The Legend Of Ricky Bell
By Dave Ford
In the 1990s, the late Michael Jackson performed a song entitled, “Gone Too Soon.” In what later turned out to be somewhat of a haunting premonition, Jackson’s own words rang true in his sudden death in 2009, just shy of turning 50 years old.
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there once was a player who roamed the gridiron and ran between the tackles with reckless abandon. His name was Ricky Bell. In 1977, the Bucs made the Heisman Trophy runner-up the first pick of the NFL Draft, and he quickly showed why the second-year franchise made him the highest paid rookie in league history by signing him to a five-year deal worth a reported $1.2 million. Just two years later, Bell led the former laughing stock team to the NFC Central Division Title and a rousing playoff win over Philadelphia, in which he finished with 142 yards on 38 carries and two touchdowns.
That year, Bell rushed for 1,263 yards. It would turn out to be the finest season of his career.
The man who once rivaled the great Tony Dorsett as the top running back in the NFL spent two more seasons with the Bucs but never again reached the heights he enjoyed in 1979. By the time he was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1981, Bell had gained a total of 3,057 yards and reached the end zone 16 times as a member of the Buccaneers.
Bell gained just six yards as a member of the Chargers backfield. In 1982, he was forced to retire from the NFL due to being diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a rare connective-tissue disease that to this day has no cure. Bell died of heart failure on Nov. 28, 1984 at the age of 29. Since 1990, no player has worn No. 42 for Tampa Bay. While his number has not been officially retired by the franchise, Bell’s legacy has withstood the test of time and has served as a reminder to diehard Bucs fans everywhere that both his talents and his spirit were taken from us much too soon.