Everyone around Ricky knew he was positive. He wasn’t sitting around waiting to die. : THE LAST DAYS OF RICKY BELL
Lou Gehrig would have liked Ricky Bell. He would have admired his style. He would have appreciated his rare gifts of grace and strength and durability. He would have respected his humility in victory and defeat.
They were iron men of different generations, Gehrig and Bell, yet they seemed bound by a common thread. Gehrig, the Yankee first baseman, played 2,130 consecutive games. Bell, the tireless USC tailback, once carried the ball 51 times in a single game.
Once we thought them to be indestructible--immune to the ills of mortal man--because that’s what they made us believe.
Yet, both were struck down in their prime, victims of rare muscle diseases they could barely pronounce, let alone understand. Both lived their final days robbed of the strength and stamina that was the very essence of their legends.
Still, it was not they but others who complained of life’s arbitrary unkindness. It was others who asked why. It was others who asked how the lives of good men such as these could be taken.
Ricky Bell, like Gehrig, never sought the sympathy of others.
Bell died Nov. 28 at Daniel Freeman Hospital. He was 29. He died of a heart attack triggered by an uncommon muscular disease of the heart called cardiomyopathy. It’s a form of dermatomyositis, an inflammation of the skin and muscles. Fewer than 5% of people with dermatomyositis ever contract the form of the disease as serious as cardiomyopathy. Ricky Bell got a bad break.
Very few, not even his doctors, knew of the pain Bell suffered the last two years of his life. Bell didn’t want others to know.
Rod Martin of the Raiders, Bell’s teammate at USC, said after the funeral that he and his friends never realized Ricky was so sick.
“People would call the house and ask how Ricky was doing and he’d say, ‘I’m great. Just fine,’ ” said his wife, Natalia. “It made me so mad. I’d say, ‘Why are you saying that?’ And he’d say, ‘I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me. I’m going to get better.’ ”
Bell lived as he played. He was tough and stubborn, never conceding an inch. To the very end, he swore that he would beat this disease. To admit to anything else was unthinkable. He suffered immensely, but it was not like him to bare his emotions.
So no one read of the nights he would wake up, screaming in pain. No one knew that near the end he couldn’t even help his wife carry in the groceries or get a glass of water by himself. No one knew about the oxygen machine that became his bedside companion, or about the pain relievers he never took. No one knew of the pain he suffered when he tried to reach out to his 4-year-old daughter, Noelle, knowing full well he couldn’t lift her.
“Can you imagine having to sleep with an oxygen machine and then waking up, walking your little girl to the car and then being totally exhausted when before you could run 10 to 15 miles a day?” Natalia said.
Bell, who weighed 225 pounds in his days as a running back for the Trojans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was 180 pounds when he died. The struggle of his body’s fight against the disease caused massive weight loss and fatigue. Bell looked anorexic. But never was he at 125 pounds, as initially reported. Bell, in fact, had gained 15 pounds in the last few weeks of his life.
Another misconception is that Bell knew death was imminent.
Two weeks before Bell died, Natalia had a private meeting with Ricky’s physician, Dr. Allan Metzger of Beverly Hills, and was told that her husband’s heart would not hold up for more than six months.
But Ricky never knew. He wasn’t sitting around waiting to die. The night before he died, he was planning, not dwelling on the past. He had obtained his real-estate license and talked of getting into the pest-control business. He dined with Melvin Jackson, a former USC lineman who was Bell’s best friend, and they discussed Ricky’s idea of making educational sports videos for high school athletes.
Ricky would never allow Natalia to talk about death.
Five days before he died, Bell granted an interview with KNBC-TV (Channel 4) reporter Frank Cruz at the annual USC-Notre Dame kickoff luncheon at the Biltmore Hotel.
After the interview, in which he spoke of his illness, Bell said he had second thoughts and asked that the tape not be used until “after this thing was over.”
Bell died the following Wednesday, and Channel 4 showed the interview that evening. Sportscaster Stu Nahan introduced the piece by saying that Bell “asked that the interview not be shown while he was alive.”
Natalia Bell said she called the station to say there was some sort of misunderstanding, that what Ricky actually meant was that he didn’t want the interview to run until he was healthy again.
Natalia said she asked that the interview not be shown again on the 11 p.m. telecast, but that request was denied.
“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.
He had his biggest season in 1979, when he gained 1,262 yards in leading Tampa Bay to the NFC Central Division title. But the following years were marred by injury. Bell didn’t recover from injuries as quickly as other running backs. Then again, he thought, other backs didn’t have to run behind Tampa Bay’s line. Maybe he was just getting old.
Bell was traded to the San Diego Chargers in March of 1982. He dreamed of a new beginning, but the dull ache in his legs would not subside.
He appeared in only two games for the Chargers. During the players’ strike in 1982, Bell started experiencing aches in his wrists, knees and groin.
Natalia remembers him coming home from workouts and collapsing on the couch, where he would sleep the night away. He developed lesions on his hands.
It was getting to where he could barely grip a football. When play resumed in 1982, the Chargers put him on the injured-reserve list. Charger physician, Dr. Lee Rice, referred Bell to arthritis-specialist Dr. Michael Weisman at the University of San Diego.
“Right off the bat I knew there was a serious problem,” Weisman said. “He had swollen hands and feet, and open sores on his fingers and toes.”
Bell wouldn’t accept it at first. He dodged doctors’ appointments whenever he could. Bell hated doctors and hospitals.
Three weeks before he died, Bell entered an L.A. hospital for observation after his finger had become infected. He had Natalia come by the hospital during the day and pick him up. Bell would remove the IV’s from his arm, slip on his robe and sneak out of his room, returning later that night.
When the disease was first diagnosed in January of 1983, Bell refused to accept it.
“He was scared,” Weisman said. “When his lungs became bad, it took weeks, almost months to get him into the hospital. He’d just leave town. He’d go to Seattle or Tampa. He was absolutely frightened.”
Bell acted as if the disease was something he could flush from his body. On his own, he went to detoxification clinics in Los Angeles, where he hoped to purge the disease from his body through nutritional dieting and exercise.
“I knew Ricky was grasping,” Weisman said, “But I didn’t want to tear up his confidence.”
Bell tried acupuncture. He thought his disease was something that would pass.
He was constantly testing his endurance. In early 1983, he drove by himself across the country. He stopped in various cities along the way to phone progress reports to his wife and Dr. Weisman.
Bell made it to Tampa but was so exhausted that he needed a friend to drive him back.
Slowly he began to accept the truth.
“The lowest point, I remember, is when he came into my office one day,” Weisman said. “He said how much he loved his daughter but that he couldn’t even pick her up and swing her over his head. He said he’d try to chase his daughter around the house but couldn’t do it. When he told me that, I almost cried.”
Despite his illness, Bell had thoughts of returning to the Chargers for the 1983 season. His weight had dropped to 196 pounds, but he still thought of himself as a pro football player.
“He tried everything,” Dr. Rice said. “He didn’t want to believe what was going on. He wanted to play football. He wanted the coaches and team to know that he was being an honorable person. He came out all the time to practices and meetings. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t appreciate that.”
Bell, though, officially retired in August of 1983 at 28. He and Natalia moved back to Los Angeles.
You know what this does? It helps put everything in perspective again. We won the World Series this year, right? And everything seems perfect. It doesn’t seem like there’s a problem in the world. And then something like this happens and it brings you back to reality. It shows you that no matter what you’ve got going for you, if it’s God’s will, it can change in an instant . --Detroit Tiger outfielder Chet Lemon, Bell’s classmate at Fremont High, to a Detroit writer after hearing of Bell’s death.
Natalia Bell is studying for her master’s degree in history at Cal State Los Angeles. Because she had to care for Ricky, she had missed two weeks of classes in November. With final exams approaching, she had to go to school on the morning of Nov. 28 to pick up the notes she had missed.
She would be away from home for only a few hours and besides, Ricky’s health and spirit had seemed better lately.
In the last few months, he had put on about 15 pounds and weighed 180. She remembered how much he had eaten the week before at Thanksgiving.
“We had a lot of people over and I cooked everything he liked,” Natalia said. “For some reason, he just had this big appetite.”
Ricky joked that he was getting heavy.
In the last six months, he would only venture from the home about three times a week. Usually it was with Jackson, an almost constant companion in the final months.
“He had good days and bad days,” Jackson said of Bell. “The weekend before he passed away, he came over and took my son and his son to the show. He was so determined to do the everyday things.”
Bell couldn’t sleep the night before he died, but that wasn’t unusual. Because of the pain and his difficulty in breathing, Bell often had to sleep sitting in a chair.
Natalia was typing a term paper the night before Ricky died. He stayed up with her.
Natalia awoke at 6:30 a.m. to get Noelle off to school and then was off to school herself.
“When I left him, he was in a lot of pain,” she said. “But that wasn’t unusual. He was down, but it wasn’t like it was an ‘I’m dying’ kind of down. He was just depressed, just like if one of your legs was gone. You’re not going to kill yourself, but of course it’s going to affect you a little bit psychologically. He didn’t complain of pain but I could tell he was in pain.”
Natalia was in her second class when a security guard entered the class.
“I knew he was for me,” she said.
Ricky had been taken to the hospital. “They didn’t tell me he had a heart attack, but I knew. It’s a good 40-minute drive from Cal State L.A. I didn’t turn on the radio because if I had I would have heard that he was dead.”
When she arrived at the hospital at 11:25 a.m., she expected to find her husband in one of the intensive care rooms. When he wasn’t there, she knew why. Ricky Bell had died at 11:06.
Gary Jeter, a former teammate of Bell who is now a defensive lineman with the Rams, said he was going to call Bell the day before he died.
“I even looked at the number, but then I went out Christmas shopping,” Jeter said. “I was thinking about him when (Rams coach) Marv Goux came up and told me he died.”
The last Jeter had heard was that Bell was doing fine. That was the word Bell was putting out.
“I thought he had it (the disease) licked,” Jeter said. “I heard he was down, but the last report I got was that he was doing well.
“Rick is the kind of person where if something was wrong, he wouldn’t let you know about it,” Jeter said. “He kept everything contained. You could see that there was something wrong with him but he was always positive.”
Linebacker Richard Wood, Bell’s teammate at USC and Tampa Bay, was on the practice field last November with the Buccaneers when he was told of Bell’s death.
“One of the trainers came and told me,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do so I got down on my knees on the field and said a little prayer. I wish they would have waited until after practice before they told me. But, at the time, nothing else mattered. I still think of him, maybe once a week. I look at his picture and I think of the good times.”