This was the late summer of 1967 at Meridian High’s practice field where the first integrated Meridian High Wildcats football team was preparing for a historic football season.
Morris Stamm, who was white and later played at Delta State, was lined up at offensive tackle and was supposed to block Robert Bell, who had just transferred from all-Black Harris High across town. Bell, who was not quite 6-feet tall and weighed about 260 granite-hard pounds, already had made an impact with his size, strength and quickness. You’ve heard the term “a man among boys?” Bell was one. Stamm knew the odds were against him.
“I’ll never forget,” Stamm said last week, nearly 55 years later. “Robert was in the gap and my job was to move him inside. My mindset was, ‘I can do this. I can move him.’ Well, I hit him with everything I had. I hit him as hard as I could, right in his thigh pads. He didn’t move even an inch. Meanwhile, I went down like a sack of potatoes.
“But I had hit him hard. I thought for sure I was going to get an ‘atta boy” from the coaches. That didn’t happen. I looked up to see how far the running back had run. But he was on the ground behind me.”
A coach explained to Stamm what had happened. “Stamm, you hit him good, but he didn’t go nowhere,” the coach told him. “Bell just reached over you, grabbed the runner and threw him down.”
Said Stamm, when he paused from chuckling at his own story, “That’s when I knew Robert Bell was a different cat and I’m not talking about his skin color. He was strong as an ox. He wasn’t that tall but let’s put it this way: His shorts were bigger than everybody else’s. Off the field, he was a really gentle person. On the field, he was out there to win, buddy.”
Robert Bell, who died at age 70 last week in Texas, made his mark, first at Meridian High and then at Mississippi State, where he and Tupelo’s Frank Dowsing were the first two African-American football players.
Now, more than half a century later, it has become easier to put in proper perspective what a difference Bell, Dowsing, Ben Williams and James Reed at Ole Miss and Willie Heidelburg at Southern Miss made in the integration of Mississippi schools and society. They showed thousands of people first-hand that Black and white people could work and play together and be all the better for it. It was obvious to anyone who watched, and thousands did.
They made history is what those guys did. They were trailblazers. And they were not alone. It happened in small towns across Mississippi.
Mac Barnes, who was Bell’s teammate at Meridian and later a state championship winning coach at his alma mater, says he didn’t comprehend what was going on back in 1967 but he understands it now.
“We were naive,” Barnes said. “We didn’t realize the history that was being made. We were just playing ball, doing something we loved. I know now. Robert Bell was a very important person in the history of Meridian, Mississippi. It wasn’t just how good he was as a player, but the way he handled himself in that situation. He was bull-strong but he had a grace, a quiet confidence about him. I can only magine some of the things he must have heard, but if it bothered him, you wouldn’t have known it.”
Robert Turnage, a Meridian assistant coach at the time, says, “Robert Bell worked hard and he played hard, but he kind of took it easy on our guys in practice. In games, he turned it up a notch. I remember him blocking in the open field on a punt return against a powerhouse team from Alabama, Robert E. Lee of Montgomery. Happened right in front me. He hit one of their guys so hard, I swear, it sounded like a car wreck. Robert was a force.”
Robbie Armstrong played with Bell, both at Meridian and later at State. “Robert was a quiet guy who let his actions speak,” Armstrong said. “He was a class act. There were a lot of guys who were eager to go up against him and put him in his place. Well, let me tell you, that’s not the way it happened.”
Back then, in college football, freshmen weren’t allowed to play for the varsity. So Bell didn’t make his varsity debut until 1970. Before long, State fans had their special cheers for Bell. They wore white buttons with maroon lettering that read: “Give ‘em hell Robert Bell.” And he did.
Armstrong remembers a game their sophomore season. State was playing Georgia at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Bell was going head to head against Royce Smith, Georgia’a All-American guard, a senior.
Said Armstrong, “It was like two bulls going against one another. Georgia tried to run right at Robert behind Royce Smith. It was three plays and three and out. I remember Robert coming back over to the sidelines and he had blood on his face and was grinning through the blood. ‘That guy is pretty good,’ Robert said, ‘I had to use both forearms on him.’”
State beat Georgia 7-6 and Bell more than held his own against the All-American. State finished 6-5 that season, the only winning season of Coach Charley Shira’s tenure. Bell, who was only 19, was one of the team’s leaders.
Barnes was a running sophomore quarterback, who often went against Bell in practices at Meridian. Much of that time was spent scrambling away from Bell, whom Barnes said had a dry, funny sense of humor once you got to know him.
“One time in practice he chased me all over the field, cornered me and tackled me and was laying on top of me,” Barnes said. “Robert said, ‘Mac, I really like you, man, but if you keep running around like this, I’m going to have to hurt you.’ He could have, too.
“In retrospect, Robert had the perfect temperament to do what he did in Meridian and at Mississippi State. I am happy to say we became good friends back then and have remained so through the years. Mississippi has lost one of the really great ones.”