It’s a rare fall Saturday for Zach Charbonnet when games are watched, not played.
The star running back reclines contentedly on a leather sofa inside the living room of his Westlake Village home. A French Bulldog splayed in his lap drifts to sleep, ignoring the bedlam on the large-screen television. Tennessee has just gobsmacked Alabama, which might qualify as the second-most riveting event of the afternoon.
As usual on his trips home from UCLA, the Heisman Trophy candidate is upstaged by the star of the house.
Bella Hall is discussing her greatest loves. They include steak, pool parties, the Backstreet Boys, Disneyland and her favorite Halloween candy, Laffy Taffy. The 16-year-old has an opinion about everything. She interjects herself into nearly every conversation, especially those involving her half-brother.
“Let the people of the world know I love Zach,” she tells a visitor, rocking back and forth as she speaks, a playful smile splitting her face.
Watching from the other side of the room, Charbonnet quietly takes it all in with a grin and an occasional high-pitched laugh.
Bella was among the reasons one of the nation’s top running backs traded in the Big House for the loud house, transferring from Michigan to UCLA before last season so he could marinate in every delightful decibel on almost weekly trips home.
“It was a really big part,” Charbonnet said of Bella and his other siblings. “I wanted to be closer to family, especially my second time around.”
Brett Hundley says it has been fun watching quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson break his UCLA records and lead the Bruins to a 6-0 start.
Those siblings produce a constant hubbub on this scheduled day of relaxation. Nine-year-old Athena darts in and out of the living room in a Charbonnet jersey with a Holiday Bowl patch on one shoulder. Enzo, a junior offensive lineman at Oaks Christian High, receives tips on hand placement from Charbonnet’s stepfather, Ben Hall, who played offensive tackle at Louisville in the 1990s.
The biggest whirlwind is Bella. Wearing a Backstreet Boys T-shirt and sweatpants, she smooches one of the family’s two French Bulldogs on the mouth and giggles hysterically when the dogs get a little too frisky in front of the television.
“He smells like marshmallow goodness,” she says of the dark-haired Bosco.
Bella was born with Williams syndrome, a rare developmental disorder that presents cognitive challenges with math and abstract concepts, among other issues. Her mother, Seda Hall, has given up telling her events are a certain number of days away because Bella will repeatedly ask if that day has arrived.
The family decided not to tell Bella about her condition because they don’t want to let it define her or make her feel different. Besides, maybe she’s the one who’s blessed.
“It’s almost like you look at her and realize it’s the simple things in life,” Seda said. “She is happy every day versus us humans that are always complaining or not satisfied enough, you know what I mean? It makes you realize what you have. It’s almost like they teach you or you learn from them, you know?”
Bella is one of Seda and Ben’s five children, Ben having joined the family when Charbonnet was 2 years old. Charbonnet, whose surname (pronounced SHAR-buh-nay) reflects his father of Creole descent, calls his stepfather “Pops” because the family believes “step” holds a negative connotation.
Respect and kindness are a must in the family, Seda stressing the values passed along from her Cambodian-Chinese roots. Loathing the brutality of football, she didn’t want her son to play the sport but promised he could do so once he reached the seventh grade, hoping he would forget.
“Seventh grade came around and he was like, ‘Mom, registration’s open,’ ” Seda said in recalling how Charbonnet came to join the Camarillo Roadrunners youth team, the first stop in a journey that’s expected to take him to the NFL after this final college season.
Enzo later adopted the same pursuit, which is why the family finds itself usually going from high school games on Fridays to UCLA games on Saturdays, adding Athena’s horse jumping on Sundays.
“I wanted to be closer to family, especially my second time around.”
— UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet
Bella usually tags along to the football games, engaging and inquisitive even when meeting someone for the first time. Her rocking back and forth during conversation means she’s locked in on what’s being said.
The family moved from Camarillo to its current home in 2020 so that Bella could participate in extra activities as part of a school district that was more inclusive for students with special needs. It wasn’t long after that that Charbonnet transferred to UCLA for his final two college seasons, picking the Bruins over USC and Washington.
With classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it felt like an extended family vacation. Charbonnet ran the hills near his home, lifted weights in the garage and played golf with his stepfather. Epic board-game battles with parents and siblings were among the highlights.
“It was a pretty sweet 120-day stretch of just serious family time,” Ben Hall said.
Being home made it easier for Charbonnet to attend Bella’s “Sweet 16” birthday party last summer at a nearby country club — Bella adding commentary to her father’s speech to tearjerking effect — and make trips together to Disneyland. Bella’s itinerary at her happiest place always includes meeting the Disney characters and going on “It’s A Small World” over and over.
Said Charbonnet: “You’ll go on the ride 10 times straight.”
Said Bella: “Well, I love that ride.”
Bella returned the favor by wearing her sibling’s No. 24 jersey to a Rams game at SoFi Stadium, collecting high-fives from his army of fans. She also regularly slips on the coveted “Greater” T-shirt that Charbonnet earned from Keith Belton, UCLA’s director of football performance, because of his unselfishness and dedication.
“A perfect teammate,” Belton said.
By season’s end, Charbonnet could be in even more exclusive company. He’s a fringe Heisman Trophy contender based on his leading the Pac-12 Conference and ranking eighth nationally with 123 rushing yards per game on an unbeaten team. The No. 9 Bruins (6-0 overall, 3-0 Pac-12) will face No. 10 Oregon (5-1, 3-0) on Saturday at Autzen Stadium in the team’s biggest showdown in more than two decades.
UCLA arrived on this stage thanks in large part to a running back whose massive biceps and cold-blooded demolition of defenders earned him the nickname “Terminator” even if it doesn’t jibe with his easygoing nature. His stepfather saw the underlying sweetness in the way Charbonnet cradled Athena as a baby.
Patricia Ann died Sept. 25 from natural causes while surrounded by family in her Laguna Niguel home. She was 96.
“He would sit there for hours just holding her in the most gentle way,” Ben Hall said, “and he does the same thing with these dogs, he’s super gentle with them.”
That carries over to the way he treats Bella, a freshman at Westlake High who could follow in her sibling’s footsteps. UCLA sponsors a college program for students with special needs, meaning that Bella could also become a Bruin.
“I want to stay with Zach forever,” Bella said when reminded of the possibility. “I’d be closer, I’d be like walking down and be like, ‘Yo, yo, yo, Zach, what’s up, yo?’ ”
Everyone in the room laughed. Seizing upon the moment, Bella’s father asked her whether she was better known than the sibling who’s recognized in college football circles from one coast to the other.
“I’m more famous than Zach,” Bella said, “because Zach always tells how much he loves me.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.