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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

"I felt bad about having to run this story," Cruz said. "It's the kind of exclusive you don't want to brag about. But no one put a gun to his head, he wanted to do it. Afterward, he said 'Frank, on second thought, just hold it.' He didn't want to be seen that way. He said not to air it until he gave it his OK."

When Bell died, KNBC decided to run the interview that evening.

"Once you have a story and it's after the fact, well, you certainly can't go back and ask a dead person, 'Can I run it?' " Cruz said.

Natalia Bell grew angry again while watching a videotape of the interview recently at her house in Los Angeles.

She said she just wants to set the record straight about her husband's death.

"For a grieving family to hear something like that on the day of the loss of their loved one is more than frustrating," she said. "We were in mourning and then had to hear such fabrication. The whole point is that if my husband did have a fatalistic attitude, I would just have to say, 'OK, he said it.' But everyone around Ricky knew he was positive. He wasn't sitting around waiting to die."

What a nice guy. When I walked away from there tonight, I asked myself, ' ' Why did it have to happen to him and not to me ?" Life is strange, really strange . --a quote from Ricky Bell, after visiting a quadriplegic at County USC Medical Center in 1975.

The disease that Bell had, cardiomyopathy, affects about five in every million people. Doctors do not know the cause of dermatomyositis.

"It's a disease where the muscles and arteries are attacked and may be started or triggered by a virus," said Metzger, who treated Bell during the last year of Bell's life. "The muscles get inflamed, causing profound weakness. The blood vessels within the skin become severely inflamed to the point where you're unable to use your muscles. The weight loss comes from the body trying to fight off the disease."

In most cases, Metzger said, the disease can be controlled with cortisone and immunosuppressives, drugs that reduce muscle inflammation. But in extreme cases, such as Bell's, the disease spreads to the lungs and heart, forming the worst kind of dermatomyositis.

Doctors were able to control the inflammation of his muscles with drugs. But the inflammation spread to Bell's lungs, whose function is to absorb the body's blood, fill it with oxygen and send it back to the heart. His lungs couldn't absorb enough oxygen and were sending unhealthy blood back to the heart. That created tremendous strain on the heart, which was already burdened by inflammation caused by the disease.

Bell's only hope for survival was a complete lung and heart transplant, but that was never seriously considered, Metzger said.

"The chances for survival are less than 30%," he said. "For a guy like Ricky, that was almost like giving up."

The thought of Ricky Bell's heart giving out just didn't seem right, somehow.

"It's ironic that someone with such a big heart would succumb to something associated with the heart," said Melvin Jackson. "I thought he was rare, and I'm not just saying that because he was my friend or because he died. What I loved about him was that he was sincere.

"I spent five years in the NFL and saw a lot of athletes get a lot of press for doing community things that were really staged. He didn't do that. A lot of things he did were never publicized. He spent a lot of time with kids in South Los Angeles. And he did it for free."

Ricky Bell didn't deserve such a fate. It didn't seem right that this disease could make him a mere mortal.

"One day you're a 225-pound running back and the next day you can't even walk up the stairs of your house," Natalia said. "That's pretty depressing for anybody."

There was a time, not too long ago, when it seemed that nothing or no one could stop Ricky Bell.

He came to USC from L.A.'s Fremont High as a linebacker but left as one of the greatest tailbacks in the school's history. Bell wasn't as smooth as O.J. Simpson or as quick as Charles White, but he didn't have to be. He didn't mind running through people on his way to the goal line. In one game he gained 347 yards. He scored 27 touchdowns at USC, and finished second to Tony Dorsett in the 1976 Heisman Trophy balloting.

Ricky Bell was the first player taken in the 1977 NFL draft. Tampa Bay chose Bell over Dorsett, who went to the Cowboys. And you can still argue what might have happened had the picks been reversed. Bell joined a football team that became infamous for losing 26 straight games. Dorsett joined a successful team and is headed for the Hall of Fame.

Bell became a human pinball behind the Buccaneers' inferior line. His body, which had never betrayed him before, was pounded, game after game. Bell never complained publicly.

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