/Rick Cleveland reflects on late Robert Bell’s impact

Rick Cleveland reflects on late Robert Bell’s impact

Morris Stamm, a white player who later played at Delta State was lined up as offensive tackle. He was supposed to stop Robert Bell, who had just moved from all-Black Harris High in the area. Bell, who was only 6 feet tall and weighed in at 260 granite-hard lbs, had already made an impact by his strength, speed, and size. Bell was a “man among boys”. Stamm knew that the odds were against his. Stamm, almost 55 years later, said last week that he will never forget. Robert was stuck in the gap, and it was my job to get him out. I believed that I could do it. He can be moved. I did everything I could to help him. I hit him with everything I had, even right into his thigh pads. He didn’t move a single inch. He remained stationary while I fell like a potato sack. “But, I had hit him hard. I thought I would get an “atta boy” from my coaches. It didn’t happen. I glanced up to see how far my running back had come. Stamm was standing on the ground behind him.” Stamm’s coach explained what had happened. The coach said to Stamm, “Stamm. You hit him hard, but he didn’t go anywhere.” “Bell reached over you and grabbed the runner, and threw them down,” Stamm said, as he stopped laughing at his own story. He was as strong as an ox. Although he wasn’t very tall, let’s just say that his shorts were larger than everyone else’s. He was very gentle off the field. He was always out there to win, buddy.” Robert Bell, 70, died last week in Texas. He made his mark at Meridian High School and Mississippi State. Tupelo’s Frank Dowsing was the first African-American football player. It is now easier to see the impact that Bell, Dowsing and Ben Williams, as well as James Reed at Ole Miss, and Willie Heidelburg, at Southern Miss, made on the integration of Mississippi’s schools and society, nearly 50 years later. They demonstrated to thousands of people that Black and White people can work together and it is possible to be better. Anyone who saw it was able to see the difference. Thousands did. These guys made history. They were trailblazers. They were not the only ones who did this. It took place in small towns all across Mississippi. Mac Barnes, Bell’s Meridian teammate and later a winning coach at his alma Mater, said he didn’t understand what was happening back in 1967, but now he does. Barnes stated that “we were foolish.” We didn’t know the history being made. We were simply playing ball and doing what we loved. Now I know. Robert Bell was an important figure in the history and culture of Meridian, Mississippi. He was a great player but his professionalism and self-management were also important. Although he was strong and bullish, he also had a calm confidence about himself. I cannot imagine what he heard but it was not something that bothered him. Robert Turnage, who was a Meridian assistant coach at the same time, said, “Robert Bell worked hard, and he played hard. But he took it easy with our guys in practice. He was a gamer and he took it to the next level. He was a blocker in the open field for a punt return against an Alabama powerhouse, Robert E. Lee. It happened right in front of me. It was like a car accident when he hit one of their men so hard. Robert was a force,” Robbie Armstrong played with Bell at Meridian and at State. Armstrong stated that Robert was quiet and let his actions speak for himself. He was a class act. Many men wanted to put him down and go up against him. Let me tell you, it wasn’t the case. Back then, college football didn’t allow freshmen to play on the varsity. Bell’s varsity debut didn’t come until 1970. State fans began to cheer for Bell soon. The buttons had maroon letters and were white with maroon buttons that said: “Give ’em hell Robert Bell.” Armstrong still has a memory of a second-year game. Georgia was playing State at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Bell was facing Royce Smith (a Georgia All-American guard and a senior) head to head. Armstrong said, “It was almost like two bulls fighting against each other.” Georgia tried to run at Robert behind Royce Smith. It was three plays, three, and out. Robert came back to the sidelines with blood on his face, and was smiling through the blood. Robert said that he thought the guy was pretty good. Bell beat Georgia 7-6. State was victorious that season at 6-5, which was the only win in Coach Charley Shira’s tenure. Bell, a 19-year-old sophomore quarterback, was one of the team’s leaders. Barnes, a sophomore quarterback, was often seen against Bell during Meridian practices. Barnes described Bell as having a dry and funny sense of humor. Barnes stated that Bell chased him around the field, pushed me into the ground and then landed on top of my head. “Robert said to me, “Mac, I really love you, man. But if you keep running about like this, then I’m going have to hurt you.” In retrospect, Robert was the right temperament to do what they did at Mississippi State and Meridian. We became friends at that time and we have been good friends over the years. Mississippi has lost one the truly great.