Hours before punctuating his circuitous and defining adventure of graduating from the University of Minnesota by marching at commencement, Bobby Bell plopped back in a chair, cloaked in a cap and gown he refused to remove.
“He’ll probably sleep in it tonight,” Pamela Held, Bell’s companion, said laughing.
The Chiefs legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer kept glancing at the gold Bulova watch on his left wrist — a gift bestowed in 1959 as he left Shelby, N.C., in pursuit of opportunity he couldn’t have in the segregated South. When they parted that day, his father, Pink Lee Bell, said, “Hey, boy, come here.”
He handed over the unwrapped watch and said, “I want you to be on time. You need a good watch.”
The watch became a symbol for Bell, one that both inspired and haunted him.
Over the years, he would pull it out and gaze at it and think of the meaning of his father’s gesture — and feel the agony of an unfulfilled promise: to graduate from college.
Sometimes, Bell wondered whether the old watch still worked. But he knew, too, it was one of those “wind-up types — had to wind it a little bit.”
As he looked at it Thursday, he said, “What time you got?”
Three-thirty, someone said.
“Three-thirty?” he said, holding up the watch. “Hey, look at that watch: 3:30!”
Two hours later, Bell basked in walking in the procession for undergraduate commencement for the College of Education and Human Development with his degree in parks and recreation and leisure services about to be conferred.
It was a moment deferred.
Yet it was right on time.
“The significance of that which went on here is what all of us have always appreciated about America,” said a beaming Willie Lanier, Bell’s former Chiefs teammate who flew in from Richmond, Va., for the occasion and thought about the document that speaks to “all rights and privileges appertaining thereto — that’s significant.”
But, he added, “you have to make it happen.”
To understand what it took for Bell to wind himself up and fend off the hostile forces of time that rule all our lives, you need to know how he got behind in the first place.
For starters, he was engulfed in a whirlwind about the instant after his last football game at Minnesota on Nov. 24, 1962.
Days later, on Dec. 1, the American Football League began its 1963 draft. Bell was plucked by the Dallas Texans, who were shortly to move to Kansas City. He soon signed with them instead of Minnesota of the NFL.
A few days after he was drafted, the phenom who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting was shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy at the Army-Navy game — the first of five U.S. presidents he’d enjoy similar experiences with one day.
Then it was on to the awards and all-star circuits that led to appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Only months later, Bell became one of the original and immortal Chiefs — while also working for General Motors — in a decorated career that included playing in the Chiefs’ 1970 Super Bowl triumph.
Along the way, he befriended the likes of comedian Bob Hope, traveled the world, hung out in Las Vegas with the Rat Pack, had a family and just never stopped moving much.
Then he opened five restaurants and, wham, suddenly it was 2014.
He had had all these incredible moments and friends and trophies and plaques everywhere … but there still was a void that gnawed at him.
As time was evaporating, as his father and mother died, he never had made good on a promise to finish school.
“I kept saying, ‘When I get a chance, I’ll do it,’” he said. “‘Get a chance, I’ll do it.’”
Exactly what finally made earning his degree stop being a faint ambition and become an urgent need isn’t quite clear — maybe not even to Bell.
But the waves of wishing he’d do it had been smacking him for years. One day, the dam broke and Bell just thought, “It’s time.”
The journey back was full circle in many ways for Bell, punctuated by a certain symmetry between how he earned his final credits and where his life odyssey began.
Working on a paper for his online social science class, Bell spent hours interviewing Michael Sharma-Crawford, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in immigration law.
Bell was struck by parallels between the experiences of immigrants struggling for acceptance and those of his own growing up in the segregated South of the 1950s.
“I’m going, like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s my story. I might as well have just come from out of the country,’” he said. “But, you know, I’m actually an American. I was born here.”
Being born in Shelby, N.C., was a template for the sensation of being a foreigner in his own land. How else could he feel about a place that relegated him to bathrooms and water fountains for blacks only?
And dictated he not come in the front door or ever sit in the restaurant he worked in?
And insisted he leave if he wanted to go to a major college to play sports?
That’s why it’s still important for Bell to tell you it wasn’t until recently that he sat down in that restaurant, Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge.
That’s why he still speaks of the parade in his honor a few years after he left home and how he hushed the crowd of admirers when he said he would love to walk across the street into the ice cream parlor and get a cone … but wasn’t allowed.
“No,” he said, “I could not do that.”
These realities made for a cycle, of course, that suppressed opportunities for many in Shelby, where Bell said most people just stayed.
His older brother and sister, in fact, remain there, he a mortician and she a florist.
But Bell always yearned for more, especially when he heard whispers about these fancy schools and saw them in the white kids’ yearbooks he’d get a peek at while cutting their grass or doing odd jobs at their houses.
Then he’d ask his dad if he could go to a school like those.
If he could, maybe one day he could roam the country and open up parks and swimming pools for blacks who didn’t otherwise have that access — like Clarence Palmer did in Shelby when Bell was 13.
And his father, who didn’t graduate from high school, always would say it was possible — that anything was possible.
To accommodate that sense of hope, Bell’s mother, Zannie Lee Bell, did housekeeping and took in ironing.
Pink Lee Bell worked at the textile mill, where he picked cotton or cleaned offices or chauffeured the owners.
He was a stern hand but taught his children to “love everybody” and “do the right things” — and he taught through colorful images of his own.
“He’d say, ‘Boy, I don’t care if it’s a penny, you don’t take that,’” Bell recalled. “‘If you take a penny, you might as well take the whole bank.’
“‘And if you rob the bank, you make sure you tie that bank on the back of your car so everyone can say, “Oh, man, Bobby Bell stole money out of the bank — he’s got the whole bank.”
“‘If you’re going to act a fool, be a complete fool and make sure everybody knows it.’”
He also taught him to think big.
That’s why Pink Lee Bell shut down his 16-year-old son when he came home from a baseball game one day telling him the Chicago White Sox wanted to sign him for their farm system.
Excited, young Bell made a case that included sending money home to help.
“He goes, ‘Hey, boy, we don’t need no help,’” Bell said. “‘If I were you, I wouldn’t give up that opportunity to go to a big college. …’
“That’s when the bell went off and I said, ‘Maybe he’s right. He’s got confidence in me, so I know I can do it.’”
But few major schools could know of Bell, who played six-man football until his senior year at Cleveland High, and those that did didn’t believe they could recruit him because of long-entrenched institutional racism.
Even so, then-North Carolina coach Jim Tatum proved pivotal after seeing him in an all-black All-Star game.
Knowing UNC was years from accepting a black athlete, he called Minnesota coach Murray Warmath to tell him “this kid would be something else,” as Bell tells the story.
Warmath, who already had black players on the team, was intrigued but wanted more to go on.
“So he called the school and said, ‘Let me see some filmwork,’ and the principal said, ‘Filmwork?’ What the heck is that?’” Bell said. “‘We don’t have no filmwork, but maybe over here at the Shelby Star newspaper, they’ve got some snapshots of him out there on the field.’”
The compromise was Bell working out for the white coach at Shelby High, who evidently was awed by what he saw — including Bell keeping up with a state champion miler.
Then Minnesota sent a plane ticket, and Bell got on his first flight wondering how the plane could possibly work and having “no idea where the hell this thing is going to land.”
Bell felt conspicuous in Minnesota, a state he believes was 2 percent black at the time. But he didn’t feel unwelcome.
It helped that he would always have some black teammates — including Judge Dickson, who flew in from Florida for the ceremony Thursday because when Bell “makes an accomplishment, it’s like I made an accomplishment as well.”
Still, it was culture shock, particularly academically.
“I was competing against students from all over the world, and I was behind,” he said. “I couldn’t believe some of these kids were saying, ‘Oh, I took that in high school.’ Well, I didn’t take that in high school.”
So he’d be in the freshman library nightly, he said, until the desk man would say, “I’m done; you gotta go.”
“The first two quarters, I was sweating bullets,” he said. “But I wasn’t going home. I was playing for Bobby, but also I was playing for my mom, my dad, my brother and sister, kinfolks, all the blacks.
“I had to do it. It was for everybody. That’s how I looked at it.”
His determination paid off in the classroom and especially on the field, where he was a burgeoning star as a sophomore and part of a Gophers team that won the national title.
But maybe nothing was more memorable than the first time his father came to see him play.
During the game, Bell suffered three cracked ribs and was taken off the field on a stretcher. Dickson said he remembers Bell’s arm dangling to the side and saying to himself, “Dang, my man’s dead.”
As Bell was being treated in the locker room at halftime, his father made his way in to see him.
“He just told me, ‘Boy, I didn’t come all the way up here to see you laid up on this table,’” said Bell, who later defied Warmath and simply sent himself back into the game.
Or as Dickson smiled and put it, “You see him get resurrected because his dad whispered in his ear.”
More seriously, Dickson added, “It was about dignity and about the relationship between a father and a son. … And that is what we see here with his graduation.”
Getting past the emotional hurdle to proceed academically and executing the work were two different matters, especially given the radical changes of the last two generations.
Picture, say, Captain America coming out of suspended animation decades later.
“I’m not a computer guy, man,” Bell said. “And I had to do PowerPoints and all this stuff. Holy crap, man.”
But as he sought to reconcile his father’s wish, he also channeled him.
“If you don’t ask and then do something stupid, then it’s hard to correct,” Bell remembered him saying. “But I can correct your stupid question.”
So Bell asked for guidance and assistance.
First, he called Dan O’Brien, a senior associate athletic director Bell had come to know through his work with football.
He asked O’Brien to help him see what he needed to finish his degree in parks and recreation and leisure services that was sparked by his admiration of Parker — the man who provided the park for blacks in Shelby.
It took two months for O’Brien to find his transcript in “the archives of ancientness, blowing off the boxes somewhere down in the dungeon,” as Connie Magnuson, the director of the program, playfully put it.
But O’Brien had good news.
He needed 16 hours, and administrators worked with Bell to make a plan to finish the degree through two online courses for seven hours and a directed study in social science for the other nine.
Bell immersed himself in the work and found himself fascinated by a number of new things. He was moved, for instance, by learning in his ecology class about the plight of eagles suffering lead poisoning.
As for how to deliver the work …
His son, Bobby Jr., and Held helped with the computer and iPad, which Bell became as one with for research and regularly writing papers and conference calls with class.
When it came to the PowerPoints, Bell said he put together “all the info” and a friend with the Chiefs processed it.
But the most substantial achievement was in the directed study: orchestrating a football camp in Pittsburg, Kan., held out of the way to avoid the fuss of people figuring out he was working toward his degree.
The enterprise included producing a seven-minute video and writing a 45-page manual Magnuson hopes to have distributed around the country.
With a few phone calls and rallying of friends, Bell was able to get the camp going. Hundreds came, he said, something he still revels in.
Writing the manual was grueling for Bell, who frequently sent Magnuson drafts and had them sent back with edits and revisions and suggestions of how to reorganize.
“It was a huge undertaking,” Magnuson said, noting the manual included everything from fundamentals to nutrition tips to advice for young players. “Kind of Bobby’s life lessons.”
When Bell completed the work in December, and again on Thursday, the man who already seemed to have it all finally had the missing piece — something even other graduating students acknowledged on their own day of glory with a standing ovation as he crossed the stage.
“His story says never lose sight of one’s lifelong goals,” Minnesota president Eric Kaler said in his commencement speech. “His trajectory says take the opportunities that come.
“His lesson says, yes, we all need teachers and mentors, but no one can persist for you or be gritty for you.”
So this was time for so many to celebrate, from Minnesota administrators to Bell’s surviving extended family, nearly all of which was present.
Afterward, Bobby Jr. was talking about this being on his father’s bucket list, and Lanier and Dickson were among dozens looking at Bell with pride.
“He is what he always thought he was,” Dickson said, “and now he’s got a piece of paper that validates that.”
And now he owns a watch with new meaning, too.
“That watch is like this ring,” said Bell, holding up his blinding NFL Hall of Fame ring. “That’s the top of the pyramid.”
Then he looked at the watch again and said, “But this is the top of the pyramid.”