chargers

Ricky Bell and the story I long wanted to write

Screen Shot 2013-08-20 at 2.18.31 PMBack when I was a kid growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I loved a Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back named Ricky Bell.

Why? For some of the many random reasons children select their sports heroes. I was skimming through a copy of the 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Football, and came across a particularly eye-catching photograph of Bell. He was wearing his creamsicle-and-white Bucs uniform, running through the Eagles defense, looking upright and regal. When I turned the page to see his photograph, Bell boasted an extraordinarily cool Afro, couple with a happy-to-be-here grin.

In other words, I was hooked.

Back in the day, it wasn’t easy for a New York kid to closely follow a man playing football in Florida. I tried, but Bell news came sporadically. When he was traded to San Diego for a fourth-round pick, I was 12-years old and dumbfounded. The Bucs traded Ricky Bell? For a pick? What?

Two years later, he was dead.

•••

Through the years, I’d suggested Bell as a story, but was always rebuffed. Earlier this year I called Sports Illustrated—no interest. I’d once asked ESPN.com—no go. Finally, at long last, the excellent Glenn Stout at SB Nation took the bait. I told him I didn’t want to write a normal profile, but a look at his mysterious final season, when he carried twice for six yards. That statistic (2 carries, 6 yards) embedded itself in my brain for more than three decades. Right now, I don’t know where I last left my cap. But I can tell you Bell’s 1982 stat line with the Chargers. Weird. Haunting.

This is the resulting article: TWO CARRIES, SIX YARDS. It ran today.

I absolutely love writing for SB Nation, because the editing is crisp and they seek out lengthy pieces worth telling. You don’t get rich doing it—but this was never about money. I simply wanted to find out what happened to Bell that final season; what he went through; what it was like watching his ability fade and his weight slip away. I wound up interviewing about 20 people. The first key moment came when I found Ricky Bell, Jr., his lovely and proud son, on Facebook. Ricky was thrilled to talk about the father he only knew during childhood. He also did what an ideal source does—he pointed me in righteous directions. I soon found Ricky’s daughter, Noelle, and we dined at the Sunburst Cafe in Manhattan. Then Natalia, Ricky’s widow, spent about 45 minutes on the phone. All three were wonderful, and happy to keep a fine man’s legacy alive.

Perhaps the best find was Lee Moore, Ricky’s brother. Lee remembered everything as if it were a year ago. He laughed, he cried, he emoted, he explained. When he told me the story of Ricky teaching him to tie his shoes, I felt tears in my eyes.

This story meant that much to me.

It’s probably the longest thing I’ve ever written. It’s easily one of the most emotional.