Jeff Pearlman

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Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 10.53.56 PM

Ricky Bell and the story I long wanted to write

Screen Shot 2013-08-20 at 2.18.31 PMBack when I was a kid growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I loved a Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back named Ricky Bell.

Why? For some of the many random reasons children select their sports heroes. I was skimming through a copy of the 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Football, and came across a particularly eye-catching photograph of Bell. He was wearing his creamsicle-and-white Bucs uniform, running through the Eagles defense, looking upright and regal. When I turned the page to see his photograph, Bell boasted an extraordinarily cool Afro, couple with a happy-to-be-here grin.

In other words, I was hooked.

Back in the day, it wasn’t easy for a New York kid to closely follow a man playing football in Florida. I tried, but Bell news came sporadically. When he was traded to San Diego for a fourth-round pick, I was 12-years old and dumbfounded. The Bucs traded Ricky Bell? For a pick? What?

Two years later, he was dead.

•••

Through the years, I’d suggested Bell as a story, but was always rebuffed. Earlier this year I called Sports Illustrated—no interest. I’d once asked ESPN.com—no go. Finally, at long last, the excellent Glenn Stout at SB Nation took the bait. I told him I didn’t want to write a normal profile, but a look at his mysterious final season, when he carried twice for six yards. That statistic (2 carries, 6 yards) embedded itself in my brain for more than three decades. Right now, I don’t know where I last left my cap. But I can tell you Bell’s 1982 stat line with the Chargers. Weird. Haunting.

This is the resulting article: TWO CARRIES, SIX YARDS. It ran today.

I absolutely love writing for SB Nation, because the editing is crisp and they seek out lengthy pieces worth telling. You don’t get rich doing it—but this was never about money. I simply wanted to find out what happened to Bell that final season; what he went through; what it was like watching his ability fade and his weight slip away. I wound up interviewing about 20 people. The first key moment came when I found Ricky Bell, Jr., his lovely and proud son, on Facebook. Ricky was thrilled to talk about the father he only knew during childhood. He also did what an ideal source does—he pointed me in righteous directions. I soon found Ricky’s daughter, Noelle, and we dined at the Sunburst Cafe in Manhattan. Then Natalia, Ricky’s widow, spent about 45 minutes on the phone. All three were wonderful, and happy to keep a fine man’s legacy alive.

Perhaps the best find was Lee Moore, Ricky’s brother. Lee remembered everything as if it were a year ago. He laughed, he cried, he emoted, he explained. When he told me the story of Ricky teaching him to tie his shoes, I felt tears in my eyes.

This story meant that much to me.

It’s probably the longest thing I’ve ever written. It’s easily one of the most emotional.

  • http://jeffpearlman.com Doug

    Outstanding read, thank you. I remember him beating up on the vikings when I was a kid, later watching a made for TV movie about his life. Guys like Ricky Bell should not be forgotten, this memorial is well deserved.

  • Rick M.

    Easily the best piece ever written about Ricky and thanks for it. I’ve scoured the internet and sports magazine back issues for years looking for any information on Ricky and as I’m sure you know, the results are slim at best. I was fortunate enough years ago to purchase some of Ricky’s things through a broker from Les Roth, Ricky’s former Tampa business partner. I’m proud to say that 3 of his game used jerseys and a couple of game trophies from the 1979 season are displayed prominently in my home. He’s still remembered fondly here in the Tampa area but his memory is being eroded over time and a piece like the one you wrote has been badly needed to remind people of what a great player he was as well as a great spirit.

  • David

    Excellent piece Jeff. I crave writing like this. It is right up there with your Lyman Bostock story. These are the pieces I think of when I hear you say that there’s not a large enough market to publish a book. There’s still a story to be told and you attack it the same way with the work you put into a book. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ted

    Just read the Ricky Bell piece. Nice work.

  • Steve D

    Jeff, Bravo for an unbelievable read. A must read for anyone who calls themself a Buc fan

  • soup

    Good read Jeff. I haven’t read your writing in a while, it was the great Dempster article this week that was brought to my attention that refreshed my memory on your work. I remember your articles on Sal and how much I appreciated and enjoyed them. The Dempster article brought back those memories of Sal and what he dealt with. He was a great guy (still is!) and it was your great writing that brought his story to so many people. Thanks for your great work. I will be checking you page often now, thanks again.

  • George

    Jeff, Great work on the Ricky Bell piece. Thanks for writing and getting it published.

  • Andrew

    Thanks.

  • RCO

    Found the link via Sherman Report–wonderful story, had not remembered Ricky Bell but now realize his passing at a young age was a true loss. I thought you really showed his character by showing the impact on the people around him. The ending of tying the shoes moved me to tears.

    Nice work.

  • Emerson Noble

    I grew up in the Tampa Bay Area and those creamsicle Buccaneers were my team! Thanks for the memories. Ricky was so dominate in 1979 it was difficult to understand his decline as a player. By the time we figured it out it was too late. I remember Ricky as a gracious gentleman and was happy to see someone write about him so many years later

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life