PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — The first lesson Ronnie Bell learned about perseverance was in the boxing ring.
It was also when he was three years old.
“When he was three, four, five years old, I made a cardboard box championship belt — boxing championship belt,” Ronnie’s dad, Aaron Bell, told The Daily. “I would get on my knees and box him. And the only way Ronnie would lose the belt was if he quit.”
To raise the stakes, if Aaron won, he wasn’t going to go easy on his son. He was going to talk, and flaunt it, and gloat. And worst of all for Ronnie, Aaron wasn’t going to fight him for a while — leaving Ronnie to stew in his defeat, soaking up all the frustrations of his concession.
Ronnie hated that feeling, so he refused to let it happen. The fights went hours, with Ronnie channeling his best Floyd Mayweather impression to wear his father down, until Aaron gave in and relinquished the ‘Bell championship belt.’
Ronnie exited the ring with two things: a resplendent cardboard symbol of victory, and a mindset that fuels him to this day:
I refuse to lose.
Ronnie’s hardest fight began Sept. 4, 2021.
While returning a punt against Western Michigan in the Michigan football team’s opening game of the season, Ronnie tore his ACL. Immediately, his senior season was erased. Touchdowns and celebrations on the field turned into physical therapy sessions and learning how to coach his younger teammates.
Expectedly, the receiver’s mental health initially wavered.
“When you tear your ACL, it’s a pretty traumatic episode,” Michigan athletic trainer and Ronnie’s physical therapist, Pierre Nesbit, told The Daily. “… So he started out down and not the most jolly of people during that time frame.”
Sometimes, the frustrations were enough to push Ronnie to a point of anger, tragically intertwined with questions about his future.
“There were nights he would call, mad about the situation, early — trying to figure out why.” Aaron said. “We always talked about there’s a reason why. At that point, we just don’t know. And you have to be patient and wait because God’s always got a reason why something happened. …
“I let him know, it’s gonna be a tough road, but he can definitely overcome it, and when he does, it’s going to make him a better person and a (better) football player.”
That road was indeed difficult.
Rehabilitating a torn ACL is strenuous, both physically and mentally. It takes resolve to make it back and compete at one of the highest levels of football once again. So Ronnie dug his feet in, put his head down and persisted.
Finding harmony in recovery was all about setting goals. First, Ronnie and Nesbit focused on the bigger hurdles; there was a differentiating benchmark in Ronnie’s recovery every four weeks.
Starting four weeks after surgery, Ronnie began using the leg press. At the eight week mark, Ronnie could do squats. At 12 weeks, Ronnie began to use the AlterG — a treadmill that inflates with air so athletes can run on a certain percentage of their body weight. Sixteen weeks later and Ronnie could run on the ground, going full speed at 20 weeks. Then half a year after surgery, 24 weeks, low grade football activities were the benchmark. From there on out, it was about fine tuning.
Between each large goal, there were smaller, more acute points to hit. He battled the physical pain and mental turmoil to hit every benchmark, checking off each box on his way back to the field.
“Each day he accomplished something different, with the challenge of coming back, his spirits would get better,” Aaron said. “… The biggest one was the first time he jumped onto a 20 inch box. And honestly, he called me and he was just like, ‘I feel like an athlete again. I feel like I can explode again.’ ”
While Ronnie’s physical therapy goals demarcated his progress, there was a personal promise that drove him at an even deeper level.
“The motivation — I really, really wanted to get back out here and be better than what I was, more than what I was, and to just play dominating football,” Ronnie said. “It’s the motivation that was rolling in my head all night, every day.”
To return from his ACL injury was already a formidable battle. But that wasn’t enough for Ronnie, he wanted to wage a war — he wanted to be even better. Because coming back better meant one thing: a chance to contribute this time, a chance to make a difference.
Last season, Ronnie spent his time on the sidelines. What he couldn’t do on the field, he tried to inject into those who could suit up. While Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade and raised the Big Ten Championship trophy for the first time since 2004, all Ronnie could do was watch.
Sure, he was part of the team, but it simply wasn’t the same as putting on his winged helmet and making a difference on the field.
“Coming back and finishing what he started when he first got here (drove him),” Nesbit said. “Everyone comes and everyone wants to beat Ohio State, everyone wants to be Big Ten champions, everyone wants to win a national championship. And Ronnie was a part of that last year, Ronnie was on the team that did those things, but he himself didn’t affect it (on the field) in any fashion.”
That fact ate at Ronnie. So much so that he made himself, and his dad, a promise after the Wolverines won the Big Ten championship game a season ago.
“One of the things he said to me coming off the field that night,” Aaron said, “It was: I will be back at this stadium. I will be back next time, and I will play.”
This December, as Ronnie warmed up in Lucas Oil Stadium for Michigan’s second-straight conference championship game appearance, Aaron felt chills run down his neck and through his arms. His son, a year removed from exiting the field and vowing to be back, was minutes away from staying true to his word.
Then, Ronnie did more than play. He notched 67 yards and a touchdown en route to a 43-22 crowning victory. As maize and blue confetti swirled around him, Ronnie lifted the Big Ten trophy, a champion once again — this time even sweeter than the last.
It was the defining moment of Ronnie’s journey to recovery thus far, a tribute to his persistence and triumph in the face of challenge, validating his goals and his motivation.
While the Big Ten Championship Game might be the highest point of the summit thus far, with the College Football Playoff peak still ahead, Ronnie’s climb to the top — between crutches and coronation — featured many moments that lacked the same grandeur but carried a similar weight.
After starting at the bottom, sometimes simple things feel like conquering Everest.
For example, jumping.
Over the summer, Ronnie was still working his way back to football activities. Physically, he was well, but it took time before defenders were allowed to tackle him and before he could go 100% in drills. Each time he made progress, he felt more and more like a football player. The biggest turning point for Ronnie, though, was an incomplete pass.
It was a jump ball opportunity against senior corner DJ Turner. With the ball floating in the air, Ronnie recognized it as a 50/50 ball. So Ronnie bent his knees, coiling up before releasing the energy and launching himself into the air. Turner identified it too, knocking the ball from Ronnie’s hands. As the football clattered to the turf, incomplete, Ronnie was filled with jubilation.
“He ran straight back to the huddle as if he scored a long touchdown,” Aaron said. “Everyone was like ‘What’re you so happy for?’ and he was like ‘I jumped. I competed for a ball and nothing happened.’ So he felt good about that.”
After that, Ronnie was a football player again.
He had his first opportunity to prove that to the world in Michigan’s opening game against Colorado State.
Before the Wolverines took the field, Ronnie caught sight of his dad. At first, he was just happy to see him, but the moment quickly turned into something more real — more emotional.
“It was really like that was like the first time that I felt like I was on the other side of that tunnel,” Ronnie said, reflecting on his rehabilitation process metaphorically. “I’ve walked all the way through that tunnel, but I was looking down whenever I first got hurt, with him. So it was very emotional. I wasn’t expecting to cry, I was excited just to see him and then before I knew it, I’m just sitting there crying.”
It was an extreme moment of pride for both of them — for Ronnie as a person and football player, and for Aaron as his father.
“I was proud of myself because I just know how dark it was when I was looking (down the tunnel) and how far away it looked,” Ronnie said. “And to be where I was at that time was just I was very thankful.”
For the first time in a year, Ronnie was about to play a real game of football. The pain he endured, the mental fortitude, the sacrifice, the drive — everything he’d done up until that moment — was about to pay off.
As Aaron and Ronnie shared tears on the precipice of a defining moment, shades of cardboard championship belts and decade-old boxing matches danced around the scene.
Just like when he was a kid, in the face of everything — no matter what — Ronnie refused to lose.
Because of that mindset, the next step he took marked the end of an arduous, dark and winding battle, shining a light on the new reality:
At long last, Ronnie Bell was back.