I’ve often told the story of my charmed early life as a Kansas City Chiefs fan. Wedged on the same suburban Prairie Village street between Hall of Fame Head Coach, Hank Stram, and Hall of Fame Linebacker, Bobby Bell, these men were like family to me as a child.
Hank Stram became a father figure to me and consoled me the day after the Christmas Day loss to the Miami Dolphins. Bell, who also worked at the Ford Motor plant during most of his career in Kansas City, was our neighborhood Pied Piper and ultimately become a lifelong friend.
I first met Bobby Bell, through his son, Bobby Bell, Jr., we both attended Trailwood Elementary together back in the day. On a beautiful late summer day, my new classmate came over to my house and I introduced him to my mother. I remember the day was hot and my friend politely asked for a glass of water.
Being the hospitable woman my mother continues to be to this very day, she pulled down a glass from the cupboard, filled it with water and ice. At the same instant she was handing him the glass of water, Bobby reached into his pocket and placed a quarter on the kitchen counter.
My mother asked Bobby why he did that. He explained many of the parents in the neighborhood asked for a quarter to replace the glass he used to quench his thirst. To say my mother and I were dumbfounded, was an understatement beyond our comprehension. Obviously she didn’t accept the quarter and it was sad to think that any adult in my neighborhood would throw a glass in the trash after Bobby used it.
That afternoon, Bobby took me over to his house to meet his father. Though I’d seen his dad play ball for the Kansas City Chiefs, the fact I was meeting him for the first time was simply amazing.
At the initial meeting, I was a bit nervous, not because I was meeting a Chiefs legend, but the fact I thought this mammoth of a man was going to break bones when I extended an introductory handshake. To this day, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I winced at that first connection – because the man had a firm grip.
As we made the tour of his modest home, he took me out back and to my delight, the Bell’s had a swimming pool. At the time, it was the only one in our neighborhood. The Chiefs linebacker said I was welcome to use his pool anytime night or day as long as it was cleaned up after our dip. Seriously Bobby Bell, having never met me until that very moment, extended me that courtesy.
When the news spread in the neighborhood of Bell’s generosity to other kids, the neighborhood gang had a new place to hang out at their private swimming pool. Sadly, our neighborhood leaders weren’t thrilled with the idea that Bell and his family moved into the Johnson County suburb, nor with the fact his house had become a destination stop for the youth in our neighborhood.
In fact, the Homes Association did everything they could to prevent Bobby Bell from buying the house in the first place and sent petitions to have his family removed from the neighborhood after he settled into his new home. Before that, a prominent local real estate company threatened local lenders not to extend a home loan to the Bell family. Ultimately, he did get a loan but it wasn’t easy.
As a young child, I never grasped the enormity of their situation. I could not understand why anyone would reject this gentle man and his family. I didn’t really see the color of his skin as the basis for so much hate on my block.
In fact at one point, things were so bad, Bell and his family were asked to leave the local grocery store down the street when he walked into the establishment. Upon hearing this, Hank Stram, threatened the local grocery chain with bad press, lawsuits, and his personal wrath, if they continued to refuse the Bell family the opportunity to purchase food in their store. Ultimately the chain relented.
Over the years the community began to warm to the Bell family but there remained a layer of individuals who never accepted his family. Despite these unenlightened souls, neither Bobby nor his family ever said a bad word condoning their behavior.
As I heard the news this week that Bobby Bell was going to return to the University of Minnesota to receive his degree, and that fact he fulfilled a promise he made to his late father, Pink Bell, I thought back to my youth with this amazing man.
I remember sitting on the back porch at the Bell house listening to stories about the AFL. For decades later as our friendship grew and the old football stories got better, I had a better grasp of the nightmares his family had to deal with living in my neighborhood. It made me appreciate, regardless of the hardships he and his loved ones had to endure until society accepted them, this man always had a smile on his face.
On the field he was a ferocious hitter, off the field he was a gentle giant with a heart the size of the Grand Canyon. Today, I smile along with the entire Chiefs nation at his latest accomplishment as a college graduate from the University of Minnesota.
For me personally, I’m blessed to say I can call Bobby Bell a friend and a mentor in my life. But to be honest, more than anything else to this very day, he remains my hero.
Photo Courtesy of @GopherFootball/Twitter