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Powerful Moment

Ricky Bell, who forged a new style for USC tailbacks, will enter the Hall of Fame nearly 20 years after his death

August 13, 2004|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Ricky Bell powered his way into USC football lore with a bull-like running style that broke the mold for Trojan tailbacks.

On Saturday, the late Trojan runner will receive a permanent place in college football history when he is enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.

Bell, who died in 1984 at 29, is part of a 13-member Division I-A class that includes Notre Dame quarterback Joe Theismann, Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders and Iowa coach Hayden Fry.

Several former USC tailbacks said this week that Bell, a two-time All-American, earned a rightful spot among college football's greatest players.

"Of all the tailbacks we've ever had here, Ricky Bell was my favorite," said USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett, a two-time All-American and 1965 Heisman Trophy winner as a Trojan tailback. "I always thought he was about as good as anyone who ever ran the ball.

"He also was a man of character and tremendous integrity. He never lost his dignity."

Bell, the first player chosen in the 1977 NFL draft, died of cardiac arrest on Nov. 28, 1984. He had suffered from dermatomyositis, a rare skin disease, and cardiomyopathy, a degenerative disease of the heart muscle.

"There was no one like Ricky Bell on the field and off of it," said Anthony Davis, a 1974 All-American who preceded Bell as the Trojans' tailback. "He was just a terrific person. If there were more athletes like him, football would be a better game."

Charles White was a freshman during Bell's final season at USC in 1976. He can still recall Bell's grunting and growling as he powered through defenders.

"Ricky led by example. You'd watch him and think, 'This dude works his behind off,' " said White, a two-time All-American and the 1979 Heisman Trophy winner. "If he saw something you needed to work on during practice he would help you out -- and you would listen."

Ricky Lynn Bell grew up in Los Angeles after moving with his mother and two of his six brothers from Houston. He was an All-City linebacker and running back at Fremont High, and played linebacker for the defending national champion Trojans as a freshman in 1973.

In 1974, USC Coach John McKay moved Bell to fullback. He averaged 6.6 yards a carry while sharing playing time with Dave Farmer and Mosi Tatupu on a team that defeated Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and claimed a share of the national title.

For many USC fans, Bell secured a spot in Trojan lore by throwing one of the most important blocks in USC history.

On Nov. 30, 1974, with USC trailing Notre Dame, 24-6, at the Coliseum, Bell took out a defender and sent Davis on his way to a 102-yard kickoff return. The touchdown ignited the Trojans en route to a legendary 55-24 victory.

"That's the block that sprang me," Davis said.

The following spring, about a week before the Trojans concluded spring practice, McKay switched Bell to tailback. To prepare for his junior season, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Bell strengthened his legs by running miles on the beach at Playa del Rey in combat boots. He also unloaded freight at a meat packing plant.

The work paid dividends in the Trojans' opener against Duke. Bell rushed for 256 yards in a 35-7 victory at the Coliseum. He finished the season with a nation-leading 1,957 yards and was third in the Heisman balloting.

In 1976, John Robinson's first season as coach, Bell rushed for 347 yards in 51 carries -- both school records -- as the Trojans defeated Washington State, 23-14, at the Kingdome in Seattle. Bell probably would have broken the national single-game record of 350 yards held by Eric Allen of Michigan State, but a statistical error in the first half was not discovered until after the game.

USC coaches removed Bell from the game with less than 40 seconds left because they thought he had established the record.

"It doesn't bother me that I didn't get the record," Bell said. "Football is not a one-man sport."

Bell finished the season with 1,433 yards and was second in the Heisman balloting behind Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett. But McKay, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, selected Bell ahead of the future NFL Hall of Famer with the first pick in the 1977 draft.

While Bell struggled with the hapless Buccaneers, Dorsett flourished with the talented Cowboys.

As Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: "Dorsett went to America's Team. Ricky Bell went to America's Joke."

Bell played five seasons for the Buccaneers. He gained 1,263 yards in 1979 and led Tampa Bay to the NFC Central Division title.

Bell was traded to the San Diego Chargers in March 1982. He played two games before the NFL players' strike, but fell ill during the strike and never played again.

For all of his accomplishments on the field, Bell called his graduation from USC in 1979 "the biggest day in my life."

Ricky Bell Jr., 30, will attend Saturday's Hall of Fame ceremonies and make a short acceptance speech on his father's behalf. During a phone interview from his home in Seattle, he said he has fond memories of his father and is looking forward to bringing his 2-year-old son, Ricky III, to South Bend.

"I was at USC for a game last year and a lot of fans came up to me and told me some great stories about my father and the kind of player and man that he was," Bell Jr. said. "My son never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather so this type of event is priceless."

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