Bobby Bell described getting his degree from Minnesota on Thursday as the biggest accomplishment of a life that started in segregated Shelby, N.C., and led to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bell, 74, donned his cap and gown at Mariucci Arena, as he prepared to walk with the rest of the graduates from the University's College of Education and Human Development. He was 13 credits short of graduating when he left the university in 1963 but returned last year to finish with a degree in recreation, park and leisure studies.
"All I wanted out of life was to have the same opportunities as everybody else, and I owe that to the university," Bell said. "I thank them every day that I had that opportunity. How many people can say that they've been introduced to five presidents, traveled around the world, know some of the greatest people in the world, friends like Bob Hope, visiting with Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan? That's what I got the opportunity to do because of playing football here. I played football here and the rest of my life just took off. That's what Minnesota gave to me."
For the graduation ceremony, Bell wore the gold watch his father, Pink, gave him before he boarded his flight to Minnesota in 1959.
"My dad -- I know he's looking down with my mom -- and he's saying, 'I told you you could do it,'" Bell said.
Bell said the campus has changed dramatically since he left with all the new buildings, and he's pleased with the progress from the football program, under fifth-year coach Jerry Kill.
"I think Coach Kill is doing a great job, I mean unbelievable," Bell said. "If I had a son that was getting ready to come out [of high school], he would be the guy I'd want him to play for. He's kind of like Coach [Murray] Warmath. He's concerned about the players. He wants to make sure that they get their grades and stuff like that, on cue, right there. And I just love the whole situation."
Besides what the Gophers have done on the field under Kill, he has helped turn them into one of the top academic teams in the Big Ten. Thursday's ceremony alone featured several other Gophers graduates, including Cedric Thompson, Derrick Wells, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Theiren Cockran, De'Vondre Campbell and Scott Ekpe. (Note: Boddy-Calhoun, Cockran, Campbell and Ekpe still have eligibility remaining and will be back with the team this fall as grad students.)
University president Eric Kaler singled out Bell in his speech to the graduates:
"Bobby Bell's grit and persistence can be our guide," Kaler said. "His story says: Never lose sight of one's lifelong goals. His trajectory says: Take the opportunities that come. His lesson says: Yes, we all need teachers and mentors, but no one can persist for you or be gritty for you. With that in mind, every one of you in the Class of 2015, your mission is clear and, really, pretty simple: Go, and make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Congratulations to you all."