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Everyone around Ricky knew he was positive. He wasn't sitting around waiting to die. : THE LAST DAYS OF RICKY BELL

March 04, 1985|CHRIS DUFRESNE, Times Staff Writer

Lou Gehrig would have liked Ricky Bell. He would have admired his style. He would have appreciated his rare gifts of grace and strength and durability. He would have respected his humility in victory and defeat.

They were iron men of different generations, Gehrig and Bell, yet they seemed bound by a common thread. Gehrig, the Yankee first baseman, played 2,130 consecutive games. Bell, the tireless USC tailback, once carried the ball 51 times in a single game.

Once we thought them to be indestructible--immune to the ills of mortal man--because that's what they made us believe.

Yet, both were struck down in their prime, victims of rare muscle diseases they could barely pronounce, let alone understand. Both lived their final days robbed of the strength and stamina that was the very essence of their legends.

Still, it was not they but others who complained of life's arbitrary unkindness. It was others who asked why. It was others who asked how the lives of good men such as these could be taken.

Ricky Bell, like Gehrig, never sought the sympathy of others.

Bell died Nov. 28 at Daniel Freeman Hospital. He was 29. He died of a heart attack triggered by an uncommon muscular disease of the heart called cardiomyopathy. It's a form of dermatomyositis, an inflammation of the skin and muscles. Fewer than 5% of people with dermatomyositis ever contract the form of the disease as serious as cardiomyopathy. Ricky Bell got a bad break.

Very few, not even his doctors, knew of the pain Bell suffered the last two years of his life. Bell didn't want others to know.

Rod Martin of the Raiders, Bell's teammate at USC, said after the funeral that he and his friends never realized Ricky was so sick.

"People would call the house and ask how Ricky was doing and he'd say, 'I'm great. Just fine,' " said his wife, Natalia. "It made me so mad. I'd say, 'Why are you saying that?' And he'd say, 'I don't want anybody feeling sorry for me. I'm going to get better.' "

Bell lived as he played. He was tough and stubborn, never conceding an inch. To the very end, he swore that he would beat this disease. To admit to anything else was unthinkable. He suffered immensely, but it was not like him to bare his emotions.

So no one read of the nights he would wake up, screaming in pain. No one knew that near the end he couldn't even help his wife carry in the groceries or get a glass of water by himself. No one knew about the oxygen machine that became his bedside companion, or about the pain relievers he never took. No one knew of the pain he suffered when he tried to reach out to his 4-year-old daughter, Noelle, knowing full well he couldn't lift her.

"Can you imagine having to sleep with an oxygen machine and then waking up, walking your little girl to the car and then being totally exhausted when before you could run 10 to 15 miles a day?" Natalia said.

Bell, who weighed 225 pounds in his days as a running back for the Trojans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was 180 pounds when he died. The struggle of his body's fight against the disease caused massive weight loss and fatigue. Bell looked anorexic. But never was he at 125 pounds, as initially reported. Bell, in fact, had gained 15 pounds in the last few weeks of his life.

Another misconception is that Bell knew death was imminent.

Two weeks before Bell died, Natalia had a private meeting with Ricky's physician, Dr. Allan Metzger of Beverly Hills, and was told that her husband's heart would not hold up for more than six months.

But Ricky never knew. He wasn't sitting around waiting to die. The night before he died, he was planning, not dwelling on the past. He had obtained his real-estate license and talked of getting into the pest-control business. He dined with Melvin Jackson, a former USC lineman who was Bell's best friend, and they discussed Ricky's idea of making educational sports videos for high school athletes.

Ricky would never allow Natalia to talk about death.

Five days before he died, Bell granted an interview with KNBC-TV (Channel 4) reporter Frank Cruz at the annual USC-Notre Dame kickoff luncheon at the Biltmore Hotel.

After the interview, in which he spoke of his illness, Bell said he had second thoughts and asked that the tape not be used until "after this thing was over."

Bell died the following Wednesday, and Channel 4 showed the interview that evening. Sportscaster Stu Nahan introduced the piece by saying that Bell "asked that the interview not be shown while he was alive."

Natalia Bell said she called the station to say there was some sort of misunderstanding, that what Ricky actually meant was that he didn't want the interview to run until he was healthy again.

Natalia said she asked that the interview not be shown again on the 11 p.m. telecast, but that request was denied.

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