Fulfilling a Promise

February 27, 2015
Bobby Bell sits in front of a microphone.

When Bobby Bell crosses the Mariucci Arena stage to collect his bachelor’s degree in May, the 74-year-old former Gopher football star will complete an unlikely dream and fulfill a promise he made in 1958.

Growing up in Shelby, North Carolina, Bell lived a childhood of segregated schools and businesses and limited opportunity, including for sports. He chose to pursue a recreation, park, and leisure studies major because of the difference a few dedicated men made in his life, building the first parks and pool for African Americans in Shelby and teaching him to play team sports.

Encouraged by his father, Bell set his sights on college. Football provided the opportunity when Minnesota’s Murray Warmath—one of the few major-college coaches then recruiting black players—offered him a scholarship. As he stepped onto an airplane for the first time, Bell promised his father he would not quit. “It wasn’t just for me,” Bell says. “It was for him, for my mom, my family, all the Blacks in Shelby.”

Bell helped the Gophers win the national title in 1960 and the Rose Bowl in 1962. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year, an astonishing feat for a defensive player. Following a Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs, he worked for General Motors and opened a string of restaurants.

In a lifetime of “you can do it” moments, earning his degree is right up there, Bell says. “Can you imagine all this coming from where I did?” he says. “Minnesota gave me the opportunity to have all this happen.”