In 1979, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came within one game of the Promised Land.
Only a few years removed from a 2-26 combined record in their first two seasons as an organization, the Bucs were the feel-good story of the year in ‘79.
Helping to power the team that year was running back Ricky Bell.
You say “Buccaneers” and I think of Doug Williams and Ricky Bell. pic.twitter.com/Q7LWbD608P
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 25, 2020
Bell had been drafted by Tampa Bay in 1977 out of USC and suffered through two mediocre seasons.
He then busted loose in 1979 and led the franchise to the NFC Championship.
Five years later, Bell died of heart failure, cutting short a life filled with promise.
This is the story of Ricky Bell
Kind, Yet Powerful
Ricky Lynn Bell was born on April 8, 1955, in Houston, Texas.
— Reign of Troy (@ReignofTroy) April 8, 2016
When he was 11, the Bell family relocated to Los Angeles.
It was evident by the time he entered Fremont High School in South LA that Bell was a good athlete.
He was also a good person off the field who helped his family make ends meet by working odd jobs when he wasn’t in school.
On the football field, Bell played defensive end and fullback and lowered the boom on more than one opponent.
However, he never brought attention to himself and refused to be goaded into an altercation.
“I never had the urge to beat people up,” Bell says. “I stayed away from fights.” He won’t even spike a ball. “It’s not my style.”
As he neared high school graduation, Bell was courted by Division I schools, and it was only by chance that he chose the school he did.
Watching television one day, Bell watched as USC running back O.J. Simpson slashed through the defense for a touchdown.
He then found out that Simpson played for the Trojans at LA Memorial Coliseum.
It just so happened that the Coliseum was only a few miles from where he lived.
Bell heartily accepted when USC offered him a scholarship.
Bull in a China Shop
When Bell arrived at USC in the fall on 1973, coach John McKay put him at linebacker.
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) April 2, 2022
The following year, Bell was moved to fullback and gained 299 yards and one touchdown on 45 carries as USC won the national title.
As a 6’2”, 225-pound fullback, Bell hammered opponents who got in his way and provided a clear path for the tailbacks coming behind him.
So, it was a perfect combination of ability when the coaching staff moved him a third time in 1975 to tailback.
The move benefitted both parties as Bell laid waste to would-be tacklers all season.
In his very first game as the Trojans’ starting tailback, Bell set a program record with 256 rushing yards against Duke.
He continued to bulldoze through the opposition and would eventually end the regular season with 1,875 yards. He also gained another 82 yards and an MVP award in the Liberty Bowl versus Texas A&M.
Combined, Bell gained 1,957 yards in 1975, which broke former Trojan tailback Simpson’s school record, led the nation that year, and was the second highest total in NCAA history.
Bell also added 14 touchdowns, including one as a receiver, and he was named a unanimous All-American.
As the ‘75 season was coming to a close, numerous writers and ‘SC coaches were comparing Bell to Simpson’s heroics.
Anthony Davis, OJ, Marcus Allen, Clarence Davis, Ricky Bell, and Mike Garrett. Boy, that’s some talent!! Fight On ✌🏼!!! USC pic.twitter.com/HBxWf0mOGq
— Byron Gray (@ByronGray6) May 20, 2021
However, there was a major difference between the two.
“From O.J. you got finesse, from Ricky Bell, fractures,” a USC coach commented at the time.
The feeling among teammates, coaches, and opponents alike was that Bell was a force to be reckoned with.
Even as an offensive player, trying to tame Bell in the open field was like trying to tackle a wild dog.
“…all arms and elbows and knees. He runs like a blacksmith. He attacks. He’s a linebacker playing tailback. Our guys call him Mad Dog. They yap when he carries the ball,” commented USC defensive coordinator Dan Levy.
Bell continued to punish defenses in his senior year in 1976.
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) July 27, 2014
McKay left the program before the season and new coach John Robinson took over.
It didn’t take long before Robinson was convinced Bell was something special.
“He punishes tacklers like no one I’ve ever seen,” Robinson said at the time. “You watch all those defensive players patting each other on the back and shouting, ‘We’re gonna stop Ricky Bell!’ And then you watch the next play, and their heads slam into the ground. He runs right over them.”
On October 9, the Trojans traveled to Seattle, Washington to face Washington State University and their star quarterback Jack Thompson, the “Throwin’ Samoan.”
The game was in Seattle to support the extra fans and to showcase the newly constructed Kingdome where the Seattle Seahawks would be playing.
Thompson was lights out during the contest, keeping the Trojans’ defense honest by throwing for 341 yards.
In fact, the score was tied at 14 in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Bell took over.
Robinson went to his star tailback early and often, and Bell led USC to a thrilling 23-14 victory.
In the process, he broke his single-game record from the prior year by running over, through, and around the Cougars for 347 yards on 51 carries.
Happy Birthday, Ricky Bell, #USC Trojans. Bell set the USC single-game rushing record, 347 yds against Washington State. (Photo: USC-UCLA, 11/20/1976) #CollegeFootball #FightOn @USC_FB @ClintKPoppe @FilmHistoric @randycrossFB @sigg20 pic.twitter.com/A8FH6MXVkP
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) April 8, 2022
Both stats were a conference record.
Initially, the Cougars staff believed that Bell had 354 yards, which would have set the all-time NCAA record.
However, it was discovered after the game that seven yards had incorrectly been given to Bell that actually belonged to freshman tailback Charles White.
Regardless, the Trojans won the game, and the Cougars were left to lick their wounds dispensed by Bell.
“It was the worst, as a team, we’ve ever been beaten up,” WSU nose guard Dean Pedigo said. “We were all stiff and sore. Bell is bigger and stronger than most of our guys on defense. You can’t just butt him with your head or arm-tackle him. Three or four of you have to wrap him up.”
Bell missed a game and parts of others due to injuries yet still ended the ‘76 season with 1,433 yards and 14 touchdowns.
He was again named a unanimous All-American and just missed the Heisman Trophy when he finished second in the balloting process.
Bell was also named Pac-8 Conference Player of the Year and was invited to a few college showcase games.
During his career at USC, Bell rushed for 3,689 yards and 28 touchdowns while also catching 18 passes for 185 yards and one score.
By then, he was a national star that even then-President Gerald Ford didn’t want to tangle with.
“I will tell you one thing: I would rather run against Jimmy Carter than Ricky Bell any time,” Ford said during a campus visit in October.
First Pick in 1977
John McKay had been a fixture in Southern California for almost two decades and took USC to four national titles.
It was surprising, then, when he decided to jump ship and become the first head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL in 1976.
His first season proved to be an exercise in futility as the franchise lost all their games.
As the 1977 NFL Draft approached, most pundits believed McKay would take 1976 Heisman winner Tony Dorsett from the University of Pittsburgh with their first overall pick.
45 years ago today….Ricky Bell was the #1 pick in the 1977 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay….ahead of Tony Dorsett which with John McKay coaching Tampa made sense at the time….Bell was a helluva player at USC too but his career and life both ended way too soon pic.twitter.com/1bgbdmHMi2
— PolyesterPalace (@PolyesterPalace) May 3, 2022
After all, Dorsett had received more votes for the award than Bell and was generally viewed as the better tailback.
That didn’t matter to McKay.
He knew Bell from their time together at ‘SC, and he liked his former player’s character.
So, with the first pick of the 1977 NFL Draft, the Bucs selected Bell, and he signed the richest deal for a rookie in league history.
We are Vikings first, but we also love the history of the NFL. In their second year in the NFL, look how the Bucs elected to show their star RB Ricky Bell. The wanted him to look like a football player, but wanted you to see his face. he result was an awful shot…. pic.twitter.com/qW74RGQvRm
— VikeFans (@VikeFans) January 26, 2021
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Dorsett with the second pick.
With Bell now in the backfield, Tampa Bay did improve.
They won two games in 1977 as Bell started 10 games and rushed for 436 yards and one touchdown.
He was a key figure in the Bucs’ very first victory on December 11 against the New Orleans Saints.
In 1978, the franchise drafted Grambling State quarterback Doug Williams with the first pick in the draft.
The Bucs proceeded to win five games with Bell starting nine games and contributing 679 yards, six scores, and another 122 yards receiving.
During the first three years of their existence, Tampa Bay had won seven games total.
That’s what made 1979 so surprising.
With Williams coming into his own and Lee Roy Selmon anchoring the defense, the Bucs won the first five games of the season.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) April 4, 2021
After then losing two straight, the team won five of their final nine games to end the year 10-6.
Bell had his best season as a pro when he finally started every game and gained 1,263 yards and seven touchdowns on 283 carries.
He also caught 25 passes for 248 yards and two more scores and was named the team MVP.
For the first time in their short history, Tampa Bay was headed to the playoffs.
In the Divisional round, the Bucs faced the Philadelphia Eagles.
Bell made the most of his first postseason start by gashing the Eagles’ defense with 38 carries for 142 yards and two touchdowns.
° 1979 NFC DIVISIONAL °
Paced by Ricky Bell's 142 yards rushing on a then-playoff record 38 carries and 2 TDs, the #Bucs drop the Eagles at the Big Sombrero, 24-17.
• Tampa Bay's first-ever postseason game and victory pic.twitter.com/u3K53Q0eI8
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) December 30, 2018
Tampa Bay won the hard-fought game 24-17 for its first-ever playoff victory.
Remarkably, in just their fourth season, Tampa Bay was hosting an NFC Championship game.
They faced the LA Rams and the going would prove tough.
Williams threw 13 passes before leaving the game with a torn biceps muscle.
That loss meant the Rams could focus almost exclusively on Bell, and he was slowed to 59 yards on 20 carries.
Without their signal caller, LA shut out the Bucs at home with a 9-0 win, thus ending their magical season.
Bell Begins to Fade
In 1980, Tampa Bay fell back to their losing ways and went 5-10-1 for the year.
Bell started 12 games and rushed for 599 yards and two touchdowns on 174 carries.
He also had a career-high 38 receptions for 292 yards and one more touchdown.
Tampa Bay would win nine games and the NFC Central Conference in 1981 and return to the postseason.
Ricky Bell pic.twitter.com/ZrJwPOBB4W
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) April 2, 2022
Bell rarely saw the field that year, starting just three games and rushing for 80 yards.
While Bell contributed 91 rushing yards in the Divisional playoff game versus the Cowboys, Dorsett and Dallas cruised to an easy 38-0 victory.
Trade to San Diego and Retirement
Bell’s lack of production in 1980 and 1981 was troubling to McKay.
As much as he wanted to keep him, the coach traded Bell to the San Diego Chargers in the spring of 1982.
— Jeff Pearlman (@jeffpearlman) September 11, 2017
The player’s strike shortened the ‘82 season to nine games, and the Chargers went 6-3 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the Miami Dolphins.
However, Bell didn’t participate much, and there was clearly something wrong with his health.
During the ‘82 season, he appeared in four games and had two carries for six yards.
Before the 1983 season began, Bell looked like a ghost of his former self as he suffered from weight loss and a skin issue.
Instead of trying to make the San Diego roster in his condition, Bell retired.
In his short, six-year career, Bell had totals of 822 carries, 3,063 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 97 receptions for 842 yards, and three more scores.
By 1983, many of Bell’s former teammates and coaches had a feeling something was not right.
His once stocky frame carried only 110 pounds by the fall of 1984.
Then, on November 28, 1984, the NFL world was saddened to hear that Bell had died from heart failure due to a condition called Dermatomyositis.
🎂 Ricky Bell's best year came in 1979 when he rushed for 1,263 yds & 7 TDs while also catching 25 passes for 248 yds & 2 TDs. TB went from 5-11 in 1978 to 10-6 in 1979. On Nov, 28 1984, Ricky passed away after a 2 yr battle with a muscle & skin inflaming disease. #GoBucs #RIP pic.twitter.com/3ayfD0440S
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) April 8, 2020
He was 29 years old.
Since it is a rare condition, Bell’s doctor explained the illness to the media.
”Dermatomyositis is a chronic, inflammatory muscle disease felt to be due to abnormalities of the human immune system,” said Dr. Allan Metzger of Beverly Hills, who was Bell’s physician. ”Less than five percent of patients with this disease have associated heart disease of this severity.”
Bell never complained about the condition, and apart from the noticeable weight loss, not many people knew he was suffering from such a debilitating disease.
After his passing, it was postulated that Bell’s lack of production and nagging injuries from 1981 through the end of his career may have been due to his Dermatomyositis.
Bell left behind a wife and two children, but he had the undying respect of those who knew him best.
“It’s ironic that someone with such a big heart would succumb to something associated with the heart,” said Melvin Jackson, an offensive lineman who blocked for Bell at USC.
“Ricky Bell was one of the finest football players I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching,” John McKay said upon hearing of Bell’s passing. “He was an even finer man.”
Bell was posthumously added to the Tampa Stadium Krewe of Honor in 1991 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.