Todd Bell left Reggie White's funeral last December reeling. His friend and former teammate had died suddenly at 43, and Bell resolved to be more diligent about certain things.
"We came home and talked about how short life is and that we have to take care of ourselves," Bell's wife Daphne said. "And then he went to the doctor in February."
A small patch of gray hair was the only evidence of Todd Bell's 47 years. He looked fit enough to deliver a blow to a receiver coming across the middle, which he had done regularly as a safety for the Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s.
Bell's blood work came back Feb. 10 indicating his cholesterol was a little high. His doctor wrote a prescription for a heart scan, but, as so many of us do without thinking, Bell tucked it away, intending to get around to it.
Daphne found it in her husband's briefcase after his death March 16. An autopsy disclosed that Bell had heart disease, the cause of death a heart attack suffered as he drove near Columbus, Ohio, where the couple lived.
The march down Nostalgia Lane is under way. The books, retrospectives and tributes commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Super Bowl Bears are already out there, and they'll no doubt pick up steam if the current Bears do not.
And once again, amid the warm feelings and happy memories, former players will swallow hard for those like Walter Payton, who is no longer here to celebrate, and for Todd Bell, who never could.
`All about giving'
At the time of his death, Bell was remembered in Chicago as one of two players who missed the 1985 Super Bowl season because of a contract dispute. The other was Al Harris.
Technically, of course, this was true. But to define Todd Bell by one lost season, say those who loved him and those who played with him, is to do a great man a great injustice.
The Sunday school children he inspired at New Covenant Believers Church in Columbus did not even know "Mr. Todd" had been a hero at Ohio State, where as a defensive back he returned a blocked punt 18 yards for the winning touchdown at Michigan in 1979.
They were not aware that he was a legend in Middletown, Ohio, where he broke Jesse Owens' state high school long jump record in 1977.
And they certainly did not know that, as far as many Bears fans are concerned, he is best known as a player who let about $166,000 stand between him and Super Bowl glory.
He spent far more time doing volunteer work than toiling for a paycheck. Daphne received letters after Todd's death from people she'd never heard of expressing thanks for his countless acts of generosity.
When Daphne's sister, Delores Jackson, needed her help after getting divorced and being diagnosed with breast cancer, Todd closed up their house in Columbus and moved into Jackson's home in Chicago. For two years he traveled back and forth to Ohio, helping Daphne care for Delores, taking his sister-in-law to chemotherapy treatments and keeping up her house until she died in 1994.
If Bell dwelled on the lost season, you could have fooled those to whom he devoted virtually every waking second.
Bell called it "paying forward" when he created and ran a program through the Office of Minority Affairs at Ohio State that encouraged African-American males to return to the university to complete their degrees. Todd and Daphne also founded an organization called Builders of Dreams for Youth, which reaches out to troubled students and gives them incentives for staying in school and pulling up their grades.
Bell mentored at-risk males in Columbus-area high schools, where he also coached football. He was an educational and motivational speaker. He created the Young Scholars Program at OSU and was the director of several religious youth organizations.
After Bell died, a young woman told Mac A. Stewart, special assistant to the president and vice provost for academic affairs at Ohio State, that she was working all day and taking classes at night through one of the programs Bell had developed. While in class she would send her young son to the gym, where presumably he would stay busy and keep safe. And every night he would tell her of a man, a new friend, who played basketball and talked to him.
She did not learn his identity until after he died, when her son saw a televised piece about Bell and told her, "Mom, that was the man I told you about."
"This is someone who got things done," Stewart said. "He was all about giving. As great as he was athletically, almost all the discussion here after he died was what he did after football."
Daphne Bell was devastated after reading some of her husband's obituaries, most of which concluded that his life had been reduced to the one year he had not played for the Bears. Perhaps even more demoralizing was the suggestion he had never gotten over missing out on the '85 season and Super Bowl XX.
"Of course he was mad he missed it," Daphne said. "But I promise you he did not carry it to his grave, did not dwell on it. A lot of people think Todd hung on to it, but as God is my witness, it's not true.
"I can only tell you what Todd told me. I remember asking him, `If you had to do it over again, would you do it again?' And he said: `I would make the same choice. What I learned is I couldn't beat the system, but I made the decision I had to make at the time. Everything happens for a reason, and you stand by your choices and you move on.'
We were married just shy of 17 years and were friends for years before that. I told Todd I never met a man more true to himself."
A signature play
Bell, the Bears' fourth-round draft choice in 1981, was a favorite of Woody Hayes at Ohio State and of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan with the Bears. He wasn't a full-time Bears starter until 1983, the final year of his original contract. He decided to play out the option year of the deal the following season for $77,000.
Bell was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1984, and Ryan called him the most valuable player on the Bears' defense. Bell's fierce hit on running back Joe Washington in a 23-19 victory over the Redskins in the '84 NFC playoffs not only was considered Bell's signature play but a franchise turning point by many of his teammates.
"We were on our heels at that point, and that play really solidified not just the game but the Bears from that point on," Al Harris said. "We were at RFK, where the Redskins never lost, an upstart team still trying to prove we belonged.
"The stands were rocking, vibrating, and Todd makes that hit on Joe Washington, and the place sounded like someone sucked the air out of the stadium. Todd had this `yeah, I got you' walk, and I can remember Otis Wilson and I looking at the Redskins guys on their sideline and they're looking back at us like, `What in the world was that?'
"We could see it in their eyes. They knew they were in a game. [The hit] changed the direction of the game and the direction of the Bears."
GM's dark memory
After they lost to San Francisco in the '84 NFC championship game, the feeling among the Bears on the plane ride home was not only would they be back, but they also would win the Super Bowl the next season. It was assumed Bell would play a major role.
Bell's contract was up, as was Harris'. But for another team to claim a top-level free agent in 1985, it had to give up two first-round draft picks, a far cry from today's free agency.
Mike Singletary and Richard Dent also stayed out of training camp that season, but eventually they reported. Bell and Harris dug in, Bell over a difference of about $166,000 per season.
Jerry Vainisi, the Bears' general manager at the time, still has a hard time discussing Bell and Harris.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think I ever got over it," Vainisi said. "To this day I feel really bad about that. I look at my failure to sign Todd and Al Harris as one of my dark memories as general manager."
Vainisi had a sincere affection for both men and regarded them as vital to what many believed was going to be a special season.
"All through the negotiations I kept trying to tell them that," Vainisi said. "Todd and his father were really high-quality people, and they just felt they put it in God's hands when they hired [agent] Howard Slusher to represent them."
As time wore on, Vainisi appealed directly to the Rev. Archellus Bell, "not GM to client but father to father," Vainisi said. "I tried to explain that this was going to be a very special year and Todd deserved to be part of it.
"I tried to get it done past the trading deadline. Then we got to the 30-day window when you had to have a player in camp 30 days prior to the end of the regular season. We just couldn't get it signed. We tried right up to the 11th hour."
At one point fellow safety Gary Fencik tried to help move the process along.
"I went to [Bears President] Michael McCaskey and asked if there was anything he could do to get those two guys in camp," Fencik said. "Michael was respectful, but he made it pretty clear the Bears had gone as far as they were willing to go and Todd was going to have to make a business decision whether he wanted to be part of the team. I remember walking out of there very disappointed and sad."
True to himself
Vainisi is still bitter at what he regards as Slusher's lack of commitment to getting the deal done. Vainisi recalled an 18-page proposal Slusher sent him in which he neglected to change the name of another client in all but the first paragraph.
"I tried to show Rev. Bell that, look, this is a boilerplate contract--he didn't even take the time to personalize it," Vainisi said.
Bill Myles, the associate athletic director at Ohio State who recruited Bell out of high school as an assistant under Hayes, remembered Bell coming to Evanston when OSU played Northwestern the year of his holdout.
"I said to him, `Todd, if you continue to hold out, even if they give you what you want next year, you've lost so much,'" Myles said. "And he told me, `Coach, it's the principle of the thing.' And he was true to his principles."
Dave Duerson replaced Bell in the starting lineup and went to the Pro Bowl. Bell, who continued his holdout for most of the '86 training camp, got his starting job back in '87 when Duerson replaced Fencik at free safety. Most agree he was never the same player.
Past his prime
By the time he was a true free agent for the first time, just short of his 30th birthday in 1988, Bell was past his prime. He played two more seasons with Philadelphia before ending his career on injured reserve after a knee injury in 1989.
But if he was remorseful about sitting out the Super Bowl season, he would not let on.
"It made me a better person," Bell told the Tribune's Don Pierson in May 1988. "Popularity is nothing. Money takes wings. Fame is like a vapor. All [of those] I may have lost. The thing I've gained is character."
Daphne Bell is resolute that Todd did not look back, but Harris has a slightly different impression.
"At least when we were playing, I don't think he got over it," Harris said. "I remember when we played the Eagles in the `Fog Bowl' [in December 1988], Todd was playing angry, I could tell. It was just different. And when I [went to] the Eagles and we were playing the Bears, he was a different person that week.
"Eventually he got over it, but I don't think he was over it at that time. But after he died, I saw what people wrote and I thought, `Oh, his life is so much more than that. His life did not begin or end at that moment.'"
The '85 Bears tried to avoid discussing the Super Bowl victory when they were around Bell or Harris, but not because it made them uncomfortable.
"Todd was happy for us, his friends and teammates," said Leslie Frazier, a cornerback on the Super Bowl team who considered himself both. "And when we won it, we felt like Todd and Al were just as much a part of it. There was a bond there, and never to this day did we feel like we won without [them]."
Bell was not an easy person to get close to, Frazier said, and that's what made their friendship truly special.
"Once Todd gave you his word, you could put it in the book, he was going to make it happen," Frazier said. "At the same time, you'd better be just as loyal to him. But that was OK.
"People are not like that enough anymore. He was a deeply religious person who had strong faith, and if you didn't live by certain principles, it was going to be hard to be close to Todd."
But once you were, Daphne said, you could understand why he did what he did.
"Todd was not a compromising person," she said. "Not in his work ethic, his spirituality, his life as a man, his life as a worker. Whatever he believed in, that's what he stood by, and a lot of times it cost him.
"But he'd say: `Daphne, I'm a trailblazer. Me holding out paved the way for players today.'"
She remembers his words just as she remembers the principles he stood for, and in his memory she will be working with Ross Heart Hospital in Columbus and the American Heart Association encouraging people to have their hearts checked.
"Todd was snatched out of my life so quickly," she said. "It left so much hurt and so much pain, I wondered, `What am I going to do with it?' But this has given me so much purpose in life now, and it helps me with healing to know Todd's death was not in vain and even in his death, Todd is still helping people.
"I'm just a vessel, but it's exactly what Todd would want. Even in death, his giving spirit continues."