The clock inside his coach’s black Chevy Suburban read 9:42 on Tuesday morning when Ronnie Bell, sitting in the middle row, passenger side, went silent in the happiest moment of his life. He looked out the window.
All those cars, there for him. Soon, his name will be announced, and nearly 2,000 people in Park Hill High’s gym will stand and cheer as the band plays the school fight song and he carries an enormous trophy around as the best high school football player in Kansas City.
“Whoa,” Ronnie said.
His hands, the same long appendages that set what’s believed to be the area’s all-time record with 21 touchdown catches, rubbed over his face.
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“Oh, shoot,” he said.
Thirty-four young men have known this feeling before, starting with Jeff Kelso, the first Simone Award winner and until now the only one from Park Hill. Past winners include NFL standouts like Darren Sproles, college stars like Chase Coffman, and now one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects in Drew Lock.
Bell is different than most. He also won the Otis Taylor award as the area’s best receiver, joining Evan Boehm — now in the NFL after a standout career at Mizzou — as the only double winners. He’s also different because he won’t play college football, a combination of recruiters being slow to see the talent and his explosive ability as a point guard (he’ll play basketball at Missouri State).
But he shares at least one thing in common with all of them, because for as long as anyone can remember, before a young man in Kansas City is honored as the best among thousands of high school football players, he first must be tricked.
Ronnie Bell just became the newest victim of the most elaborate annual ruse in Kansas City sports.
“This explains so much,” he said.
This was a good year to watch the surprise. That begins with Ronnie, and bless his heart, he really didn’t want anyone to know how sad he was about not winning.
He doesn’t have a lot to complain about, if we’re honest. Two parents who love him, younger twin brothers, a little sister, a good mind and so much talent.
Those 21 touchdowns bested the record his father Aaron set back in 1997 at Raytown South, and his basketball highlights include him literally — this is not an exaggeration — jumping over a defender from Oak Park on the way to a dunk.
You might assume Ronnie was simply born into it, that this is just natural athleticism overwhelming high school competition, but it’s not that simple. Growing up, Ronnie was never the best athlete. He loved playing, and he wasn’t terrible. But he was always just the next kid, is how his dad puts it.
Then, in the fifth grade, Ronnie said something the old man will never forget. They were driving back from a game at Missouri Western, where Aaron was an assistant.
“I don’t want you to treat me like a kid,” Ronnie said. “I want you to treat me like a college player.”
Aaron was silent for a moment.
In Aaron’s words, that meant “no more whuppings.” If Ronnie wasn’t doing right, the punishment became sprints. At some point, he got to where he could do 20-minute wall sits.
The talent showed pretty quickly, but even after his junior year, college football coaches didn’t show much interest. Aaron, now a delivery driver for FedEx, thought his boy was a Division II football prospect. That means paying for school. But as a point guard, Ronnie started outplaying some Division I recruits and committed to Missouri State over the summer.
This really is rare, a Simone winner not playing college football, but it’s not for a lack of certainty. After a breakout game against Lee’s Summit, Aaron asked, are you sure? Yes. After another against Rockhurst, Aaron asked, are you sure? Yes. And before he faxed the letter of intent to Missouri State, Aaron asked, ARE YOU SURE?
Yes. Basketball was his future.
“This is what I want to do,” Ronnie said. “I just thought about my future, and what would be best.”
He said those words at a Big Biscuit restaurant, before Tuesday’s ceremony, when he still thought they were going to Overland Park to watch someone else’s moment.
The key to a good ruse is believability, and everyone around Ronnie Bell had that. Some years, it’s pretty difficult. Sproles could not have been surprised, right?
But this year, there really could have been three other winners. Graham Mertz has committed to Wisconsin after throwing for 45 touchdowns, just six interceptions, and leading Blue Valley North to its first state title. John Raybourn accounted for 4,271 yards and 55 touchdowns for Staley, which also won a state championship. Phillip Brooks might be the fastest player in the city, with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 29 touchdowns for Lee’s Summit West.
Truly, Bell could have been attending one of their ceremonies without much of a gripe. Even still, this is an undertaking — to keep a weeklong secret, involving good news, from a high school kid as the circle of those who know grows from a few to a few dozen to a few hundred to a few thousand by the morning of the ceremony.
Josh Hood, Park Hill’s coach, tried to keep the circle as tight as possible. He even had the banner with Bell’s name and picture made at a new place, somewhere he’d never been before, but when he picked it up the guy told him he’d watched all of Bell’s highlights.
They waited until Monday to tell Ronnie, and he was deflated. He got quiet. Shoulders dropped. He tried to rally, to hide the disappointment. But it was obvious. His texted his dad the news, but of course by then Aaron was in on it.
Dad was a key enforcer, because you can’t keep a secret like this without taking the kid’s cell phone. Aaron made something up about Ronnie’s room being too messy. There aren’t a lot of arguments in his house, so he swiped the phone Monday night, then told his wife he had to leave because he was laughing. Went to the casino. Broke even.
At 7:27 on Tuesday morning, Hood parked the car in the Bells’ driveway. Ronnie climbed in, and all of us — full disclosure, I was posing as an old friend of Hood’s — went for a very high school breakfast.
Ronnie ordered the cinnamon roll pancakes with chocolate chips and a side of bacon. He and some teammates talked about the Greek Freak’s wingspan, who the worst basketball player on the football team would be, and that time they did everything but crowd-surf after a touchdown at Liberty North.
“I’m watching the field and I hear (an assistant) in my headset,” Hood said. “He goes, ‘Coach, you have some offensive players in the stands right now.’”
Everyone laughed, and by 9:33 it’s time to go, so we get back in the Suburban and Hood starts down Highway 152. A few minutes in, he “remembers” he was supposed to pick someone else up at the school, so we turn around.
Hood times it perfectly. He’s telling a story that begins with a basketball game the previous night, and the front tires hit the lot at 9:42 when he tells Ronnie that all of these cars are here for him.
“You did it,” Hood said.
All those feelings came back. Ronnie had just watched last year’s ceremony again a few days before. He was trying to find something for his mom, but of course his mind went to imagining himself as the winner. When Hood told him it was someone else, he’d tried to bury those feelings under a proud face, but here they were again. He could feel the tears, but he wanted to keep his cheeks dry.
It was nearly 10 minutes before Ronnie said a sentence more than four words long. It comes when he’s sequestered in a dark and windowless storage room, a place he knew mostly as the spot to come get fresh socks before games.
“I am not ready for this,” he said. “It’s all just up in the air in my head. They got me good, they got me good. There’s no way. I’m not ready. For everything. I kind of pictured this, but not really. I’m all over the place, man.”
Simone Award winners
Thomas A. Simone Award (best overall player): Ronnie Bell, Park Hill
Frank Fontana Award (best small-class player): Carter Putz, Bishop Miege
Buck Buchanan Award (best big-class lineman/linebacker): Daniel Parker, Blue Springs
Bobby Bell Award (best small-class lineman/linebacker): Michael Smith, Platte County
Otis Taylor Award (best wide receiver/tight end): Ronnie Bell, Park Hill
Nathan Stiles Inspiration Award: Graham McMorrow, Liberty