43 years ago in New York at The Roosevelt Hotel, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a 1976 team that posted an 0 and14 record owned the first pick in what was then known as the NFL Annual Player Selection Meetings. It was held on this day in May of 1977 and unlike today, there were no live TV broadcasts of the event, that would not come for another three years when ESPN would start covering the newly named NFL Draft.
I was there to cover the event for WTOG TV as part of my job covering the team. The big debate would Tampa Bay draft Tony Dorsett, the Heisman Trophy winning tailback out the University of Pittsburgh of the talented USC back Ricky Bell.
Well given that the Buccaneers head coach John McKay had recruited Bell for his Trojans team three years ago he did not hesitate in adding his USC back to the teams roster. That allowed the Dallas Cowboys to snag Dorsett and it set up one of the biggest debates in modern NFL Draft history.
Dorsett would go on to win the 1977 Rookie of The Year Award and establish himself as one of the best backs in the game at the time. Bell struggled in his first two years behind a sub par offensive line.
But things began to change for Bell who in 1979 enjoyed his finest season, rushing for 1,263 yards and leading the Buccaneers to their NFC Central title. He was the key in the Buccaneers first playoff win in franchise history that season by rushing for 142 yards on 38 carries scoring two touchdowns against the Eagles before falling one game short of a trip to the Super Bowl XIV in losing the NFC Championship Game to the Rams 9-0 before a sellout crowd at Tampa Stadium.
Everyone was looking for Bell to continue to be a dominate back and hit the stride that McKay had envisioned when he drafted him. But alas, Bell started to slide his yards per carry fell of, he lost weight, power and his speed was off.
By March 1982, McKay had lost faith in his star running back and sent him back to Southern California to play for the Chargers. After one season in San Diego Bell retired in 1983 as he continued to suffer from weight loss, aching muscles, and severe skin problems.
In 1984 at the age of 29 Bell died of heart failure due to a rare disease called Dermatomyositis a long term skin ailment that weakens the muscles and attacks the respiratory system. To this day there is no cure and in many ways it remains a mystery to the medical community.
One wonders what might have been if Bell were healthy, or if someone would have even known that he was sick? But as is the case in life, we really don’t know until it it is too late.
On a personal note Bell was one of the kindest, well spoken players I ever had the pleasure of dealing with in sports. He never made excuses, or complained, but stood by his locker and answered every question asked of him.
It is a very sad story and one that Buccaneer fans should not forget. Because without Bell, the 1979 team would never had made it to the Championship Game, and we simply don’t know what Dorsett would have done as a Buc.