Two months ago, Nick Bell stumbled toward the brink of death.
Surgery after surgery, he lay in a hospital bed as his body continued to wither. Any thoughts of his highlights while starring as a running back at Iowa or playing for the Raiders weren't really on his mind. Rather, as death approached, Bell thought of ways he could give back.
The Costa Mesa resident had played four years in the NFL, and along with his legacy at Iowa, he had done some special things. But life could be more than just that, he thought.
As it turned out, the bell never tolled for Bell this summer, so he took action on the thoughts he had while coming so close to death.
Bell is now a volunteer assistant coach for the Costa Mesa High football team. He said he came to the Mustangs on a whim — and it appears Costa Mesa is grateful for that. The Mustangs now have a former NFL pro coaching them, one who will be working with the running backs and linebackers this season.
"In the past two months, I've had all this realization of life," said Bell, 42. "I've asked myself: What role should I play? Should I be a helper or a destroyer? Or should I just sit back and let things happen?
"I'm a man of action. I can't sit back. I want to let them know that every decision they make is a life decision. It impacts their lives. It's about being a man of your word, being dedicated to what you're doing and about loving what you're doing. If I can't instill that in them, then I failed."
Two weeks ago, Bell went to his doctor for a checkup. He wouldn't disclose his medical condition, only saying that he is disabled from his years of playing football and from the toll of the recent surgeries. It hurts for him to walk. He lost 120 pounds four months ago. But he wants to be active, and coach, at least.
On his way home from the checkup, Bell drove to Costa Mesa High. He asked around so that he could meet head coach Wally Grant.
Diane Allison, the team's booster president, met Bell and directed him to Grant, a Costa Mesa High alumnus in his first year as interim coach since taking over for Jeremy Osso, who was fired in June.
Allison said Bell becoming a Mustangs volunteer was amazing.
"He can inspire a lot of the boys and make them work even harder," she said. "My husband [Mark] is happy too because he's a Raider fan."
It hasn't taken long for the Mustangs to become fans of Bell, too. So far, his addition has gone well, Grant said.
"He's made it clear that he wants to give back to the community," Grant said. "He's going to be there every moment. It's not like he's showing up every once in a while. He's investing a lot of time into it.
"I think it's going to be a fun ride. I think the kids are the ones who will benefit from all of it."
Bell was a force at running back while at Iowa from 1986 to 1990. As a senior, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Bell helped the Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl. He was a big back with speed, and one of the fastest players in the NFL Draft when he came out of college.
Bell said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds two straight times during the draft combine. In 1991, the Raiders picked him in the second round.
Now he wants to pass on his knowledge to young players — especially the Mustangs. Bell expressed excitement when he talked about working with Mario Smith, a transfer running back expected to be a key player for Costa Mesa.
Smith, though, is even more thrilled to be tutored by Bell.
"I feel like he's a great coach and a great addition to our team," Smith said. "I feel like he's going to change our team dramatically and make us a lot better. He's going to make me a lot better. I'll be able to see the running back position from a different view."
Smith said he connects with Bell on a personal level as well. Smith is being raised by a single mother, Kiesha Brown. Bell was raised by a single mother, Gladys Bell.
In an interview Friday, the former Raider running back said his childhood in Las Vegas with his family was full of poverty. They were on welfare. They stood in lines for cheese.
Bell remembers once when he had his clothes stolen from the dryer in his apartment complex's laundry room. He was forced to wear the same pair of pants for two weeks before his mother could afford to buy him more.
But a poor lifestyle didn't embarrass Bell. It only motivated him to become successful.
The adversity of growing up without a father also fueled him.
"That's life," Bell said. "You have to learn how to persevere through it."
Dealing with dyslexia also tested him — it was a condition he didn't learn about until his senior year at Vegas' Clark High — but he managed to rise above that as well.
Bell started playing football his sophomore year after being encouraged by coaches who saw a big kid with speed on the track team. They wanted him to try football.
Three years later, he said he became the first Proposition 48 player to land at Iowa.
Prop. 48, an NCAA regulation, makes high school student-athletes eligible for Division I sports based on meeting high school academic requirements combined with standardized test scores.
Bell was determined to become a Division I college football player. He also wanted to be a pro. Yet, after four seasons with the Raiders and various significant injuries, he couldn't play any longer.
He was a Raiders situational running back, playing with greats Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen and Roger Craig.
Bell suffered two torn hamstrings in his rookie season. Four broken ribs stunted his second year. Later, a broken ankle would be the final blow.
Going through a failed marriage didn't help matters, but Bell pressed on. He became an information technology manager and found great success. He retired in 2008. He needed to stop working because of extreme back pain. His heart also hurt, because his mother died that year.
Two years ago he settled into Costa Mesa's Mesa Verde neighborhood. He also remarried. He and his wife, Trisha, will celebrate their third anniversary Monday.
Bell's daughter, Jordanne, 17, lives in La Palma, in northern Orange County. He's happy he's been able to help raise her.
Bell thought of Jordanne when he brushed near death. Helping family pleases Bell, but he also wants to help his community.
As an assistant coach, he could be paid, but Bell said he doesn't want the money. He's doing it for the youth.
"This is a good resolution," Bell said. "I'm going full circle."
He wants to help young people, just like the many adults who helped him while he grew up. He doesn't want to see youth end up like many of the friends he knew in Las Vegas, who are either dead or in jail.
Dennis Carew, a local security guard, is one of those people who helped Bell during high school.
"To have a man step up and help me without asking was important," Bell said. "It's time for me to give back to the kids."
And yes, he's aware of the Mustangs' rivalry with Estancia. He doesn't live too far from the city's other main high school.
"I live between the schools; it's like the luck of the draw," Bell said. "The reality is this school needs me."
Bell pointed to his own high school experience; he once endured a winless season.
"We lost a lot in high school," he said. "We didn't know how to win. Winning is an attitude. I learned it in Iowa."
Bell now wants to teach that attitude to the Mustangs.