Bobby Bell was at the airport, getting ready to leave for college in 1959, when his father pulled him close for one last bit of advice.
The man everyone knew affectionately as “Pink” always had helped Bell dream. The son had quarterbacked the six-man football team at the all-black high school in Shelby, N.C., and was one of only 26 students in his graduating class.
Many in their segregated hometown of 17,000 wondered if Bell would get lost in the shuffle on a Big Ten campus. Pink erased those doubts, assuring Bell that he’d thrive in football, and more importantly, in the classroom.
With the plane about to leave for Minneapolis, Pink reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold watch.
“Here, son,” Pink said. “This will help make sure you’re on time.”
Fifty-six years later, the watch still works. It’s a reminder for Bell that he’s still on time, having finally earned his college degree from Minnesota, at age 74.
He was 13 credits short of graduating when he left the university in 1963 after being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. This gnawed at him for decades, despite all his other accomplishments. He helped lead the Gophers to the 1960 national title and was a two-time All-America lineman. He played in two Super Bowls and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I’ve got all kinds of stuff on the wall,” Bell said from his Kansas City home. “But that [degree] is one thing I did not have, and I promised my dad I would get it.”
Bell’s parents died more than a decade ago, but he still was determined to fulfill his promise. Last year, after tracking down his pencil-written transcript, he went back and took three classes to complete his degree in recreation, park and leisure studies.
He’ll be in a cap and gown Thursday, walking across the stage at Mariucci Arena, along with the other undergraduates from the College of Education and Human Development.
“Bobby approached getting that degree like he did football,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “In my opinion, this may be the most rewarding thing he’s done in his life.”
Bell agreed: “It’s the top of the pyramid, man.”
Bell’s three children and four grandchildren will be at the graduation ceremony, along with former teammates, such as Judge Dickson, Julian Hook and John Campbell.
Dickson still remembers how hard Bell studied during their playing days. The freshman library used to close at midnight, and the custodians routinely had to shoo Bell out the door.
“Bobby is the consummate team player, and he knew to help the team, he had to stay eligible,” Dickson said. “He came from a school system [in Shelby] that may not have been the best, but he worked his tail off.”
The parks and rec major might sound like an easy route for an athlete, but it meant something deeper to Bell. When he was growing up, black people weren’t permitted inside Shelby’s main city park and public swimming pool. He was 13 years old, when Clarence Palmer opened Holly Oak Park for the black community.
“I went, ‘Holy mackerel, this is what I want to do,’ ” Bell said. “I wanted to go to college and find a place around the country and get into the parks. That’s what got me jump-started. I wanted to be a leader in one of those things.”
Pink didn’t graduate from high school but had jobs picking cotton and chauffeuring for the local textile mill. Bell’s mother, Zannie, ironed and cleaned houses. Bell mowed lawns near the country club, where he spoke to white students about their goals of attending North Carolina or Duke.
“I wanted to go to a big school,” Bell said. “I had those big eyes, but everybody else around there said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ ”
At the time, North Carolina and other southern schools had yet to integrate their football teams. Bell considered playing football at North Carolina A&T before turning heads at a high school all-star game in Greensboro. North Carolina coach Jim Tatum actually recommended Bell to Murray Warmath’s staff at Minnesota.
Freshmen were ineligible to compete back then, but that gave Bell one year to get his feet on the ground academically.
“When I got to the university, I owed that to my dad, my mom and all the people back home,” Bell said. “I had to stay up late studying. I didn’t get much sleep. I didn’t want to go back to North Carolina with my head down.”
Football brought another learning curve, as Warmath converted Bell from a quarterback to an offensive tackle and defensive end. Substitution rules forced teams to use players on both offense and defense. Bell was 6-4, 220 pounds, yet he was one of the fastest players on the team.
He won the Outland Trophy in 1962, as the nation’s top lineman, and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker and LSU halfback Jerry Stovall.
Bell was on track to graduate in 1963, but that was a busy time for him, with the Hula Bowl and other college all-star games, an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and then the draft.
By that summer, he had two full-time jobs.
“We weren’t making that kind of money [in football],” Bell said. “So when I was playing for the Chiefs, that was my second job. My first job was with General Motors.”
After retiring from football, he opened a chain of five Bobby Bell’s Bar-B-Que restaurants. He sold the chain 10 years ago but continued making appearances and giving speeches around the country.
He still wanted his degree, but he was hard-pressed for time.
Last year, Bell finally was ready.
The university started the Gopher Graduation Program eight years ago to help former athletes come back and complete their degree. Bell is one of 80 to enroll in the program and one of 37 to graduate.
The first step for Bell was finding where he stood academically in 1963.
“As you can imagine, trying to find a transcript from 50-some years ago was incredibly difficult,” Gophers associate athletic director Dan O’Brien said. “But we still had it. It was written in pencil and had all of his classes on it.”
To fill out his 13 credits, Bell started with a summer school class in ecology. For one assignment, he did a power-point presentation about the effects of lead poisoning on eagles.
Bell was familiar with e-mail and knew some Internet basics, but the way computers are ingrained into the modern student experience “was an intimidating piece for him,” O’Brien said. “He’s going into these classes with 19-21 year olds. But the unique thing about Bobby is, when he puts his mind to it, he’s going to do it.”
Bell took two courses last fall and made the dean’s list. For one assignment in his social sciences class, he wrote a paper on an immigration lawyer from Kansas City. For his directed study class, he ran a football camp in Pittsburg, Kan. He organized and promoted the camp, drawing more than 100 middle schoolers, and then helped produce a six-minute video summary.
“This is no honorary degree,” O’Brien said. “This is an earned degree. You look at how hard he worked, it’s really been an amazing journey.”
Bell, who turns 75 in June, knows Pink would be proud.
“He always said, ‘You’re never too old to learn,’ ” Bell said. “I guess he was right.”