Bobby Bell emerged as one of the greatest linebackers in pro football history during his iconic twelve-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1963 to 1974.
Prior to settling in at linebacker, Bell played various positions including quarterback and defensive lineman.
Bell was so versatile, legendary Chiefs head coach Hank Stram thought he was the only player who could play all positions and give his team a chance to win.
Bell helped turn Kansas City into a perennial Super Bowl contender in the mid-to-late 1960s.
The five-time First-Team All-AFL selection’s heroic goal-line stand against the defending Super Bowl champions New York Jets helped the Chiefs advance to Super Bowl IV. Kansas City faced the Minnesota Vikings, the same team that had selected Bell 16th overall in the 1963 NFL Draft.
Bell eventually became the first Chiefs player to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1983.
This is Bobby Bell’s remarkable and inspiring football journey.
Bobby Lee Bell, Sr. was born to parents Pink and Zannie in Shelby, NC on June 17, 1940.
Bobby’s father picked cotton and worked at the local textile mill. His mother did housecleaning and ironing to help make ends meet. They named Bobby after Robert E. Lee, the American civil war general.
However, Pink wanted his son to have his own identity, so he and his wife decided on “Bobby Lee Bell,” per The New York Times‘s Carol Pogash.
Although Pink Bell barely had an educational background, he told young Bobby that his fellow African Americans could give their white counterparts a serious run for their money in sports and education.
According to Bell’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, a man named Willie Casper introduced him to athletics via the local boys’ club. That was where Bell met his first love: baseball.
As Bobby become more engrossed in the baseball diamond, he looked up to African American athletes such as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Joe Willis.
Aside from playing baseball, Bobby also swam at Holy Oak Park and worked as a lifeguard at the park’s swimming pool area.
Bell experienced racial discrimination during his formative years in North Carolina. When he worked as a carhop at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, his superiors only allowed him to enter the restaurant through the back door.
They also did not permit Bobby to use the same water fountain or eat at the same table as his white counterparts.
A Motivation for Education
Bobby mowed lawns and cleaned houses so he could earn some money as a teenager. Little did he know one of his jobs would motivate him to attend college someday.
Some of the college-age kids who returned to the houses he cleaned showed him their yearbooks. It was Bell’s first time seeing a college yearbook—a truly eye-opening experience for him, per MPR News‘s Alex Friedrich.
Bobby Bell = the best all-around player to ever wear a @Chiefs uniform, IMO
📍 Shelby, NC
— Pete Moris (@PeteMoris) April 9, 2021
Bobby Bell attended Cleveland High School in his hometown of Shelby, NC.
The Cleveland Golden Lions’ head football coach was John Weston, a man who convinced Bell and his teammates they could become achievers on and off the high school gridiron.
Bobby had his chance to achieve that goal in 1958 when he was just sixteen years old. A Chicago White Sox scout was in town, saw Bobby play, and asked him to try out for the team.
However, Bobby’s father, Pink, told him he had to prioritize his education first.
Bell, who played youth baseball in North Carolina, was one of the most versatile players on the Golden Lions football team.
Weston had problems figuring out which position he would assign Bell. He initially had Bobby play quarterback before moving him to halfback.
Bell exceeded everybody’s expectations. He went on to earn All-State honors at both positions.
Bobby’s outstanding play on the high school gridiron eventually drew the attention of North Carolina Tar Heels head football coach Jim Tatum.
Unfortunately, Tatum’s squad was still segregated.
Before long, Bell reached out to Minnesota Gophers head football coach Murray Warmath, who had recently recruited several African Americans for his team. Warmath gave his last football scholarship to the pride of Shelby, NC.
Bobby Bell eventually became one of the greatest pass rushers in Minnesota Gophers football program history.
College Days with the Minnesota Gophers
Bobby Bell attended the University of Minnesota from 1958 to 1962. Bell, a parks and recreation major, suited up for Minnesota Gophers head football coach Murray Warmath.
Bell’s father, Pink, the man who told him he could excel in both sports and education, gifted him with a gold watch before he left Shelby, NC.
It was Pink’s reminder to Bobby to always show up on time for his classes at Minnesota.
Bobby’s off-the-charts athleticism caught the eyes of many people during his college days.
Bell completed the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds while wearing tennis shoes. The Gophers’ golf and ice hockey coaches asked Bobby to come out for their respective teams, though he had zero experience playing both sports.
Bell eventually made the Gophers’ men’s basketball roster. He became the first African American to pull off the feat.
Bell considered the move from Shelby, NC to Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN a traumatic one. He did not know anybody in Minnesota. To compound Bobby’s woes, Warmath never let up in practice and games. He was a demanding tactician, to say the least.
Nevertheless, Warmath successfully instilled in his players the mentality that they were students first and athletes second. He molded them into achievers in the classroom and on the football field.
“We went to class with that determination, we competed with that determination, and we graduated with that determination,” Bell said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 1983. “So you cannot be surprised that while on the football field, we played with determination.”
Warmath also constantly reminded Bell about life after football. While making headlines as a football player was great, it was never too early to start pondering his life after he hung up his cleats.
Doing It Not Only for Himself
Warmath decided Bell’s best fit was on the defensive line.
— GopherHole.com (@GopherHole) June 17, 2022
For his part, Bobby told his coach he would do anything just so he didn’t have to go back to North Carolina.
Although Bell excelled on the Gophers’ defensive line, he still endured racial taunts in Minnesota.
According to The New York Times, some white students constantly knocked on Bobby’s door and told him they had never seen an African American before.
Bobby also never mingled with white people in the classroom or cafeteria during his college days in Minnesota. It was a throwback to his days working as a carhop in his native North Carolina.
Instead of getting sidetracked, Bobby dug his heels in. He spent most of his time studying diligently at the library.
Bell told The New York Times he dedicated his studies to his family and his fellow African Americans in his native North Carolina.
“I wasn’t only going to Minnesota for me,” Bell told MPR News in the spring of 2015. “I was going to Minnesota for my dad, my mom, my brother, my sister, kin folks, and all the blacks there in Shelby. I could not let these people down.”
Pink Bell’s first time watching his son play football for the Gophers was one he’d rather forget.
Team physicians carried Bobby off the field after he cracked several ribs. Pink followed him to the locker room and watched in agony as doctors taped his son’s midsection.
Undaunted, Pink told Bobby that he did not travel to the Midwest to see him in that state. He’d come to see him play.
Bobby got the message and finished the game with several broken ribs.
Looking to the Future
Bobby Bell’s excellent play on the defensive line helped Minnesota win its sixth national title at the end of the 1961 NCAA season.
He continued to flourish and eventually earned All-American honors in 1961 and 1962. He also won the Outland Trophy as the country’s top interior lineman in the 1962 NCAA campaign.
Many years after Bell played in his final down in the college football ranks, Warmath called him “the greatest lineman I have ever seen.”
It was a sign of things to come for Bobby Bell. He eventually signed with the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and became one of the most dominant linebackers in the mid-to-late 1960s.
Pro Football Career
The Kansas City Chiefs made Bobby Bell the 56th overall selection of the 1963 AFL Draft.
However, the Minnesota Vikings had already selected Bell 16th overall in the 1963 NFL Draft.
On paper, it seemed that signing with the Vikings was the better option for bell since he hailed from the University of Minnesota.
Unfortunately, the Vikings didn’t pursue him as passionately as the Chiefs. In fact, Minnesota did not dangle a guaranteed contract in front of Bobby, but Kansas City did.
Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt’s words to Bell prior to the draft festivities sold the former Minnesota Gophers standout on Kansas City.
“Bobby, I’d like for you to be a part of my family,” Hunt told Bell (via Bell’s first-person essay on Chiefs.com in September 2021).
Bell found out Hunt’s words rang true. The Chiefs did treat their players like family all the time.
With that, Bobby Bell signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in the summer of 1963. He remained with the Chiefs for the entirety of his legendary twelve-year pro football career.
Bell also considered Hunt’s founding of the American Football League (AFL) the greatest moment in pro football history.
While the NFL turned a blind eye to African American players, Hunt and the AFL gave players from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) a chance to strut their wares in the 1960s.
When Bell entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame some twenty years later, he told the crowd in Canton, OH that his transition into the NFL was a far cry from his college experience with the Minnesota Gophers.
Kansas City, Here We Come
Bell joined the team in its first year in Kansas City. The Chiefs, who had been previously known as the Dallas Texans, relocated to Missouri from Texas several months earlier.
The Chiefs had a roster filled with talented players, including Bell, quarterback Len Dawson, halfback Abner Haynes, flanker Frank Johnson, tight end Fred Arbanas, cornerback Dave Grayson, and strong safety Bobby Hunt.
Bell felt the Chiefs, in their fourth year of existence, were in good hands with head coach Hank Stram.
Stram had an uncanny ability to develop young players and make them play to their fullest potential. Bell thought Stram’s meticulousness and organization set him apart from other head coaches in the AFL.
For his part, Stram thought Bell was the only player who could play any position on the football field and will his team to victory.
Stram and Bell’s past head coaches, John Weston and Murray Warmath, had the same issue. They could not figure out in which position Bell would thrive.
Bell was so versatile, he could play quarterback, halfback, linebacker, and all positions on the offensive and defensive lines since his high school days.
Stram initially assigned Bell to play defensive end as a rookie in the 1963 AFL season because the Chiefs lacked depth at that position.
Bobby played in all fourteen games and started eleven for Stram in 1963. Bell held his own at defensive end and had 4.5 sacks as a rookie.
Regrettably, the Chiefs struggled one year after winning the AFL Championship. Kansas City went 5-7-2 in 1963 and missed the postseason for the third time in the past four years.
Finding His Position
Stram toyed with the idea of moving Bell to a different position the following season. He was figuring out whether the versatile player would flourish as a strong safety, weak safety, or cornerback.
Stram ultimately moved Bobby to outside linebacker prior to the 1964 AFL season, and the rest was history.
Bell settled in at linebacker and dominated during the American Football League’s final six seasons.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 30, 2023
Bobby racked up a combined 28.5 sacks, 16 interceptions, two pick-sixes, seven fumble recoveries, and two touchdowns off fumble recoveries from 1964 to 1969.
Consequently, he earned six straight AFL All-Star and five First-Team All-AFL honors from 1964 to 1969. Bell also earned one Second-Team All-AFL selection in 1964.
When Bobby earned his second AFL-All-Star selection in 1965, he and his fellow African American All-Stars took a stand when they found out restaurants in New Orleans, LA forbade them from dining with their white counterparts.
Consequently, the AFL moved the 1965 All-Star game to Houston, TX.
Bobby Bell was one of the reasons behind the Chiefs’ meteoric ascent in the AFL ranks in the mid-1960s.
Kansas City won an average of seven games in Bobby’s first two years at outside linebacker from 1964 to 1965.
Behind the exploits of Bell, Dawson, Mike Garrett, and Otis Taylor, the Chiefs became a juggernaut as the 1960s decade wound down.
Kansas City won an average of eleven games per season from 1966 to 1969. The Chiefs won two division titles, made three postseason appearances, and reached the Super Bowl twice during that unforgettable four-season span.
One of Bobby Bell’s most memorable games was the 1969 Divisional Round game against Joe Namath’s New York Jets.
The Chiefs held serve in the waning moments. They made two crucial stops at the Jets’ one-yard line before Namath rolled out and looked for his running back Matt Snell on a fourth-and-one pass play.
Bell did not fall for the Jets’ ruse and had a clear path toward Namath. The former recorded the game-winning sack, ending New York’s aspirations for a second straight Super Bowl. The final score was Chiefs 13, Jets 6.
Bobby Bell had helped seal Kansas City’s second AFL title in four seasons.
The pinnacle of Bell’s iconic pro football career was earning his first and only Super Bowl ring. The Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, 23-7, in a showdown between two dominant 1960s teams.
Bobby Bell remained at the top of his game when the Chiefs joined the National Football League in 1970.
Bell had a combined 7.5 sacks, nine interceptions, four pick-sixes, and two fumble recoveries in his last five pro football seasons from 1970 to 1974.
Bobby racked up three straight Pro Bowl selections from 1970 to 1972. He also earned a First-Team All-Pro and a Second-Team All-Pro selection in 1970 and 1971, respectively.
The Chiefs hardly resembled the dominant team they had been several years earlier.
Kansas City averaged seven wins in Bobby Bell’s last five years with the team from 1970 to 1974. They made just one postseason appearance during those five seasons.
Time to Retire
Bell retired following the 1974 NFL season. He had 40.0 sacks, 26 interceptions, six pick-sixes, nine fumble recoveries, and two touchdowns off fumble recoveries in his legendary twelve-year pro football career.
Chiefs head coach Hank Stram, who presented Bell to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1983, thought Bobby was the best outside linebacker and most versatile player he had ever coached.
On a deeper level, Stram considered Bobby Bell a man who wasn’t defined by what he did on the NFL gridiron.
“Bobby Bell was a man who played football,” Stram said in 1983. “Football is what he did and not what he was.”
Stram also praised Bell’s attitude and leadership. Bobby always showed up for work with a smile on his face. Bell was the type of player who loved cracking jokes and having a good time on the football field.
Stram noticed negative people didn’t rattle the always upbeat Bell easily. If there was a problem, he and his teammates hashed it out before it got worse.
That was one of the reasons the Kansas City Chiefs became a dominant force in the American Football League in the late 1960s.
According to The New York Times, Bell had a full-time job at General Motors in Kansas City, MO during the offseason. He took some time off from his job so he could participate in preseason training.
Bell’s experiences with racial discrimination continued during his playing days with the Chiefs.
When he was on the lookout for a new house in the Kansas City, MO area, real estate agents frequently told him they had already sold the houses he had been eyeing.
Bobby Bell and his family currently reside in the Kansas City, MO area. He has a daughter, Tracy, a son, Bobby, Jr., and several grandchildren.
Bell ventured into the restaurant business shortly after he retired from the NFL in 1974. He eventually launched Bobby Bell’s Bar-B-Que in Kansas City.
Bobby’s former manager at his carhop job in high school shared some secret recipes he’d used for his restaurant. Unfortunately, Bell eventually sold his restaurant chain.
Gold Jacket Spotlight celebrates the careers and lives of our Hall of Famers. Each week we will spotlight a different legend.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 30, 2021
Bobby Bell became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1983. He was the first Chiefs player who earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH.
Hank Stram, his head coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, was Bobby’s presenter.
Part of Bell’s enshrinement speech reads:
“To be considered to join the elite group of pro football greats is beyond my expectations… You do not honor individually, but those many people who made imprints on Bobby Bell’s athletic corner. There are many who left their signature on Bobby Bell and shared the corner.”
Bobby Bell is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Gophers’ M Club Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame, the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Honor, the AFL All-Time Team, the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, and the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Both the Minnesota Gophers and Kansas City Chiefs have retired Bell’s No. 78 jersey.
Finishing What He Started
Bell had signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1963, just 13 credit hours short of a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation.
The thought of not completing his degree gnawed at Bobby’s conscience for the next four decades. He wanted to complete his degree as a fitting tribute to his late father, Pink Lee Bell.
When Bobby was in his 70s, he reached out to the University of Minnesota’s senior associate athletic director Dan O’Brien and asked him to look for his transcripts.
It took O’Brien several months to finally find Bell’s old transcript, a dusty old document still written in pencil.
Bell then told O’Brien that he had no idea how he was going to compete against students who were old enough to be his grandchildren.
Despite Bell’s doubts, he enrolled in three courses in the school’s Gopher Graduation Program and eventually joined the University of Minnesota’s Class of 2015. Bobby Bell was a few weeks shy of his 75th birthday when he finally earned his diploma.
“I should have done this a long time ago,” Bell told Friedrich in May 2015. “I promised my dad that I would do it.”
Bobby Bell spends his retirement years playing golf, attending various charity functions, and giving motivational talks, per The New York Times.