Saved By The Bell

Impact of longtime track coach Sam Bell continues to resonate.

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You may have seen him, in recent years, sitting near the coaching staff, at an area track meet, his hat low with a knowing smile brushed upon his wise face.

Perhaps you’ve dropped your teenage son off nearby his school’s football field, and before he reached the painted track, you caught a glimpse of a man welcoming your boy with a kind gesture and a posture of purpose.

Or maybe, you yourself were impacted by the influence of Sam Bell and what he’s done for the local sports spectrum over his 40 years of instruction.

In any way you’ve encountered this savant of track teaching, it’s been a blessing.

Bell started the track team at Lafayette High School and carried his experience and wisdom with him as the first track coach in Harnett Central High School history, in 1977.

He ran track himself, for two years, at Armstrong High School in Eastover. That was before the high school integrated into Cape Fear, in Fayetteville.

He continued to throw the shot put and discus at Cape Fear High School and went on to earn a football scholarship to Fayetteville State University. In several interviews with The Daily Record, Bell recalled the early days of track and field in Cumberland County, saying jumpers used to have to jump into pits of sawdust.

For the former Wade Elementary student and future collegiate football player, Armstrong High School only offered three sports — baseball, basketball, and track and field.

In his early days of track and field, in the late 1960s, as a freshman at Armstrong High School, Bell was relegated to the B-team, not for his own lack of skill, but because of an abundance of talent on the Armstrong team.

Under Coach David Pugh, 100m runners like Oscar Allen, Doug Alford and Ernest Carter were setting the pace in the upper class, and field athletes, George Matthews and Alexander McLaurin were establishing mid-1960s throwing records.

Runners like Allen, Alford and Carter were as fast as current Harnett Central all-star, N.C. State commit Laderique McNeill, and that the Armstrong A-team sported discus throwers with abilities that of Western Harnett’s UNC Charlotte record-setter, Asher Prince. The team won a state title in 1968, Bell’s sophomore season.

In the next year, 1969, the Eastover high school integrated with Cape Fear. At Cape Fear High School, Bell ran track and played defensive end and linebacker on the football team. He was good at both, but not quite the caliber of athlete of his cousin, running back James Godwin.

Bell said Godwin scored 22 touchdowns in his senior season, running back five kickoffs that year. “He could have been the first black running back at Alabama,” he said. “But he decided to go to Fayetteville State University to stay close to the family and his community.”

Bell did the same, signing his letter of intent to play football for the FSU Broncos in 1971. He attended the university on a football scholarship, but went on to focus on track and field.

He had learned things from coach Pugh at Armstrong, and under former Olympic 400m dash competitor, Walter Johnson, Bell strengthened his passion for coaching.

“I was decent,” Bell said of his own shot put, discus and javelin-throwing abilities, “But, I was close to (coach Johnson). He kind of depended on me to get things done.”

In his four years at FSU, Bell vastly improved in the javelin throw. He also grew closer to coach Johnson and became increasingly important to the college’s athletic program.

Johnson was an N.C. Central graduate, who ran in both the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. He took Bell under his wing, and went along with him to the 1976 Olympic trials.

His cousin, James Godwin, and another FSU Bronco, James Woot, were the athletes who traveled to Eugene, Ore., for the trials that year. Bell tagged along to help eye talent for the program’s future.

Johnson taught Bell well, using his experience and education to educate the young track athlete, before and after Bell graduated from FSU in 1975.

“It really helped me, that (coach) Johnson had his degree in science and kinesiology,” he said, “I went on to help other guys who were younger than me.”

Bell took his own degree from FSU and began to teach and coach at Lafayette High School in 1975, starting the track team there that year and winning the conference the year after.

“These were country kids, but they were in good shape,” he said of Lafayette. “I used to work with them on their sprints. We would run to Chalybeate Springs; there was a basketball court down there. I would let them shoot the ball. Then we would run back to Lafayette.”

In his two years as head track coach at Lafayette, they won both regular season titles, and lost by just four points at the 1977 conference track meet.

Bell hangs that loss upon himself, but he remains proud of that team — sprinter and long jumper Ricky Betts, runner Jeff Revels, relay runner Melvin Partridge, Howard Heyward and shot putter Randy Baker.

While teaching at Lafayette, Bell lived in Fayetteville and returned to FSU, to help former teammates, like Bernice Travis. “He could throw the discus 190 feet and the shot put 58 to 60 feet,” Bell said of Travis.

Bell spent two years at Lafayette, until Angier, Lillington and Buies Creek unified with the school, to form Harnett Central in 1977. There, he helped coach the football team and lead both the boys and girls track and field programs.

“The transition was interesting,” Bell said. “Because the kids were from all different areas.”

He recalled two standout athletes from that inaugural Harnett Central season; high-jumper Phillip Farrington and an Angier kid, who went onto be a conference champion, Luke McCormick.

This sly, sleek and savvy man has tutored dozens of successful athletes.

Eric Matthews of Buies Creek was a football standout who ran track under Bell. He’s now working in military intelligence with the U.S. Army.

Tony Johnson, a young man from Erwin, came to Bell with hopes of lowering his 40-yard-dash time in order to earn a soccer scholarship to the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“UNC said if he got his 40-yard-dash time down to 4.6 (seconds), they would give him a scholarship,” Bell said.

When Johnson signed up to run track for the Trojans, he was running the 40-yard dash in 5 seconds. In one season, he lowered that time by a half second and earned his scholarship.

Johnson went on the set the all-time leading scoring record for the Tar Heels and play professional soccer for six years.

Of how he positively impacted Johnson said Bell, “Flexibility means a lot.”

From Adrian Griffin, to Foricka McDougald, to Luis Vargas, to Jarrod Spears, to Steve Wester, Bell uplifted athletes for decades before being diagnosed with kidney failure. He retired in 2007, was on dialysis for nine years and underwent kidney transplant surgery in March of 2017.

He didn’t let his illness “hold him back,” he said. While in retirement, he kept helping out, going as far as to lobby for new facilities at Harnett Central.

For years before most Harnett County schools, like Western Harnett, Triton and Overhills high schools were upgraded with new tracks, Bell called out to administrators to improve the high school track in Angier.

“The track was so raggedy that I bought paint at Walmart and painted the lines and exchange boxes every year,” he said.

All-in-all, Bell worked as a Harnett Central assistant football coach for 29 years, coached cross country from 2007-2010 and led the track team for 33 years.

These days, you’ll still see him, sitting near the coaching staff, at an area track meet, his hat low with that knowing smile brushed upon his wise face.

He helps Trojans head track coach Kevin Spears, and at Triton, working with the Hawks’ head coach Josh Canterbury. He also leads a summer track program put on in conjunction with Harnett County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Hornsby.

Bell not only aims to improve the athletic ability of his pupils, the former history teacher also hopes to make his athletes successful in life.

“The kids just wanted somebody to be there for them,” he said. “If you stick with (track) for four years, kids don’t realize how successful it makes you. Because (in track), if you lose, you don’t have anybody to blame.”

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