A Lasting Legacy
The Tampa Tribune 26 November 2004

Ryan Blankenship's room is decorated with mementos of his track career, including the 1996 silver medal from the Atlanta Paralympics, where he ran his fastest leg in the 4x100-meter relay. From the stands, his parents lost sight of him. Later, Blankenship could only explain the burst like this. Someone was pushing me along. Once, he had no hope of athletic glory. The seizures began when he was a toddler. Sometimes, they kept him up all night. He was diagnosed with a form of palsy, which affected his speech and motor skills. He was faced with years of physical therapy.

Blankenship, painfully shy because his words were unintelligible sounds to most strangers, needed confidence. He needed a friend. Then by chance, or maybe by destiny, that big football player turned up on Blankenship's doorstep. That man with the soft smile and reassuring manner. Ricky Bell. As always, he came to help. ``Ricky taught me I could do anything I put my mind to,'' Blankenship said through his mother, Carole. ``I can still hear him talking to me. I miss him.''

Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of Bell's death. He was just 29 when a rare muscle and skin disease, which had ravaged his body for months, attacked his heart Nov. 28, 1984. It was a shocking end for the All-American running back who seemed indestructible when he arrived with the Bucs in the late 1970s. He was 6- foot-2, 228 pounds with a 32- inch waist, and he could run forever. But in the final days, the man who once carried 51 times for the USC Trojans struggled to lift his 3-year-old daughter. The man who once sprinted down the beach for miles without stopping was exhausted when walking to his car.

Ricky Bell. The name is lost in the fog of history, even though he propelled the Bucs to the franchise's first playoff berth in 1979. A lot of people don't know his story or might not remember, but it is one worth recounting. Close friends still shake their heads about what was lost nearly two decades ago. Bell's greatest legacy remains the honorable life he led. But even today, Bell's spirit can be found in the lives he touched.

Bell's bronze bust has its own special area at USC's Heritage Hall, where he's described as the ``noble Trojan.'' Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, whose father recruited and coached Bell at USC, still has Bell's photograph on his office wall because ``Ricky represents everything a professional athlete should be.''

Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs' only NFL Hall of Famer, said he's still inspired by Bell's practice habits. ``Every time he touched the ball in a drill, he ran it all the way to the goal line, never stopping, never loafing,'' Selmon said. ``That was the pace he set.''

An annual memorial golf tournament, established in Bell's name after his death, has awarded more than $325,000 in college scholarship funds to economically disadvantaged students from South Central Los Angeles. The first recipient, Gwen Allen, is a doctor. Then there are personal touches, none greater than the one found in Tampa. Ryan Blankenship's room features track medals from the Paralympics, and they are surrounded by photos and posters of Bell. Blankenship, a supermarket stock clerk, is 29 now - the same age of Bell at his death - but his hero's influence hasn't wavered. ``Ricky Bell changed our son's life,'' Carole Blankenship said. ``He told him to run the good race, fight the good fight. Ricky had so much good to give. To lose someone that young, it just seems impossible.''

Five days after Bell's death, the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Los Angeles was filled to capacity for an afternoon funeral. Some were coming to grips with the reality because they had no idea about Bell's grave condition. That was by design. Bell, the fifth of seven sons, wanted no sympathy. Mike Garrett, a former USC tailback and the school's current athletic director, delivered one of the eulogies. At one point, he faced Bell's mother, Ruthie Lee Graves, and said simply, ``Be proud. You raised a man.''

Garrett turned to Bell's children - 10-year-old Ricky Jr. and 3-year-old Noelle - and uttered words that brought sobs. ``You have the blood of a king.''

Ricky Bell Jr. doesn't remember Garrett's words. He doesn't remember much of anything about that day, really. Maybe he was still in shock. Maybe he was holding in the emotions. But he wants to hear about the funeral. He wants to know about his father's greatest football performances. He craves details and anecdotes. He wants to discover the man because the time they had together was so brief.

Bell Jr., now 30 and working in real estate, grew up in Seattle with his mother. The parents never married, but the younger Bell often visited his father on summer vacation. When Bell got sick, he called for his son. It was a good call. ``For nine months until he passed, I lived in the house with him, his wife [Natalia] and daughter [Noelle],'' said Bell Jr. ``Those were probably some of the most priceless days of my life.''

Bell's football career had been cut short after he was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, an inflammation of the skin and muscles. The once-strapping physical specimen lost drastic amounts of weight and sometimes woke up at night, screaming in pain. Bell Jr. remembers days of trying to massage his father's muscles, working his tiny hands until they ached, anything to relieve the hurt. One day, his father started crying. ``I love you so much, son,'' Bell said. ``I love you too, dad,'' Bell Jr. remembers saying.

Bell Jr., who played running back for Garfield High School in Seattle, never wore his father's No. 42, but he has a ``42'' tattoo on his right shoulder, along with the name of his wife Brennadean underneath. Married for seven years, they have a son, Ricky Bell III. The three Bell generations were represented last summer in South Bend, Ind., when Ricky Bell was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Bell Jr. and his son, a precocious 3- year-old who's already into basketball, made the presentation.

Seven months earlier, Noelle Bell represented her father at the National Football Foundation dinner in New York. Noelle, 23, had just returned from overseas, where she graduated from the University of London. That fact would have greatly pleased Bell, who attended USC classes in the offseason and earned his college degree two years after being drafted into the NFL, just so he could set an example for his family. Noelle now works as assistant to the director of an independent recording studio in Los Angeles. ``Ricky would be so proud of his kids,'' said Bell's widow, Natalia Bell Jacke, who remarried and has two other teenage children.

After Bell's death, Bell Jacke attended law school. Now she works as manager of legal affairs for Warner Brothers in Burbank, Calif. Her husband, Clay Jacke, is a criminal attorney. ``Twenty years is a long time, and it doesn't seem possible [that Bell has been gone that long],'' Bell Jacke said. ``When somebody dies, people always say, `Oh, he was a great guy.' With Ricky, it was so true. He had such integrity, such compassion. Those are the qualities he would wish for his children. The reason Ricky is still missed is he was such a giver, such a sincere human being.''

Giving back. That was Bell's idea the first day he met Ryan Blankenship. It happened so accidentally. Bell's business partner, Les Roth, inquired at HRS about Bell's desire to begin a relationship with a needy child. Hours earlier, the HRS worker was at lunch with Blankenship's speech therapist. The connection was made. When Bell first visited the home, Blankenship was frightened by the sight of a hulking football player. Blankenship hid underneath his father's truck.

Bell got on his hands and knees to pull out Blankenship. Bell smiled at the boy. That's all it took to spark a friendship. Blankenship never was frightened again. When Bell grew up, he stuttered. It left scars and was the reason he majored in speech communication at USC. He was drawn to Blankenship, who struggled to form words and sounds. ``They could actually communicate with smiles, with their eyes,'' Carole Blankenship said. ``It was kind of magical.''

Bell organized car washes that raised money to purchase a computer for Blankenship. He offered a standing invitation to attend Bucs practice and sometimes brought him around the locker room. Bell pushed Blankenship to take up sports and stay active. Put your mind to it, Bell said, and you can beat anything. No one knew it then, but Bell was about to face his own obstacle, one he couldn't defeat.

After a landmark 1979 season, in which he rushed for 1,263 yards, it went downhill for Bell. He couldn't run as hard. His stamina wavered. Trainers gave him days to recover from muscle pulls, but it took weeks. Bucs coach John McKay couldn't figure it out, but in later years said he believed Bell's disease, undiagnosed, had taken hold. Bell was traded to San Diego in 1982. He viewed it as a new start. But he got sicker, forcing his retirement from the NFL. He never forgot Blankenship, whom he called his ``little buddy.'' They spoke often and visited when they could. Weeks before his death, Bell spoke to Blankenship again. Even by telephone, Bell could understand Blankenship's words: ``I love you, Ricky.''

On the day of Bell's 1984 death, Blankenship's parents were careful in breaking the news. At first, Blankenship just nodded stoically. A tear formed in his eye. He retreated to his room, where he would stay. In the middle of the night, Blankenship woke up, screaming and wailing. Why Ricky? Why Him?

Bell's football career in Tampa Bay was bittersweet. McKay made him the overall No. 1 pick in 1977, choosing Bell over Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, and the comparisons never stopped. As a rookie, Bell suffered an assortment of injuries playing behind Tampa Bay's patchwork offensive line and averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. Late that season, in an uncharacteristic fit of rage, Bell went after a heckling fan before being pulled back by teammates and police.

The good times came in 1979. And although they didn't last long, they won't be forgotten. ``Ricky Bell was a physical terror,'' said former Bucs quarterback Doug Williams. ``Whatever Tampa Bay did in 1979 [finishing 10 points short of a Super Bowl appearance], the bulk of it should go to Ricky Bell. He was a horse, and we rode him. The thing people never saw was his leadership. There were times for me, when I got booed, when I was disgusted, but Ricky was there for me. He said, `Keep your head up. It'll get better.' He pulled me through some things mentally. That was Ricky. Quiet, but effective.''

The memories are similar at USC. ``I think about Ricky quite a bit,'' said former USC tailback Anthony Davis, now a California real-estate developer, who played one season with Bell in Tampa Bay. ``He was a great player. But as a person, Ricky was a diamond. The question always bugs you. Out of all of us, why did it have to be Ricky? He was the good one, the jewel. Why him?''

There is no answer to why a man must die at 29. But there is comfort in knowing that even in death, he still can touch people's lives. You see it all the time, especially in the child who overcame physical obstacles to run the race of his life. He will always believe that whoosh of wind was actually his old buddy, still helping to push him along.