At 11 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1969 the early birds were milling outside the players' entrance at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The kickoff in the big game between the Rams and the Minnesota Vikings was still two hours away, so the people were mainly just standing around, talking, laughing, reading the sports section of the Los Angeles Times. Few paid attention to the short, thickset man as he walked through the crowd carrying his green travel bag—just as few would pay attention to him later, out on the field, in his black-and-white striped official's shirt with No. 7 on the back. But, says Thomas P. Bell, one of the NFL's most respected referees, the more unnoticed he is, the better he likes it.
"If we walk off the field and nobody notices us, then we've had a good game," says Bell. "But if somebody knows who Tommy Bell is, then chances are I did something wrong."
If what Bell says is true, it also is unfortunate in a sense, because pro football officials are unique and highly efficient. Unlike their counterparts in baseball, basketball and hockey, they are only part-time employees who leave their homes and jobs some 20 weekends every fall to don their striped shirts, drop their flags and blow their whistles. Then, of course, there is the madcap dash to the airport after the game, so that on Monday morning they can show up once more as your friendly neighborhood banker, lawyer or high school principal.
"Sure, it gets hectic sometimes," says Bell, "but we all love it. It helps in business, too. I tell a guy who I am and he says, 'Oh, yeah, sure, I saw you on TV last week,' and I have a nice entrée."
Bell, in his mid-40s, a prospering attorney in Lexington, Ky., is more or less typical of the breed. He is a full partner in the firm of Fowler, Rouse, Measle & Bell, and his round, smiling face is almost as familiar about town as that of Adolph Rupp—a client, by the way, whose last will and testament Bell helped draw up. A local boy made good. Bell is a Rotarian, past president of the Chamber of Commerce, director of the Cancer Fund, Mason, Shriner and a former trustee of the Second Presbyterian Church. Lately, as a director of the Citizens Union National Bank, he has been working on an urban renewal project that will clear the way for the bank's new building, which will be the tallest in town.
Bell is also a registered Democrat but his views are well to the right. At athletic banquets and dinner meetings throughout the South, he lashes out at those who "ridicule the honest, ignore God, flaunt law and order and make excuses for the downright ornery criminal." He somehow ties all this in with football—"About 150 NFL boys are in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and did you know there is very little cursing on the field these days?"—and the response, says Bell, has been gratifying. "When I take football and mix it with a little Americanism, it really works out great. I got a standing ovation at the Birmingham Quarterback Club."
His growth as a lawyer parallels his growth as a referee. Only a year after starting out as a Kentucky high school official in 1955, Bell was working both football and basketball in the Southeastern Conference, his career having been given a boost by Bear Bryant, his old football coach at Kentucky. In the next seven years Bell's credits included a Liberty Bowl, an Orange Bowl, two North-South All-Star Games, three Blue-Gray games and two NCAA basketball championship games (San Francisco-Iowa in 1956 and California-West Virginia in 1959). None of these brought him as much publicity, however, as the 1958 football game between Arkansas and Ole Miss in Little Rock. The Rebels won 14-12 on Bob Khayat's field goal with three seconds left, a kick that every Arkansas fan in the stadium loudly swore was no good, much to Bell's discomfort. After the game Bell was in a phone booth outside the stadium, wanting to make a call but finding himself without a dime.
"Hey, buddy," he said to a passerby, "do you have a dime? I'm trying to call a friend."
The man looked at him closely and asked, "You Tommy Bell?"