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Todd Bell was a hard-hitting Pro Bowl safety for the Chicago Bears. Many credit him for a hit in the 1984 NFL playoffs that turned around the Bears’ fortunes and led to dominance in the 1980s. But the NFL is a business, and the business side of it cost Bell a chance to enjoy the glory of the 1985 Super Bowl-winning season. 

It was a cruel twist for someone who would spend most of his career in the Windy City. It was a dark chapter in Bell’s life, but it wasn’t the most tragic. That came years later when he unexpectedly died at age 47 while driving down the road.   

Todd Bell delivers hit that changed Chicago Bears’ fortunes

Todd Bell joined the Chicago Bears for the 1981 season. He saw limited action those first two seasons in Chicago. In 1983, head coach Mike Ditka named Bell the starting strong safety. He played in 15 games that season, recording three sacks and one fumble recovery. 

During the 1984 season, Bell had the best year of his career and earned a Pro Bowl nomination after posting four interceptions, 4.5 sacks, and a pair of fumble recoveries. But what he’s remembered for most that season is a hit he delivered on Washington receiver Joe Washington during the division playoff game.

“You talk about when things changed for the Bears. Well, fortunes changed for the Bears on one hit by Todd Bell on Joe Washington in the second quarter in Washington,” Bell’s teammate Gary Fencik told ESPN

The hit changed the momentum of the game and the Bears upended the defending NFC champs, 23-19, and earned the team’s first postseason win since the 1963 NFL championship. The Bears lost in the NFC Championship game the following week to the San Francisco 49ers, but the tone had been set for the 1985 season. 

Misses entire 1985 season in contract dispute

The 1985 Chicago Bears had what many consider to be one of the best defenses in NFL history. The team finished the regular season with a 15-1 record and bowled over its playoff opponents, outscoring them 91-10, including a pair of shutouts, all of it culminating with a 46-10 thumping of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.  

And Todd Bell wasn’t there for any of it. He and several other players came into the 1985 season in contract disputes with the team. Bell, who had earned $77,000 the previous year, wanted to get paid market value after his Pro Bowl year. The Bears were more than $100,000 away from Bell’s asking price. On principle, he didn’t play the entire history-making season. 

“He didn’t get that Super Bowl ring. That was tough. Great kid,” Buddy Ryan told the New York Times years later. Ryan was the Bears defensive coordinator in Chicago and Bell’s head coach in Philadelphia during his final two NFL seasons in 1988 and 1989. 

Todd Bell tragically dies at 47

Todd Bell of the Chicago Bears
Todd Bell of the Chicago Bears tries to tackle Eric Dickerson of the LA Rams. | Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images

After retiring, Todd Bell returned to Ohio State in the 1990s, where he worked at several different positions, each one of them with a focus of helping others in the community. In 2001, he was instrumental in developing a program that focused on improving the campus environment, academic achievement, and leadership development of Black males. He also was involved with the team that developed the African American Male Resource Center.

In March 2005, Bell was driving to a workout when he had a heart attack and tragically died at age 47. His death stunned the Ohio State community and many of his former NFL teammates. 

Following his death, Ohio State honored Bell for his work, renaming the Resource Center to The Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center. Todd Bell’s legacy still lives on at Ohio State and in the minds of many Chicago Bears fans for that wicked hit he delivered in the 1984 playoffs.