From out of the ashes, Kansas City Chiefs great Bobby Bell became a monument to change

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To be around Bobby Bell is to marvel often and laugh a lot, anyone who knows him can tell you.

And that’s how it was, only more so, last Saturday on Bobby Bell Day in his hometown of Shelby, where they unveiled a sign for Bobby Bell Boulevard, dedicated a muraled wall of a building with his images and renamed the City Pavilion the Bobby Bell Pavilion.

The night before, accompanied by his wife, Pamela, and their entourage, Bell, 81, danced at the historic Banker’s House, where he also captivated guests by playing the piano … even if his brother, Pink, 82, the longtime mortician, wanted you to think he tapped a button on a player piano.

At the main event last Saturday, Aug. 28, the pomp and circumstance included four Pro Football Hall of Fame members, including former Chiefs teammates Willie Lanier and Jan Stenerud, providing testimonials.

As such affairs go, there was some teasing of Bell to go with it and lots of light moments. Even the ever-earnest Lanier, apt to wear a business suit at home, wore a red T-shirt bearing a Chiefs logo that read, “WHEN I GROW UP I WANNA BE BOBBY BELL.”

Fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Lanier left no doubt about his admiration for his former Kansas City Chiefs teammate, wearing a bright red T-shirt proclaiming, “When I grow up I want to be Bobby Bell.”
Fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Lanier left no doubt about his admiration for his former Kansas City Chiefs teammate, wearing a bright red T-shirt proclaiming, “When I grow up I want to be Bobby Bell.”

Meanwhile, Bell had a quip for about every speaker, including his daughter, Tracie Donnell, longtime friend George Richter and a barking dog he figured was objecting to his speech.

For all the mirth-making, though, this was a deep and poignant occasion in many ways.

So much so that Bell at one point simply said, “It’s hard to take.”

In fact, he choked up sharing a story he never had told publicly — a story about when he was 6 and asleep at the family home when it became engulfed in flames from a wood-burning stove.

His mother, Zannie Lee Bell, was outside hanging up clothes as the house suddenly was consumed with fire. She screamed, “My baby’s in there asleep.” People tried to hold her back, but she broke free and entered the house burning to the ground.

Considering the moment, Bell paused to collect himself.

“She crawled on the floor; she crawled (into) the bedroom where I was asleep, pulled me off the bed,” he said, gesturing to the scar on his forehead that many assume came from football. “If it weren’t for her pulling me out of that house, I wouldn’t be here today.”

‘Everything was kind of separated’

You weren’t alone in the diverse crowd of several hundred if you teared up as he told this story.

And it was a story that enabled countless tales in a life that has included playing for a national champion at the University of Minnesota and in two of the first four Super Bowls and becoming the first Chief in the Hall of Fame … and meeting five presidents, hanging with the Rat Pack and Harlem Globetrotters and Bob Hope and appearing at USO shows in Vietnam and otherwise spanning the globe.

But among the most unfathomable aspects of all the rich adventures is where they all started … and what it meant that this day came to be.

Because bubbling behind the sheer joy of the day was the undercurrent of its context:

In a town of about 20,000 that has made enormous strides from its segregated past, a block away from the fanfare still sits a monument honoring what it calls the CONFEDERATE HEROES OF CLEVELAND COUNTY.

The base, in front of the former courthouse that is now the Earl Scruggs Center, is underscored by the words, LEST WE FORGET.

A Confederate monument in Bobby Bell’s hometown of Shelby, North Carolina.
A Confederate monument in Bobby Bell’s hometown of Shelby, North Carolina.

So, in turn, lest anyone forget what came from out of that shadow: The man being celebrated as the finest of Shelby grew up here drinking from “colored” water fountains and using segregated bathrooms and relegated to the balcony of the movie theater.

He couldn’t play golf at the country club where he cut grass and couldn’t eat at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, where he worked in the kitchen and as a carhop.

Until his mid-teens, there was no park for Blacks in Shelby … and so no place to learn to swim. And since his segregated Cleveland High lacked the resources of all-white Shelby High, he began his high school football career playing six-man ball.

“I remember the times, you know, that everything was kind of separated,” he said. “I remember all that.”

‘To give resonance to what the future can hold’

Bell also remembered being offered the key to the city in 1962. That was after he’d finished third in Heisman Trophy voting and just months before being drafted by the Chiefs (soon on their way to Kansas City from Dallas).

That day, Bell proclaimed that what he really wished for was to walk across the street and be allowed into the front door of the ice cream parlor to get an ice cream cone.

But he couldn’t. And that key to the city evidently was lost in the mail.

Which was part of the reason why this time Shelby mayor Stan Anthony handed Bell a shadow box featuring the key, among other items, instead of saying to expect it in the mail.

And this time around, Bell basked in a party the night before in a place he couldn’t have entered back then and stayed in a hotel he wouldn’t have been able to step foot in.

This time, the marquee at the now-Don Gibson Theatre welcomed him and his family and friends to a lunch catered by Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge.

And this time, with members of the integrated Shelby High football team in the audience, Lanier was here to infuse powerful perspective into what all of this meant.

Kansas City Chiefs great Bobby Bell, at left, wearing his Pro Football Hall of Fame jacket, returned to his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina for Bobby Bell Day on Saturday, Aug. 28.
Kansas City Chiefs great Bobby Bell, at left, wearing his Pro Football Hall of Fame jacket, returned to his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina for Bobby Bell Day on Saturday, Aug. 28.

Whereas Bell is more apt to be nuanced about race, often saying progress is all about communication, Lanier makes for a fine complementary voice with his inclination to be more blunt.

So he almost immediately noted Bell was the first Black outside linebacker in pro football, joined four years later by Lanier as the first Black middle linebacker.

“Which was a testament to the Lamar Hunt family, their quality, their character, their understanding of the way things were going to start changing in this country,” he said.

With that, he added, would come “raising the level of how African-Americans were going to be viewed; we were not just going to be somewhere to be used by someone else for their benefit … We were going to sort of change the standards, (and) we were going to let people know.”

Lanier, 76, can relate to the arc of Bell’s journey. He grew up in segregated Virginia, under the shadow of Confederate monuments in Richmond and where “the state government tried every means to avoid desegregating” even after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

“So you start down a path of understanding that where we are today, that what you are doing with Bobby Bell, is not to change anything,” he said. “It’s only to give resonance to what the future can hold.”

‘We will get there’

In the crowd, Teri Putnam was so moved by what Lanier said at the pavilion that she later approached him a block away at the mural. Putnam, who is white, told Lanier that his words were spot-on and important for the broader benefit of the community.

“I thought it was so great,” said Putnam, a licensed mental health and substance abuse counselor who is the Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) director for Cleveland County Schools. “We’re in the South, and our progress is slower. And so I thought it was very brave of him to use that platform to speak truth.”

When Putnam moved to Shelby 25 years ago, she was heartbroken by the vestiges of desegregation, economic disparities and inequitable opportunities. She certainly remains cognizant of how far there is to go.

Last Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, was Bobby Bell Day in the Kansas City Chiefs great’s hometown of Shelby, North Carolina, where they unveiled a Bobby Bell Boulevard street sign, dedicated a mural in the Pro Football Hall of Famer’s likeness and renamed the City Pavilion the Bobby Bell Pavilion.
Last Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, was Bobby Bell Day in the Kansas City Chiefs great’s hometown of Shelby, North Carolina, where they unveiled a Bobby Bell Boulevard street sign, dedicated a mural in the Pro Football Hall of Famer’s likeness and renamed the City Pavilion the Bobby Bell Pavilion.

Yet this day to her was about moments such as the ease with which she saw a Black assistant football coach, Damon Scott, put his arm over the shoulder of a white player a few rows in front of her.

That was emblematic of the progress in race relations since Bell’s era and part of what she sees as “desegregation at its best” in the football program at Shelby High, which has won six of the last eight state titles.

“It’s a phenomenal school that embraces all kids, really,” she said.

Still, she said, the community continues to have children who will struggle to break out of the cycle of economic despair.

And, of course, there’s that monument.

Shelby native Jonathan Jones in an essay for medium.com last year called it a “symbol of white supremacy” — and linked to an online petition since signed by more than 3,100 people calling for the “chilling reminder of the dark history” to be moved to “an entity dedicated to the preservation of confederate monuments.”

From Putnam’s perspective, there’s not as much controversy around its removal as she’d like to see right now.

But she also figures a day like this, which left her in tears at times, is testament to why “we will get there.”

“What I thought about sitting there was how close that statue was, and here we’re going to name this pavilion after Bobby Bell,” she said. “And that was another piece that kind of struck me. And it’s just all of the paradox. It just goes back and forth.

“But, really, it was a huge day for Shelby.”

Because it was far more about the miles it’s come than the ones to go. And that was illuminated by Bell’s improbable road to home.

Chiefs legend Bobby Bell, right, meets President John F. Kennedy in 1959.
Chiefs legend Bobby Bell, right, meets President John F. Kennedy in 1959.

‘I couldn’t fathom doing something wrong’

Part of his navigation system was amazing athleticism. You could have seen that on the football field, of course, but it also was the stuff of legend back in the day.

While some of the stories have seemed potentially apocryphal to his son, Bobby Bell Jr., time after time he’d find out they were true from others. At Minnesota, Bell once outdid football teammate and elite Big Ten high-jumper Judge Dickson … while in a football uniform. When Bell was being worked out on behalf of Minnesota over at Shelby High, he outran a state quarter-mile champ.

Stenerud swears he saw him throw a football 87 yards, pacing it off himself.

And on it goes.

But Bell’s story also was about sheer will, which also girded him to help advance the cause of equality in the Kansas City area through, for instance, his quest for housing despite being denied dozens and dozens and dozens of times and harassment that ensued even after.

“He just didn’t have any boundaries,” Bell Jr. said. “He didn’t know that he couldn’t do anything.”

The son smiled at the metaphor of his father once scolding him after a football game for letting an opponent illegally hold him. It’s up to you, after all, not to be held back.

Such resolve seems instilled by his parents: In addition to raising her baby and his brother and sister, Mattie Roberts (at 83 still a florist in Shelby), his mother did housekeeping and took in ironing.

His father, Pink Lee Bell, worked at the textile mill, where he picked cotton or cleaned offices or chauffeured the owners.

Beyond absorbing their infectious work ethics, though, Bobby bought in when his dad said would say, “Yeah, you can do that.”

The newly unveiled Bobby Bell Pavilion in Shelby, North Carolina, was a centerpiece of the Aug. 28 Bobby Bell Day honoring the former Kansas City Chiefs star and Pro Football Hall of Famer.
The newly unveiled Bobby Bell Pavilion in Shelby, North Carolina, was a centerpiece of the Aug. 28 Bobby Bell Day honoring the former Kansas City Chiefs star and Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Even when it came to going to college. So what if he wasn’t allowed to go to North Carolina or Duke?

That ultimately led him to Minnesota, where he might have felt isolated as a then-rare Black man on campus. Instead, he “adjusted” with some decisions that would define him forever.

If he walked into a room and didn’t know anybody, well, by the time he left he’d make sure they all knew him through a joke or a trick or some other personal touch.

He also committed to the straight and narrow. Because he knew he was batting with two strikes against him because of his skin color, as his father impressed upon him.

“I couldn’t fathom doing something wrong,” he said. “Everything I touched, I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing.”

That touch took him everywhere. And now it has him back home in a new way:

As a living monument to what’s possible in life … and a reminder of the prospect of profound changes in our lifetimes.

“I would never dream of something like this happening back then,” Bell told the crowd, later adding, “I want to thank everybody in Shelby. I did all this, it was not for just me and my family. It’s for everybody in Shelby.”

Kansas City Chiefs great Bobby Bell was on stage, wearing a Chiefs scarf, when coach Andy Reid hoisted the Lamar Hunt AFC championship trophy the night of Jan. 19. With Reid, from left, were CBS announcer Jim Nantz, Bell, Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyrann Mathieu. To Reid’s right is Chiefs owner Clark Hunt.
Kansas City Chiefs great Bobby Bell was on stage, wearing a Chiefs scarf, when coach Andy Reid hoisted the Lamar Hunt AFC championship trophy the night of Jan. 19. With Reid, from left, were CBS announcer Jim Nantz, Bell, Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyrann Mathieu. To Reid’s right is Chiefs owner Clark Hunt.