NFL

The Tragic Story of Ricky Bell, the Former No. 1 NFL Pick Who Died at Age 29

Just how good was Ricky Bell? Bell was the first player selected in the 1977 NFL draft, taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The running back out of USC was picked just ahead of Tony Dorsett, a man who went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys. Bell was drafted by a team that was known for its 26-game losing streak, while Dorsett went to a team that was already well established. It’s tough to say just how good Bell’s NFL career would’ve been because his life was cut short at the age of 29 due to heart failure resulting from the disease dermatomyositis.

Ricky Bell’s college football career

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Ricky Bell was originally a linebacker and then converted to fullback for his sophomore year at USC. He only carried the ball 45 times during his second season with the team in 1974. In his junior year, Bell became USC’s primary running back and burst onto the scene with two outstanding seasons that saw him crack the top 3 in the Heisman Trophy voting in each of those seasons.

Ricky Bell was the first player selected in the 1977 NFL Draft. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked the USC running back, reuniting Bell with his college coach John McKay. Under McKay at USC, Bell led the nation in rushing as a junior, compiling 1,957 yards and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

In Bell’s senior year with the Trojans, USC went 11-1 and knocked off Michigan 14-6 in the Rose Bowl. While Bell battled nagging injuries, he still managed to rack up 1,433 yards along with 14 touchdowns. Bell finished second to Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Bell’s short-lived NFL career

While Tony Dorsett may have been the favorite to be the top pick in the 1977 NFL draft, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John McKay took Bell, his former star back at USC. Dorsett then went to the Dallas Cowboys, who traded their first-round pick and three second-rounders to the Seattle Seahawks to move up to the No. 2 spot. Tampa Bay was coming off an 0-14 season in its first year as an expansion team.

The Buccaneers’ losing streak swelled to 26 games after they dropped their first 12 games of the 1977 season. After two subpar seasons, Bell exploded during the 1979 season by rushing for 1,263 yards and seven touchdowns. Bell played a key role in turning around the Tampa Bay franchise. In that 1979 season, the Bucs won the NFC Central Division and earned their first playoff win when they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles. In that game, Bell rushed for 142 yards. The Bucs lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC title game.

Bell was traded to the San Diego Chargers during the strike-shortened season of 1982. During the strike, Bell retired due to dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease characterized by a rash and muscle weakness. According to the Lakeland Ledger, doctors said he could have been suffering from the disease for up to 10 years before his diagnosis.

Ricky Bell’s final days

There is no known cause for dermatomyositis, but Bell suffered from lesions and weight loss. Bell died of a heart attack that was caused by cardiomyopathy, a severe muscular disease involving the heart. Cardiomyopathy was related to his dermatomyositis.

“It’s a disease where the muscles and arteries are attacked and may be started or triggered by a virus,” Dr. Allan Metzger, who treated Bell during the last year of Bell’s life, told the LA Times. “The muscles get inflamed, causing profound weakness. The blood vessels within the skin become severely inflamed to the point where you’re unable to use your muscles. The weight loss comes from the body trying to fight off the disease.” Metzger said less than five percent of those with dermatomyositis have heart disease as serious as Bell.

Bell, once a top-notch athlete, couldn’t play with his young daughter after his retirement because he would tire out so quickly. “Can you imagine having to sleep with an oxygen machine and then waking up, walking your little girl to the car and then being totally exhausted when before you could run 10 to 15 miles a day?” his wife Natalia said in the LA Times.

Bell never let anyone know of his problems. He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him. He played life, like he played football, going all out until the end.