The Gophers will retire the jersey No. 78 to honor Bobby Bell, the Pro and College Football Hall of Famer who wore it, at their homecoming game Oct. 2 against Northwestern.
As a Gopher, Bell helped head coach Murray Warmath’s team rebound from a 2-7 season in 1959-60 to an 8-1 record, a national title and a Rose Bowl berth in 1960-61.
They would lose the Rose Bowl game to Washington that year, but the following season Bell and the Gophers again went to the Rose Bowl, and this time they won it.
“It’s awesome, man,” Bell said of having his jersey retired. Bell said he feels especially lucky because he’s alive to see it happen, citing that athletes often receive this honor posthumously.
Though he recruited Bell as a quarterback out of Shelby, N.C., Warmath soon converted Bell to offensive tackle and defensive end. “I thought he was joking at first,” Bell said of the decision.
Bell proved a quick study though, and in 1962 he received the Outland Trophy, awarded to the top interior lineman in college football by the Football Writers Association of America.
“He was like a great big sponge,” teammate Judge Dickson said of Bell’s ability to adapt and learn new positions.
As a pro, the ever-versatile Bell was asked to play linebacker for the American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs, where he played his entire pro career. Bell is now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a linebacker and defensive end.
In his 12-season career as a Chief, Bell received all-pro honors nine times, and in 1970 won Super Bowl IV over the Vikings.
At the University of Minnesota, Bell walked onto the basketball team as its first African-American player and also wanted to play on the baseball team. “A lot of people felt that I was a better baseball player than I was a football player,” Bell said.
As an African-American, Bell could not play Division I football alongside white players in North Carolina due to segregation and was forced to look out-of-state for a school to attend. Jim Taylor, an assistant at North Carolina, called Warmath and told him to consider recruiting the versatile Bell.
Bell’s trip to Minnesota was the first time he’d ever flown on an airplane. Bell said he did not know much about Minnesota’s football program at the time, but that playing for the Gophers proved to be the right decision.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would not change one thing,” Bell said.
Dickson, who played fullback, said he and Bell were like brothers and that they still talk at least once a week. Bell was “a principal ingredient,” Dickson said, “to take us from the team that had only won two games the year before to the team that eventually would go to the Rose Bowl.”
After college, Gopher fans thought, as did Bell, that he would stay in Minnesota for his professional career.
“At that moment I wanted to play for the Vikings, because the University had been so good to me, and it would have been a natural fit for me to go right from the University over to the Vikings and play,” Bell said, “but the deal could not be worked out.”
Bell said he does not know what he will be feeling when he walks onto the field Oct. 2 at TCF Bank Stadium
“I know one thing,” he said. “I am just blessed to be around and for them to retire my jersey and to share this with my family and friends.”
“The only thing I wish is that my dad and mom were still here,” Bell said.
Dickson said he is not sure if he will attend the game, but that he would like to be there. “I have not missed any of Bobby’s recognition ceremonies yet,” Dickson said. “I’ve got a streak going.”
Dickson had trouble thinking of a current offensive tackle or linebacker to which he could compare Bobby Bell, though he mentioned Michigan’s versatile sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson, who currently leads the country in average rushing yards and total offense per game.
“That’s the kind of impact Bobby Bell made, [but] as a lineman,” Dickson said.