Just days after suffering a crippling season-ending knee injury in Michigan’s 2021 season opener, Ronnie Bell approached offensive coordinator Josh Gattis with a request.
Hey coach, I just don’t want to be hurt and be missing. I want to be active. I want to be involved.
And so that’s how Bell found himself in a golf cart, navigating the facilities surrounding Schembechler Hall during the Wolverines’ early week practices. A de facto coach, Bell offered a blend of critique and encouragement to his teammates, keeping tabs on each offensive position group. In a situation where many players would keep to themselves, lamenting their own misfortune, Bell did the opposite.
All injuries are inopportune, but Bell’s is particularly ill-timed. His senior season, meant to be a last hurrah, ended before halftime of the first game, a death knell for his draft stock in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft.
Gift-wrapped with a myriad of reasons to sulk, Bell remains upbeat.
“Ronnie definitely is driven, cares about the team and will continue to be a big part of it, I’m sure,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday, a sense of conviction in his voice.
Harbaugh wore Bell’s shoes before. Ahead of the 1984 college football season, Harbaugh bested Chris Zurbrugg and Russ Rein to earn the nod as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback. After two years as a backup, the reins to the offense at last fell to him.
Yet Harbaugh’s stint as the starter ended in the season’s fifth game. In a fleeting attempt to recover a fumble, Harbaugh dove to the ball; a Michigan State linebacker collided with him, breaking Harbaugh’s left forearm. At once, his season was over.
In the aftermath of the injury, then-Michigan defensive backs coach Lloyd Carr pulled Harbaugh into his office. Carr had a specific request: he wanted Harbaugh to chart secondary coverages for the defense, helping him break down film of the opposition.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened in my career,” Harbaugh said. “Having a season-ending injury, the best way not to be left out is to help out.”
Evidently, that’s something that Bell understands himself.
“He’s gonna be very important to us moving forward, as he remains with his leadership,” Gattis said. “We’re gonna need him to continue to be the leader and the captain that he’s been.”
In the wake of his injury, it’s worth recounting how exactly Bell got to this point — serving as a senior captain at a tradition-rich football school like Michigan, being the leading receiver in terms of both receptions and yards in consecutive seasons.
In high school, it seemed as if Bell would be playing college basketball, not college football. A multi-sport athlete at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, Mo., Bell fielded minimal high-major football interest, in part because he spent his summers on the AAU trail, rather than attending football camps. Cognizant of the odds, Bell accepted a scholarship offer to play college basketball at nearby Missouri State.
Then, Bell won the Thomas A. Simone award, given annually to the top football player in the Kansas City area. Jimmy Cain, the former basketball coach at Blue Springs South and Harbaugh’s brother-in-law, suggested Bell to the latter. Michigan offered him his first and only football scholarship. The rest is history.
“It’s not like he’s had things just given to him,” Chad Jones, Bell’s high school basketball coach at Park Hill, told The Daily. “He’s had to work hard his entire life. And that may sound strange, thinking, ‘He’s a Division I athlete at Michigan.’ True. But he’s not one of those kids who walks on the field and you say, ‘Oh my God, this kid’s 6-foot-5, 220-pounds and just looks like a freak of nature.’ He’s had to work real hard for what he’s done and what he’s gotten.”
Through that lens, last Saturday’s knee injury is merely another bout of adversity Bell has to face.
When Bell was a senior in high school, Jones hosted a teamwide pasta dinner on the eve of the team’s season-opener. Unbeknownst to anyone, Bell was banged up, dealing with a couple of injuries. As the night petered, players funneled out, leaving just Bell and Jones at the table.
“Everybody’s left, he’s sticking around and he says, ‘Coach, I just can’t go tomorrow,’ ” Jones remembered. “He says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get healthy and then I’ll be back.’ ”
Others weren’t as confident.
“A lot of people were thinking, ‘Is he gonna be able to come back? Is he gonna try to look towards football next year?’ ” Jones continued. “Well, Ronnie doesn’t have a whole lot of quit in him.”
After missing the season’s first six games, Bell returned. In short order, he re-established himself as one of the region’s premier players, again leading Park Hill to the playoffs. Anecdotes like these are why Bell’s Park Hill teammates respected him in the same manner as his teammates at Michigan do.
During his rehab in high school, Bell showed up to practice every day, coaching along from the sidelines. Afterward, he lingered, hoisting extra jump shots and working on his free throws. His teammates soon followed suit.
Bell’s influence is equally apparent in the receiver’s room at Michigan.
In the wake of Bell’s injury, both Harbaugh and Gattis stressed his talent not only as a pass-catching threat, but also as a willing downfield blocker, another void he leaves. In August, Bell himself said “his favorite way of knowing if a receiver is prideful or not is a run play.”
It’s an aspect of the game that all of Michigan’s receivers are beginning to take pride in. Against Western Michigan, sophomore receiver A.J. Henning picked up blocks from junior receiver Cornelius Johnson and sophomore receiver Roman Wilson, leading to a 74-yard rushing touchdown.
The emphasis on run-blocking would be less apparent in the receiver’s room without Bell’s influence.
“He’s fearless in everything he does,” Henning said. “Whenever he takes the field, he wants to dominate in all phases of the game — whether it’s running, catching, run blocking on the perimeter, just everything. That’s something that everybody takes away and respects so much about him, because he’s just a fearless competitor.”
Considering the admiration that the players have for Bell, Michigan’s new team mantra should come as no surprise.
“The message is, ‘We’ve got to do this for Ronnie,’ ” sophomore receiver Roman Wilson said on Tuesday.
For Bell, the unfortunate reality is that months of grueling rehab lie ahead. But while his on-field work may be finished, his season is in fact just beginning.
“If anybody can do it, Ronnie will,” Harbaugh said.