As much as I hate to admit this to myself, I’ve reached the point in my life where there are far fewer summers ahead than behind.
Death is—realistically and metaphorically speaking—the last frontier. We know what’s on the other side of the mountain in every part of our world. Ocean depths are no longer beyond us. We’ve telescoped and rocketed our way out into the stars. The minuscule inner workings of DNA are labeled.
Yet, what happens after we depart this life? Why do some people die early while others continue on? Every human has likely pondered such questions at one time or another as they age, become gravely ill or witnessed a family member or friend pass away. Science and medicine strive to find the answers, but they have yet to reach the mountaintop to view what’s on the other side. Theologians think they have the answers, but their solutions come down to matters of well-founded faith.
Such thoughts crept up on me after I heard the news of the passing of a friend in the Kansas City area. Scotty Bell was my age, 67. He lived in rural Pleasant Hill, Mo., with his congenial wife Pam. They have two grown daughters. In April, he suffered medical problems and entered the hospital. On May 22, he was gone.
I met Scotty in the eighth grade, in 1963, when we were on competing teams in a community football league for youngsters in Independence, Mo. We were 13 years old. Compared to every other player in the league, Scotty was mammoth. He was hard muscle, coordinated, fast, a possessor of natural talent, with the smarts of a star player. His prowess on the field preceded him. Most of the 12- and 13-year-old kids of our league probably had nightmares about colliding with him. He would bulldoze them down.
After that eighth-grade season was over, Scotty and I went on to play together on a team for a local junior high school and then three years for Van Horn High School, which was then in the Kansas City league. The teams in the league were tough and strong. Several of them, I have no doubt, were among the nation’s best.
Our Van Horn team was right up there, perennially in the top tier. Scotty was the anchor. His position was tackle; mine, end. Our starting line-up was agile, quick, rugged, stout, and determined. Back then, team members often played on both offensive and defense. When Scotty blocked an opposing player, the poor victim went down and stayed down. When Scotty tackled a runner, the hapless recipient felt his own bones rattle.
Near the end of the season in our senior year, our coaches got a brilliant idea: Maybe we should play Scotty at fullback now and then just to surprise the other team? And so the tackle sometimes became the fullback. He carried the ball a total of six times. He averaged a respectable six yards a carry. It’s odd how that fact still sticks in my mind after all these decades.
Scotty was the proverbial dichotomy. On the football field, he was a fearless tiger. Off the field, he was an affable, good-natured fellow with a charming smile. Classmates liked him and enjoyed being around him.
He was extremely shy in many matters. When it became rumored among our classmates that a pretty cheerleader named Pam Mayer wanted to go out with Scotty, I had to talk him into asking her on a date. He didn’t have to be convinced about her; she was a cheerful, intelligent young lady with a good sense of humor and pleasant laugh.
Rather, he had to be convinced of himself. He was horribly terrified she’d say no—ah, high school angst! He was learning a lesson most males of our species face in their teenage years: fear of rejection by the female of the species. It’s a widespread challenge and for many of us the fear doesn’t disappear as we age.
Scotty, though, finally built up the courage. He asked. She accepted. Then, as the twist of fate and human magnetism sometimes operate, there was more to be found there than a simple date. She became his endearing partner in life.
After high school, Scotty’s football days continued; he played as a lineman on the University of Missouri. He was on the Tigers’ team during its 1969 Orange Bowl appearance.
He and I went our separate ways after high school. Such a parting often happens to people. You’re good friends with someone and then life takes its twists and turns and bundles you up in other matters—and those friends of the past are seldom seen. But memories remain.
Scotty has always lingered around the edges of my memory. When I played football, I got knocked to the ground a zillion times, many times by Scotty on the practice field. There were victories and defeats. After all these years, though, there are no specific plays on the field that I remember, save for one episode involving Scotty.
When we started out in football in eighth grade, it became well-known among players throughout the community league that Scotty Bell was a guy you couldn’t knock down. He was invincible, a steamroller, indeed, a fury.
The one play that has stuck in my mind occurred when my team played Scotty’s in that eighth-grade league. One of my teammates was on a long sprint toward a touchdown. I just happened to be running near Scotty, who was determined to bring down the runner short of the goal line. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m gonna get him…” Him, of course, meaning Scotty.
I had just enough angle to block him at the ankles. He tumbled down, hard, sprawling every which way. I don’t recall if the runner scored, but I do fondly recall that block. I always smile to myself when it pops into my memory. Perhaps I remember it so well because in some way it launched me on a path toward learning an important life lesson: It is possible to best a force that people claim cannot be bested.
Including Scotty, four members of our starting high school offensive line have passed away over the last five decades, either from accidents or illnesses, all too early in their lives. Why them? Why at the times that they did? What happened after their final breath?
I don’t have the answers.