MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Bobby Bell sat down in the chair, his black gown draped over his shoulders, the black cap tilted just perfectly and the white tassels hanging to his right.
A representative from the University of Minnesota asked the 74-year-old Pro Football Hall of Famer if he wanted to wear the graduation attire while he was doing interviews with the media.
“Are you serious?” Bell said with wide eyes and a playful grin. “I waited long enough to wear these.”
Fifty-two years after he left campus for pro football, Bell returned to earn his degree in parks, recreation and leisure studies and walk in graduation ceremonies on Thursday. He played in two Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs, won a national championship and was a two-time All-American as an offensive lineman and defensive end at Minnesota. But for him, nothing compared to being able to walk across the stage, receive his diploma and fulfill a promise he made to his father when he left tiny Shelby, North Carolina, for Minnesota in 1959.
“This is the top of the pyramid, man,” Bell said. “This is the top of the pyramid.”
Bell was part of the glory years with the Gophers, teaming with the likes of Sandy Stephens and Carl Eller to make Minnesota one of the premiere programs in the country. He won the Outland trophy as the nation’s top lineman and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting before he was drafted by the Chiefs in 1963.
Bell was 13 credits shy of his degree when he entered the working world, both for the Chiefs and General Motors. He played in two Super Bowls and carved out a pro career that got him enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but he never forgot about the promise he made to his father to make education a priority.
His father has long since passed away, but Bell still made it a point to get his degree and proudly wore a watch his father gave to him when he got on the plane for Minnesota almost 60 years ago.
“I know he’s looking down and saying, ‘I told you you could do it,'” Bell said.
In 2007, Minnesota started the Gopher Graduation Program in an effort to help past athletes who left school without their diplomas come back to get their degrees. One of the biggest challenges for Bell was locating a transcript that was more than 50 years old to see exactly where he stood academically when he left in 1963.
The school was able to dig up the document, which was written in pencil and detailed the classes he took. He re-enrolled in school last summer, made the dean’s list in the fall and finished his online course work with the help of former teammates and the Chiefs to learn about new technology, including PowerPoint presentations.
“It was tough,” Bell said. “I spent a lot of nights on the road with my iPad. … I wanted to do something I wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to be the guy to fall behind.”
Bell initially decided to major in parks and recreation because when he was growing up in Shelby blacks were not allowed to use the recreational facilities that white kids used.
In addition to the cap and gown, Bell wore his Hall of Fame ring and a gold Bulova watch his father gave him when he left for school in 1959.
“I look across the stadium over there,” Bell said, motioning to the Gopher football program’s shiny TCF Bank Stadium. “I want to say I am alumni now. My name is in the stadium. But I am alumni now. This is what it’s all about.”