Ricky Bell: 'The Bulldog'
Sept. 12, 2001
When Ricky Bell was playing tailback for USC in the mid-1970s, his teammates called him "Bulldog, because he growled when he carried the ball.
Bell not only sounded fierce. As a runner, he was fierce.
"He punishes tacklers like no one I've ever seen," USC coach John 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."
In early October in 1976, Bulldog Bell and his teammates flew to Seattle to take on a scrappy Washington State team that was coached by Jackie Sherrill and quarterbacked by Jack Thompson, who had his own nickname (The Throwin' Samoan). The game had been moved from Pullman to Seattle and would be held in the new Kingdome.
On Saturday night, the Cougars played one of their best games of the season against a USC team that was on its way to an 11-1 record and No. 2 national ranking. In fact, the game was tied, 14-14, in the fourth quarter as Thompson passed for 341 yards.
But Bell turned in perhaps the greatest single-game performance in USC history as he literally carried the Trojans to a 23-14 victory. Even today, 25 years later, his numbers are mind-boggling.
Although Washington State gang tackled him with everyone but the coaching staff, the senior tailback carried 51 times for 347 yards (both were Pac-8 records), caught two passes for 10 more yards and scored two touchdowns as the Trojans clawed their way to victory.
After the game, a drained Robinson was in awe of his running back.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's the best football player of all time," Robinson said. "I've never been around a man to equal him. The tougher the game got, the tougher he got. I don't remember a better performance from a guy.
"We had no plans to give him the ball that often, but, hey, that was in our hour of need. He never seemed to act that tired--although people might want to put me in jail for cruelty."
Although Bell's performance was remarkable, it was also frustrating. He should have broken the NCAA single-game rushing record that night. Of course, for a while, the 37,268 fans in the Kingdome thought he had done just that.
As the clock was winding down at the end of the game, the scoreboard flashed the news that Bell had surpassed the national record at the time (350 yards, set by Michigan State's Eric Allen in 1971). On his last carry, the USC tailback swept left end for five yards, apparently giving him 354.
He was then taken out of the game, and with time for at least one more play, Trojan quarterback Vince Evans fell on the ball.
The game was over, but it turned out Bell did not own the NCAA record. A statistical error had cost him his chance to break it.
The confusion dated to a play midway through the final quarter, when Bell briefly left the lineup. Freshman tailback Charles White, who replaced him, carried for seven yards, but those yards were credited to Bell by mistake. Before the end of the game, the yards were taken from Bell's total and given correctly to White.
However, in the last-second excitement of a close battle, the USC coaches on the sideline were never given Bell's updated yardage figure. They took him out when they thought he had broken the record.
In a meeting with sportswriters the next day, the gracious Bell did not blame anyone for the mistake. He blamed himself for losing three fumbles in the game.
"I'm not disappointed I didn't get the record," he said. "You writers are more disappointed than I am. The only reason I feel bad is because you guys feel bad.
"Winning is the important thing. I was scared we were going to lose. I had fumbled three times, and the last time I fumbled, Washington State scored on the next play. I felt like a rat.
"But those fumbles weren't going to make me drop my head. I was going to do whatever it took to win."
Throughout his career, Bell always did whatever it took to win. As a freshman in 1973, he lettered as an outside linebacker on a Rose Bowl team. As a sophomore, he started at fullback for the 1974 national champions, averaging 6.6 yards a carry.
Moved to tailback by coach John McKay, who was in his final USC season, Bell led the nation in rushing in 1975 with what was then the second highest total in NCAA history (1,875 yards in the regular season and 1,957 in all).
Finally, as a senior in 1976, he rushed for 1,433 yards, despite missing all of one game and most of four others with injuries in the weeks following his big game against Washington State. For his career, Bell, who was third in Heisman Trophy balloting as a junior and second as a senior, averaged 5.2 yards a carry.
After the game in Seattle, Washington State nose guard Dean Pedigo, who figured he was in on 10 tackles of the USC tailback, shook his head in amazement.
"It was the worst, as a team, we've ever been beaten up," he 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.
"I could not believe he carried 51 times. We were really sticking him on every play."
It is terribly ironic, that Ricky Bell, as tough a football player as USC has ever had, would not live to see 30.
After a five-year NFL career with Tampa Bay--he led the Buccaneers to the 1979 NFC Championship Game by rushing for 1,263 yards--Bell was traded to San Diego in 1982. But he appeared in only two games for the Chargers, announcing his retirement in 1983, because he was suffering from a rare muscle disease.
A small number of patients who contract that disease (dermatomyositis) also contract a degenerative disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), and, tragically for Bell, he suffered from both. On November 28, 1984, he died of a heart attack at the age of 29.
For all of us who knew Ricky Bell well, it was a loss that still hurts. As hard-hitting as he was on the football field, he was gentle, kind and humble off it. He was also ambitious. He graduated from USC in the spring of 1979 and was on his way to a successful career in business before he fell ill.
His death shocked all of his friends, because they didn't realize he was that sick. They didn't know about his intense pain the last two years of his life, or his exhaustion, or the oxygen machine in his bedroom.
"People would call the house and ask how Ricky was doing and he'd say, 'I'm great, just fine,'" his widow, Natalia, told Chris Dufresne in the Los Angeles Times a few months after his death. "It made me so mad. I'd say, 'Why are you saying that?' And he'd say, 'I don't want anybody feeling sorry for me. 'I'm going to get better.'"
As those Washington State players from 25 years ago would tell you, Ricky Bell was one tough competitor.