Mike Bell is 56, an age when many former NFL players are in full physical and sometimes mental decline from the brutality of the game they played and loved.
But Bell, whose journey toward a 12-year pro career with the Kansas City Chiefs started at Bishop Carroll, is holding up. He won’t need help when he walks to the podium Sunday to deliver his speech as one of eight 2013 inductees into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame at the Wichita Boathouse.
“I have buddies who are having issues,” Bell said. “The last time I talked to Dino Hackett, he told me he needs a driver because of his blackouts. And he’s a little younger than me. It’s just a different game football players play. It’s violent.”
And getting more violent all the time, Bell said. Despite efforts to soften some of the blows, the players are bigger, faster and stronger than they were just 22 years ago when Bell retired. He, for instance, was a 255-pound defensive end. Those guys are regularly going at 275 to 285 and even bigger nowadays. With speed and chiseled bodies.
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“I watch guys warm up nowadays and tight ends look like tackles,” said Bell, who has lived and worked in Wichita since his retirement from the Chiefs. “And tackles look like Greek gods. Everybody is so much bigger, stronger and athletic on every level, including high school. That’s why you see quarterbacks drop like flies. One good shot and they’re done for the season, or at least a few games.”
Bell said he doesn’t worry about the long-term physical and mental effects of playing for as long as he did. He had both of his knees replaced a few years back and now walks upright instead of with the bow-leggedness he endured for years.
“I try not to worry about all the other stuff,” Bell said. “Yeah, you think about the concussions and everything because it’s in the media so much and so many of the older guys are having trouble with dementia and stuff like that. When I was playing and they had to come off the bench to check you out, they’d ask you how many fingers they were holding up, what’s your name and who are we playing. If you could answer those questions it was ‘Get back out there.’ I guess I do wonder whether it will affect me as I get older, but I try to stay pretty positive about stuff.”
Bell isn’t slowing down. He works at Bell Floor Co., which his parents, Johnnie and Laurie, who died in 2009, started more than 50 years ago. He also plays golf and spends a lot of time with his family. Son Beau is a player at Kansas and nephew Blake is now — finally — the starting quarterback at Oklahoma. Bell frequently is on the sideline for Chiefs games.
“People come up to me and say they remember our teams like it was yesterday,” Bell said. “That’s the thing about Chiefs fans; they never forget. Although there have been some who call me Bobby Bell. I tell them he played in the ’60s.”
Bell, who started 100 games for the Chiefs, was a college standout at Colorado State along with his twin brother, Mark. Mike was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1979 NFL draft, one spot behind Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau.
“I reflect back on those times a lot,” Bell said. “There were a lot of fun and exciting times and it all really starts with my years at Carroll. The day I got drafted, I remember just laying on my bed that night and the whirlwind of everything that happened with one interview after another. And now going into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, it’s pretty humbling. It’s exciting, it’s cool.”
Bell is thankful not only for his career, but for his health so many years after he left the game. He watches a lot of football and often cringes at what he sees, just like the rest of us.
“I know I had concussions when I played,” Bell said. “There were times when I joked with the guys about coming back to the huddle and having to close one of my eyes just to try and get some focus. You’d put your hand down for the next play and barely be able to make out the tackle. I think that’s just how a lot of the old-school guys played the game. We didn’t say much. And that’s still the case, I’m sure, because if a player talks about not feeling right in his head, he’s probably not playing for at least three weeks.
“That’s what happens with athletes. We live in the moment. It’s not until afterward, when things start to happen … all of these guys having issues today? They probably wouldn’t change how they did stuff.”