In Bucs Throwback Thursday, I take a stroll down memory lane and offer up my own personal insight and anecdotes on days gone by in Tampa Bay football history. Let me know what you think of the Bucs Throwback Thursday column in the article comments – and be sure to return next week for the latest edition.
Each week before offering up a new Bucs Throwback Thursday, I pay my respects to the late, great former sports editor of The Tampa Tribune, Tom McEwen, who often started his column “Breakfast Bonus” describing a large southern-style breakfast in detail before turning the column back to sports. I loved reading the menu – but loved reading his wit and wisdom even more. So here we go.
Over your breakfast of five strips of applewood smoked bacon fried crispy, three over easy eggs cooked in the bacon grease, a large bowl of stone ground grits from Bradley’s Country Store just outside of Tallahassee and two slices of toast you let cook a little too long in the toaster and had to be scraped off with a butter knife, here is this week’s Throwback Thursday section.
From the day Ricky Bell was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he was behind the eight ball.
Coming from the West Coast where he had been a star running back for the USC Trojans, to a winless orange-clad group of misfits that went 0-14 in Tampa Bay’s inaugural season, it wasn’t going to be easy. While he had a strong ally in head coach John McKay, who had coached him previously in college, some fans viewed the selection as the wrong one. Pitt’s Tony Dorsett was the consensus top running back by most in 1977, yet McKay went with familiarity over conventional thinking.
In defense of McKay, who knew Bell better than McKay did? He knew his talent, he knew his character and he knew his work ethic. And it wasn’t like Bell was some scrub. He finished second to Dorsett in the Heisman balloting after his senior season where he put up 1,433 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
Bell had ability and talent. But Bell would run behind an expansion team offensive line, while Dorsett ran behind a Cowboys line that was a powerhouse through much go the 1970’s and early 80’s.
Things didn’t start well for Bell and the Bucs. After losing all 14 games in 1976, the team lost its first 12 in 1977 to set an NFL mark with 26 consecutive losses. Bell played in just 11 games during his rookie season after dealing with some nagging injuries and only gained 436 yards on 148 carries (2.9 avg.), and scored just one touchdown.
In 1978 it got a little better as Bell played in 12 games and gained 679 yards on 186 carries, but upped his average to 3.7 yards per carry, and found the end zone six times.
But it was that 1979 Tampa Bay season that caught everyone by surprise. Just in their fourth year, and only two seasons removed from their 0-26 start, the Bucs were winners with a 10-6 record. And the the reason for the success in 1979 wasn’t just the league’s No. 1 ranked defense.
I called and left a message for former Bucs great Doug Williams, who has been with the Redskins front office for a number of years in various roles. I mentioned I was doing a story on Bell and it wasn’t 10 minutes before I saw the 703 area code pop up on my phone.
Williams was happy to talk about his teammate, and more importantly – his friend.
“Just to turn and hand that ball off to Ricky Bell – his running style was tough, no-nonsense and he would get you extra yards, Williams said. “Ricky was the catalyst for that 1979 year. He opened everything up for us and gave our defense a chance to rest and then played well. Most of his yards came after contact. And that is the beauty of what Ricky Bell meant to that football team in 1979.”
Bell’s tough running style included high knees and a strong lower body that allowed him to break arm tackles with ease. Williams revealed one of Bell’s secrets.
“When I think about Ricky Bell, just looking back, he used to walk around with these Army boots on,” Williams recounted. “They were heavy. He used to even work out in those boots. And now when I think about his running style and how high he used to pick up his knees, I think putting on football shoes then made it easier for him (after wearing the Army boots).”
Bell’s breakout 1979 season would be his best of his short-lived career. Bell had 1,263 yards on 283 carries, scoring seven touchdowns and also nabbing 25 receptions for 248 yards and adding two more scores as a receiver. The Dorsett comparisons continued, but in 1979, Bell was clearly the better of the two runners.
“I think it is unfair to try and judge what Ricky Bell accomplished to that Tommy Dorsett accomplished,” Williams said. “Tony Dorsett was one of the greatest running backs of all-time behind that Dallas offensive line, but I do think if Ricky Bell ran behind that offensive line, we would be talking about Ricky in the same sense.
“Ricky had to endure so much on his own. He didn’t have all the pieces around him as Tony had. I don’t know if Tony would have been been able to endure what Ricky endured to be successful in that 1979 season.”
Tampa Bay reached the NFC Championship game that season and came within 10 points of making it to the Super Bowl, losing 9-0 to the Rams in a packed Tampa Stadium. Many expected 1980 to be an even better season for the Bucs – and for Bell. But a disease called dermatomyositis brought on heart failure that would eventually cost Bell his life at age 29. Bell missed two games in 1980, but didn’t look like the same running back from just a year before as the disease started to take hold.
The 1981 season was even worse as Bell ran for just 80 yards on 30 carries. The problem was, no one really knew what was wrong with Bell – not even Bell himself. In the definitive article about Ricky Bell, author Jeff Pearlman quoted former linebacker and roommate linebacker David Lewis, who said by 1981, “Ricky, just wasn’t Ricky.”
Williams remembered that time and said Bell never let on he wasn’t feeling like himself.
“Nobody really knew,” Williams said when talking about Bells’ health and decline statistically. “Ricky was such a personal and private person and kept so much close to the vest. He wasn’t a complainer. It wasn’t like he was in the locker room or training room complaining about what was going on. Ricky Bell was all about helping other people.”
In Pearlman’s story on Bell, he wrote more about what Lewis observed.
“Me and Ricky lived in the same apartment complex on Dale Mabry (Highway),” Lewis said. “That last year in Tampa, I spent a lot of time helping him into his apartment. I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought it was soreness and wear and tear. He played a tough position, and got hit a lot. It never occurred to me that something might be wrong with him.”
Following his five seasons with the Buccaneers, with the last two being unproductive, Tampa Bay sent Bell to the San Diego Chargers for a fourth-round draft pick in 1982. Bell viewed the trade as a fresh start and an opportunity to finish out his career in his native California.
But the fresh start never was to be. Bell was in constant pain, and didn’t have the burst or quickness he displayed at USC and in his early career in Tampa Bay. He managed to make the Chargers roster, but played sparingly, carrying just two times for six yards in that 1982 season. When Bell began losing weight without explanation people knew something was wrong. Going from 225 pounds to 198 in just one season was alarming. Bell was now almost in constant pain and developing rashes Pearlman wrote.
Bell was put through a number of tests and in January of 1983 he Bell was finally diagnosed with dermatomyositis, an inflammation of the skin and muscles. Many people can continue to live a productive life with the affliction. But in a very small few the disease ends up costing the affected their life.
Sadly, Bell was in that minuscule percentage. Less than two years after being diagnosed and after a valiant fight, Bell lost his battle with dermatomyositis and passed away at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood on November 28, 1984.
I had just turned 14 years old and was a student at Turkey Creek Junior High School. Our bus always got to school a half hour before the first period bell rang, and I normally spent my mornings in the library, reading The Tampa Tribune. Obviously, this was pre-internet and before sports radio, and at the time I had no idea Bell was even ill.
I grabbed the sports page as I always did on that Thursday morning and opened it up across one of the large tables, and the headline hit like a ton of bricks. Bell had died the day before.
Being a Bucs fan in those days was hit or miss. Most kids my age were Cowboys, Steelers or even Dolphins fans. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to. I just read the story over and over hoping it wasn’t true, remembering back to my Sunday afternoons cheering on No. 42 and his teammates.
I flashed back to that December afternoon in 1979 when my Dad walked down the street a little before 1:00 p.m. to my grandmothers house because our television was broken. We sat in her living room and I remembered every play or that first drive against the Eagles, culminating with a Bell touchdown on a sweep to the right and a 7-0 lead. I was on cloud nine three hours later as Tampa Bay – behind Bell’s 142 yards on 38 carries – defeated the Eagles 24-17 to win their first playoff game and host the NFC Championship Game.
My heart was broken. At 13, I had never experienced death in any form, whether it be a family member, friend, or sports hero. I remember my Dad telling me later that day, “I’m sorry it was your first, but it won’t be the last. The older you get the more people you lose that you care about. It’s life and it just hurts sometimes.”
Man, was he right.
Williams remembered that year and how hard it was losing his friend, Bell.
“He had left us and went to San Diego and passed in 1984,” Williams said. “My wife passed in April of the year before. I went out to California (for his funeral) and to know I played with this guy and what he meant to me and to the Buccaneers, to USC and – to see that he had lost so much weight and passed away, it was surreal. That wasn’t supposed to happen to Ricky Bell. It was sad time. Everyone that played with Ricky understood what the loss was about.”
When speaking about the passing of Bell, Williams’ tone got somber and his voice was quieter. But his mood brightened and he spoke with a smile on his face that came through the phone lines when describing the good memories of his late friend.
“I know for me as a rookie he was big for me,” Williams said. “He had gone through what I was going through. He always told me to ‘just keep your head down, go out and play and do what you do. You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t do it.’
“That was the type of encouragement I got from Ricky Bell. He was the greatest teammate anyone could ever had. He never criticized anybody, he encouraged people. I used to like to see him in the huddle especially when he knew he was going to get the ball. You could see the excitement from him knowing he was going to be the ball-carrier. He was special.”
Here is a great YouTube video for old school Tampa Bay fans, and a nice history lesson for the younger generation that doesn’t remember or wasn’t even born in the early days of the Buccaneers. Below is a video from our goofy British friend Paul Stewart, who runs the best historical Bucs website there is. Here are a number of Bell’s touchdowns for Tampa Bay. Enjoy.