• Sal Maiorana

Happy 80th birthday to Chiefs Hall of Famer Bobby Bell

Hank Stram, who coached Bobby Bell for his entire 12-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs, always maintained that Bell could have played any position on a football field and done a very credible job.

“There isn’t a job Bell can’t do, and do well,” said Stram.

But there was one position that Bell played better than any other: Outside linebacker.

So, after two years of lining up at defensive end for the Chiefs, Bell was switched to outside linebacker and he went on to become one of the greatest ever to play the position, a fact that is evidenced by his 1983 enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the first pure outside linebacker ever inducted.

Bell was a high school quarterback, and when he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, he played one year of quarterback on the freshman team, then was switched to defensive end, linebacker and offensive tackle.

Bell finally stayed put at defensive end when he made the varsity and he won the Outland Trophy, symbolic of the nation’s best lineman, in 1962.

He was selected by the Vikings in the second round of the 1962 NFL Draft, and in the seventh round by the Chiefs in AFL Draft, but that was because Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt didn’t think he had a chance of luring Bell to the AFL after the Vikings had picked him. However, Bell surprised everyone by choosing to go to the AFL and play for Hunt’s team which was transferring from Dallas to Kansas City for the 1963 season.

Bell began his pro career as a defensive end, but Stram moved him to linebacker at the start of the 1965 season and it proved to be a fortuitous decision. Bell – who never missed a game, playing in 168 straight – became one of the rocks of Stram’s powerful defense that also included future Hall of Famers Willie Lanier and Buck Buchanan.

“If I had one position to play of all those I’ve tried, I’d still pick linebacker,” said Bell. “You have to worry about the pass, the run, man-to-man coverage, screens, draws. I love to play defense and to tackle people.”

Bell’s teammate, defensive tackle Jerry Mays, remembers when Bell joined the team and all the murmuring that was going on over why the 6-foot-4, 228-pound Bell was on defense.

“There was common talk in camp about what a guy like that was doing playing defense,” said Mays. “He could have played tight end, running back or even wide receiver as fast as he was. Plus, he could throw the ball a mile.”

But Stram understood the concept of using your best athletes on defense. Bell went on to intercept 26 passes in his career, returning six for touchdowns. He also returned two fumbles and one onside kick for touchdowns. But what Bell did best was tackle, according to Stram.

“He is the best open-field tackler I’ve ever seen,” said Stram.

Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica, who often felt the wrath of Bell’s brilliance, called Bell, “One of the best linebackers to ever put on a uniform.”

Lamonica had plenty of time to evaluate Bell as they played at least twice annually, but Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr played only once against Bell, that in Super Bowl I. Starr’s Packers won that game easily, but the Hall of Fame quarterback was awed by Bell’s ability.

“Our experiences against him have been limited,” Starr said years after that Super Bowl. “But in those we’d have and from what I’ve seen in movies and on television, he is just one of the truly fine players at his position. He might be the fastest, quickest ‘backer of them all.”

Buchanan said of his teammate: “He was kind of funny looking. He had this strange build with this cinched-up waist, and hell, he couldn’t have weighed more than 210 pounds. But Bobby Lee Bell is the greatest athlete who ever was.”