’ first year of existence, the AFL signed 75 percent of the NFL’s first-round draft choices, a practice that continued into the early part of the 1960s. Kansas City signed Bell, converting him to outside linebacker to take advantage of his speed and athleticism, and he quickly emerged as one of the best ever to play the position. He immediately became a starter and was named to the AFL All-Star Team. In 1966, he led the Chiefs to the AFL title and a trip to the first Super Bowl—then called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game—to face Vince Lombardi’s NFL champion Green Bay Packers. Kansas City lost, 35-10, and did not win another AFL title until 1969, when they led the league in fewest points allowed.
Bell led the Chiefs back to the title game—now dubbed “Super Bowl IV”—after a brilliant performance in a first-round playoff game against the defending world champion New York Jets. On a wind-swept Saturday afternoon in New York’s Shea Stadium, Kansas City clung to a 6-3 lead in the fourth quarter when the Jets had the ball first-and-goal at the one yard line. After two runs into the middle of the line produced nothing, Jets quarterback Joe Namath [Daily Dose, May 31] faked a hand-off on third down and rolled right. Expecting Kansas City to bite on the play fake, Namath believed he would find fullback Matt Snell wide open in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. He was wrong, as Bobby Bell was not fooled, running Namath down to force an incomplete pass. After the Jets kicked a tying field goal, the Chiefs marched for the winning touchdown. Kansas City beat the Oakland Raiders in the AFL Championship Game the following week and earned a trip to the Super Bowl. In one of the most stunning upsets in Super Bowl history, the Chiefs—who entered the game as 13-point underdogs–dismantled Bud Grant’s [Daily Dose, May 20] Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, to give the AFL its’ second consecutive world championship. Led by Bell, the defense was dominant, forcing three fumbles and three interceptions while holding the Vikings to 67 yards rushing. It would be the only Super Bowl championship in Chiefs history and, five seasons later, Mr. Bell retired at 34.
Bobby Lee Bell, Jr. is, arguably, the most athletic linebacker in pro football history. He was 6’4”, 230 pounds and ran the 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds. In addition to being a standout two-way player for Minnesota, he became the first black player in the school’s basketball history after making the team as a walk on in 1960. Bell recorded 40 sacks—as a strong-side linebacker—and was a superb open field tackler. He intercepted 26 passes and returned six of them for touchdowns, an NFL record he shares with Derrick Brooks. Bell was the best long snapper in the game and played on special teams, once returning an on-side kick 53 yards for a touchdown. Hank Stram, who led the Kansas City Chiefs to two Super Bowls, considered Bell the best player he ever coached. “He could play all 22 positions on the field, and play them well.” Mr. Bell was named All-League in nine of his 12 pro seasons. He was named to the AFL All-Time Team and the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team. The 1969 world champion Chiefs are one of the best teams in pro football history. They were big, tough and physical. Seven players from that team are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including five defensive players. Fittingly, Bobby Bell was the first player in Chiefs history inducted into Canton, gaining entry in 1983. He is also a member of the College Football, North Carolina Sports, University of Minnesota Sports and Kansas City Chiefs Halls of Fame. When Bobby Bell left the University of Minnesota to play pro football in 1963, he was 17 credits shy of earning his degree. Over fifty years later, he completed his coursework and earned a degree, fulfilling a promise he had made to his father. Mr. Bell considers his most prized possessions the UM diploma he earned and the gold watch his father gave him when he left Shelby at 18.