His friends remember him as a caring, sensitive person who battled for his life as courageously as he performed as an athlete.
Ricky Bell, a former USC tailback and pro football player, died Nov. 28, 1984, at 29.
The cause of death was an uncommon muscular disease of the heart called cardiomyopathy, which is related to dermatomyositis, an inflammation of the skin and muscles.
Even though he endured pain, he never conceded to the disease that was ravaging his body.
Bell knew his football career was behind him, but he had other plans and talked hopefully about what he would do “after this thing is over.”
People can relate to death by natural causes, or even a tragic accident. But it’s difficult to comprehend how a young, strong man can be struck down in his prime by a disease that few have ever heard of, or could even pronounce.
Through it all and to the end, Bell would tell people that he was doing fine when his wife, Natalia, knew differently.
“Why do you say that?” she would ask. Bell would reply: “I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me. I am going to get better.”
Natalia Jacke (she has since remarried) lived with the man who would occasionally wake up screaming in pain and who had an oxygen bottle next to his bed.
Once a seemingly indestructible 6-foot-2, 225-pound running back, Bell didn’t have the strength to walk up a flight of stairs and could barely lift his daughter, Noell, who was 3 years old at the time.
“The Ricky Bell Story,” a CBS movie, deals with the athlete’s battle with dermatomyositis and his caring and support for a young boy, who is handicapped with a speech impediment.
‘He really was a true humanitarian. The movie is like a modern-day ‘Brian’s Song.’ ” Natalia said. “Ricky was a fighter. He would never admit how sick he was.”
Rams head coach John Robinson, who coached Bell at USC in 1976, remembers him as an aggressive football player and a very kind human being. “Everyone loved him,” Robinson said.
Bell came to USC from Fremont High School. He was used as a linebacker as a freshman in 1973 and was moved to fullback the following season.
In 1975, Bell became a tailback under John McKay, who would later coach Bell with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL.
The Trojans, of course, are known for their tailback legacy: Heisman Trophy winners Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen and Heisman runner-up Anthony Davis.
But Bell was a different type of USC tailback.
“Most of the backs people think of as great have been primarily regarded as elusive backs or power backs,” Robinson once said. “Ricky is both. In fact, he can be both on the same run.”
Bell gained 1,875 yards in 1975 to lead the nation in rushing. McKay became Tampa Bay’s coach the next season and his replacement, Robinson, inherited a Heisman Trophy candidate.
It would seem that the award would go to either Bell, or Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett. A mid-season injury prevented Bell from staying with Dorsett in the Heisman race.
Nevertheless, he left his own legacy on a memorable night in Seattle’s Kingdome when he carred the ball 51 times and gained 347 yards, still USC school records.
Even though Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy, Tampa Bay, with the first selection in the 1977 college draft, chose Bell.
As it turned out, it wasn’t a fortuitous arrangement for Bell, who was now with a team that had lost 26 straight games.
He flourished in 1979 when he gained 1,262 yards but for most of his time there he played behind inexperienced lines and later was bothered by nagging injuries.
“Ricky just didn’t come back from injuries like other players,” McKay said. “He probably had the disease then, before it was diagnosed.”
At his request, Bell was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1982. He played in only two games, though, because of a strike-shortened season. He began to experience aches in his wrists, knees and groin.
Natalia recalls him coming home from workouts, collapsing on the couch and sleeping the night away. He also looked in the mirror and saw skin peeling off his eyelids.
In 1983, his condition was diagnosed but he refused to accept it.
After Bell died, O.J. Simpson said he only wished that people had known Ricky like he did.
“It’s just not right that it takes death sometimes for other people to find out how much this man was appreciated,” Simpson said. “He was a man with as much dignity and courage as any I’ve known. He was the the noble Trojan.”
“The Ricky Bell Story” airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.