A case can be made that Shelby’s Bobby Bell is the best all-around athlete North Carolina and the area has ever produced

By Richard Walker

Over the years, the state of North Carolina and the counties of Cleveland, Gaston and Lincoln in particular have been blessed with countless outstanding all-around athletes.

As the Carolina Panthers prepare for a rare trip to Kansas City to play the Chiefs on Sunday, it reminds us that the greatest of them may well be Bobby Bell.

Bobby Bell’s 1971 Topps football card

In 1983, Bell and Wilmington’s Sonny Jurgensen became the first North Carolina natives to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio – and Bell is the Chiefs’ first player to be inducted.

Bell played at old Cleveland Training School in Shelby in the days before North Carolina schools were integrated.

Playing for Cleveland County Sports Hall of Fame coach John Winston, Bell was a 6-foot-3, 210-pounder versatile enough to play quarterback and linebacker in six-man football, forward in basketball and lead the track team in several events including consistently running 10-second 100-yard sprints.

In football, he quarterbacked the Tigers to back-to-back N.C. High School Athletic Conference six-man state titles in 1956 and 1957 and was named most valuable player in the 1958 Shrine-sponsored East-West All-Star game for African-American players in Greensboro as a halfback.

In basketball, he once scored 46 points in a state playoff game and averaged 33.6 points per game for the 1958 state championship team.

In track, his talents were so diverse he could compete for and win virtually any event in which he competed. A Sept. 12, 1958 Shelby Star report said Bell, “made a sweep of all events in a track carnival at the close of the summer recreation season at (Shelby’s) Holly Oak Park.”

But in the era of segregation in North Carolina and when recruiting wasn’t covered like today, Bell’s decision to leave his home state to become one of the first African-American football players at the University of Minnesota drew little media attention.

Bobby Bell at Minnesota
A Minneapolis Star Tribune photo shows Bobby Bell (78) being carried off the field after Minnesota’s home win over Purdue.

A report in the June 7, 1959 Charlotte Observer said Bell had been offered a scholarship to Minnesota and The Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sept. 24, 1959 said Bell was “sent here by (North Carolina head coach) Jim Tatum.”

A Minneapolis Star Tribune photo shows Bobby Bell in action during 1962 Minnesota home win over Purdue.

Minnesota freshman coach Wally Johnson recognized quickly that Bell was unlike any player he’d ever coached.

At season’s end, Johnson told The Star Tribune, “Bobby Bell has played end, halfback and quarterback. We know he is a football player but we don’t know where he will play.”

That decision was made out of necessity by Minnesota head coach Murray Warmath.

After one all-state Minnesota high school tackle quit the team and another got injured, Bell was moved to that position and was the only sophomore to start the 1960 season-opening 26-14 win at Nebraska on Sept. 24.

According to gophersports.com, Bell’s “transition from quarterback to tackle was hailed by sportswriters of the day as one of the modern wonders of college football.”

Bell was a recruited walkon for former NBA championship-winning coach John Kundla’s Minnesota varsity basketball program for the 1960-61 season. It made Bell the first African-American player in that program’s history.

After one season with the basketball program, Bell focused his attention solely on football.

In 1961 and 1962 he had improved enough to earn All-American and All-Big Ten honors as a tackle.

In 1962 he also was awarded the Outland Trophy that is annually given to college football’s top lineman, was a consensus All-American and finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy given to college football’s top player. It is sixth-highest finish by a lineman in the history of the award.

During his time at Minnesota, he helped recruit another future star – Winston-Salem’s Carl Eller – to the Gophers’ program out of Atkins High School. Like Bell, Eller was a two-time All-American – Eller was an end – and Eller nearly duplicated Bell’s top honor by finishing as runner-up for the 1963 Outland Trophy. (In 2004, Eller joined Bell in the Pro Football Hall of Fame which has inducted seven N.C. natives; Jurgensen, Dwight Stephenson, Bruce Matthews, Charlie Sanders and Chris Hanburger are the others.)

After he left Minnesota, Bell was drafted at a time when the AFL and NFL held separate drafts. And though picked in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings, Bell chose to sign with Chiefs who made him a seventh-round pick.

Listed at 6-foot-4, 228 pounds in his pro career, coaches, teammates, rivals and NFL observers marvelled at Bell’s all-around talents that made him a nine-time Pro Bowl and six-time All-Pro linebacker. He led the Chiefs to their first two Super Bowl appearances, including Kansas City’s 1970 Super Bowl IV victory over the Vikings.

After Bell’s 12-year pro football career ended in 1974, he opened Bobby Bell’s Bar-b-que in Kansas City and has been honored several times since for his athletic prowess.

Already the first African-American inductee into the Cleveland County Sports Hall of Fame in 1970, Bell’s 1983 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was followed by 1987 induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, 1991 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, 2006 induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and 2017 induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

Additionally, his No. 78 jersey has been retired by both the Chiefs and the University of Minnesota.

On May 15, 2015, Bell fulfilled a promise he made to his late parents when completed his college degree requirements at Minnesota, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd at the commencement ceremony.