Give Bell the Ball
This article appears in the September 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
When he finds himself in open space — be it on the beach or an empty football field — Marin Catholic senior running back Kahlil Bell can't resist unveiling his amateur gymnastics routine. Some front flips and back flips. A few handstands. It's a little habit he picked up down in Mexico.
The south-of-the-border chapter of this story begins around 10 years ago. That's when Bell's dad, Mike, suffered a heart attack and doctors told the man he didn't have much longer to live. So Mr. Bell decided to make the most of whatever time he had left and moved the whole family to San Felipe on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.
For a year, the Bells lived in a beachfront trailer and spent some quality time together. And there, throughout those carefree days during which the third grade got put on hold in favor of more pressing life lessons, Kahlil Bell mastered a few self-taught gymnastics moves.
The story has a happy ending: Mike Bell is alive and well and living in Ohio (Kahlil, whose parents are now divorced, lives with his mom in San Anselmo).
More to the point, Kahlil's cutbacks are a heck of a lot sharper than his back flips these days. Sharp enough, in fact, to help him rush for 3,299 yards and 43 touchdowns the past two seasons. But Bell would like to be remembered neither for his gaudy rushing numbers nor his floor routine. He's very specific about his wishes in that regard.
"I think about that a lot," admits the 5-foot-11, 204-pound Bell, who is also the starting point guard on the Wildcats' hoop team. "When I leave high school and go on to college, well, I'm not going to say having my name in the record books is not important to me, but I'd like to be remembered as a person who worked hard and paid his dues. A person who did his sprints, stairs and weights. A person who got it done. A person people remember that when it came time for a yard or a TD we really needed, I delivered."
Whether he likes it or not, Bell will be remembered at least in part for his numbers. As a sophomore at Montgomery (he transferred to Marin Catholic last year because it offered "the best chance to be a two-sport athlete and grow academically"), he rushed for 1,642 yards and 19 touchdowns to earn a spot on the All-State Sophomore Team. Then in his first season with the Wildcats, he racked up 1,657 yards and 24 TDs last year.
Best of all, Bell is a winner. During his first two varsity seasons (he played JV as a freshman at Montgomery), he helped the teams he carried the ball for go a combined 21-5, including Marin Catholic's 12-1 march to the North Coast Section Division 2A title last year.
"His toughness and his durability are great assets, but his great balance and his game speed set him apart," says Marin Catholic second-year head coach Ken Peralta, 43, a former City College of San Francisco running back and defensive back. "I tell coaches he's a Marcus Allen-type running back. He finds a seam and then he kicks it into another gear. He's got a ton of game speed."
When it comes to Bell's football ability, it's the story behind the story that counts. Take any one element of his skill set and it won't bowl you over. Put them all together and you've got a devastating package.
"If you look at some of my numbers, they're not eye-popping," says Bell, whose youngest brother among three siblings, Darius, is a freshman three-sport athlete at Marin Catholic. "I'm not exceptionally fast or strong. What makes me good, not to toot my own horn, is vision and balance. I sense the hole and read the hole, then I'll go around you or through you. I'm not your typical guy in that I have the ability to do everything. I'll block, run and read. That's what sets me apart."
Bell is exceedingly easygoing and understated. Here's a guy who confesses he isn't particularly a physical specimen, but he does so without the least bit of insecurity in his voice. At the same time, he's telling you that even though he's not likely to make anybody drop their clipboard at a scouting combine, he'll find a way to beat you just the same. And he does so without the slightest hint of a chip on his shoulder.
There are moments when Kahlil Bell seems almost too nice to be "The Man."
"When it comes time for killer instinct, it's there," assures Bell, who'll turn 18 on Dec. 10. "The thing I call on in those moments is all the work I do. A lot of people start training for football in August. I basically train year-round. And when that fourth quarter comes and it's time to dig a little deeper, I think about all those hills I ran and 40s I ran and weights I lifted. When I'm thinking about that, you're in trouble."
Lest we forget, numbers can also be deceiving. Bell was on the bench by halftime in plenty of Marin's games last fall. Not that he cared.
"The mark of a good player is whether his team wins or not," says Bell, who did not fumble last season en route to earning North Bay Region Player of the Year honors. "I'm not going to lie to you, I'd love 200 yards a game. But we won 12 in a row last year. I don't care if I run for 3,000 yards in a season or 300 as long as it ends in a championship."
People on the outside looking in might not realize Bell's priorities are so inconceivably straight. They might just see a No. 1 back on a No. 1 team and figure he has a super-sized attitude. A head too big even for a special-order helmet. People on the outside might dismiss his hard work because they figure things have been handed to him on a silver platter.
Bell tries his best to keep that noise in the background.
"The reality is, what people say does get to you no matter how strong a person you are," admits Bell, who is receiving plenty of Division I recruiting interest but has no college favorites yet. "It can irritate you. People might say I've got it made? Well, some people work toward their future by putting their efforts into music or architecture. I put my effort in my future into football. It all weighs out. I've got it made? While they're sleeping at 6 a.m., I'm out running sprints. And I'll never be ashamed of that."