Ricky Bell: The Unsung Hero of the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tom EdringtonSenior Writer INovember 5, 2009

Ricky Bell was the first player taken in the 1977 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He struggled as the team struggled through a 2-12 season that year then a 5-11 record in 1978. But 1979 was magical, and the player unappreciated by Buccaneer fans, suddenly became a hero along with the rest of his teammates. This is the second of a three-part series remembering the backbone of that great '79 team.

The assignment was a good one for a young sports writer at the Tampa Tribune : go over to One Buccaneer Place and interview Ricky Bell for a feature.

In those days, we would meet players in a stark, barren room at Buccaneer headquarters. Plastic chairs, egg-white walls, you get the picture.

When he walked into the room, you couldn't help but notice his size. Yes, he looked big down on the field, but Ricky Bell was a very large man and a amazing physical specimen.

He extended his hand with a big smile; "Ricky Bell," he said. He didn't need to do that, we all knew who he was, but that was Ricky Bell, a well-mannered, polite young guy.

As I readied my pad and pen, he looked around and surprised me, "Would you like to go get some lunch?" he asked.

"Well sure," I said, taken totally by surprise at his suggestion.

"Can you follow me over to the Cafe California?" he asked.

"Sure," I said, trying not to show any excitement.

Cafe California was a small place near the old Tampa Stadium, home of the Bucs. Cafe California, I thought it a perfect place to sit down with a California guy, Ricky Bell.

On the way over, I checked my wallet and made sure I had enough money for lunch for two. Athletes never pick up tabs, I thought.

When we arrived, the owners greeted Ricky, as he was a regular there. He introduced me to them, he didn't have to do that.

What unveiled over the next hour was unlike any interview I had done or could imagine.

We spoke about life, about family and friends, about Tampa, and a bit about those tough seasons in 1977 and 1978.

Bell absorbed an extraordinary amount of physical abuse on the field and was not a fan favorite. He was taken instead of Tony Dorsett, who was thriving with the Dallas Cowboys. But Bell was the right choice for the Bucs. Dorsett, a smaller back, would not have survived the physical beating Bell endured every Sunday.

Ricky talked to me about his older brother Archie, the singer (Archie Bell and the Drells). I told him I was a fan and enjoyed their music. Ricky laughed. To him, Archie wasn't a celebrity, just a great and beloved big brother.

Bell smiled as we ate, he was so very much at ease away from the office. He relaxed, he trusted me, and shared a bit of his life with me.

We were simply two young guys shooting the breeze, sharing a good moment.

He asked about the newspaper business, about my family, and my school. Instincts told me that I was sitting with a good man, a young man of character and heart.

That heart showed on the field and that season when Bell came into his own. Perhaps his finest moment was in that first playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles when he ran the ball 38 times for 142 yards. That was a truck-load of carries, but he was big, fast, and tough.

Lunch with Ricky Bell passed too quickly. It was one of those moments in life that you knew you would carry in your memory banks for many years to come.

The check came and Bell quickly grabbed it. "This one's on me," he declared with a smile.

I thought to myself, "no way" Ricky Bell did not grab the check that fast. No athletes pay for a writer's meal; he did.

And he gave me insight into his heart and soul.

A short five years later, I cried when I heard the news; Ricky Bell had died.

I knew he was up against a unbeatable opponent when he was diagnosed with something called dermatomyositis. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it brutalized that magnificent body that served him so well at USC then the NFL. I knew it reduced him to nothing. It made his heart fail and he left us.

Ricky Bell was a young man taken too soon. We figured he had the disease while he was in Tampa, although in the early stages, there was no way to tell.

No doubt he fought hard for his life, but it was a battle he could not win.

But Ricky Bell was a winner and he finally made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a winner. Fans would "ring their bells for Ricky" during those wonderful games in 1979.

I still think about him. I think about his kindness and how he helped a young writer produce a good story. I remember that kindness, his humility, his class and his grace under pressure.

Yes, I remember Ricky Bell and I know his spirit will be there with his old teammates when they are honored at the Buccaneer game on Sunday.

I know that Ricky is in a good place. He was a good man, a really good man.