Outside of the Michigan locker room, players head toward the team buses parked outside of Ryan Field at Northwestern.
The Wolverines had plenty of reasons to celebrate. They had rallied for a victory in a road game in Big Ten Conference play and on the way out of the doors, the players were handed a box of Chicago deep dish pizza.
In front of one of the handful of white buses stood Ronnie Bell, with a smile beaming from ear to ear and it had nothing to do with the win or the pizza.
The reason behind the smile of the former Park Hill standout and last year’s Thomas A. Simone Award winner, given to the top football player in the Kansas City metro area, was rather simple — family.
Standing to his right was his mother, Renee, one of eight people that made the drive from Kansas City to Evanston, Ill., watch Bell play on Sept. 29.
The caravan included his aunts, Rachel Jones, Dianna Bell, Debra Roland and Cynthia Cobbins, his cousins Brittney McGinley and Nikki Buckhalter and Addison Devers, a Park Hill graduate that is attending Benedictine University in suburban Chicago.
“This is everything to me,” Bell said of his family attending his game. “I don’t think I have ever showered that fast. I wanted to get out here and see my mom. I haven’t seen her since the early summer and for them to be able to come eight hours here to see me play and do what I love is everything for me.
“The toughest thing is definitely not seeing my momma every day. I FaceTime (her) every chance I get. I miss my mom.”
The family coming wasn’t a surprise, as he needs to know a week before the game who will come so he can request tickets.
But, traveling hours to see him play at the Division I level is a lot different than a road game in Blue Springs or Lee’s Summit, which had been the case the previous three falls for the Bell family.
When Ronnie made his collegiate debut on Sept. 1 against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., his father, Aaron, made the trip.
The venture to Evanston was the first of the year for Renee, as the couple balances time between watching Ronnie play, as well as events for their other three kids – twins Marqueas and Kendrick, 14, and Laila, 5.
The Evanston game is the closest game to Kansas City this year for the Wolverines,
“We all divide up and conquer,” Renee Bell said, as her husband, stayed home to watch the twins play for the Necco Raiders.
As a true freshman, NCAA rules changed this year and players could play up to four games and still be redshirted. The Northwestern game was the fifth of the year and Bell felt comfortable he was going to play.
The travel roster for Michigan wasn’t released until the Thursday prior to the Northwestern game and Bell made the list.
Bell hauled in a 56-yard touchdown the week before against Nebraska.
“We were getting to leave because the twins played and they said lets watch one more play and that was the next play,” Renee Bell said of seeing her son’s first Division I touchdown.
Renee isn’t sure when she will get to see Ronnie play again, but Aaron will be heading to Ann Arbor on Nov. 3 to watch the Wolverines play Penn State. But the distance between her oldest son and herself has made her an expert on searching travel websites, noting Spirit Airlines will fly to Detroit from Kansas City for a reasonable rate.
“It is really hard on me,” Renee said of the distance. “I texted him and ask what do you need me to bring and I’ll bring it. All he said was he just needed my love and affection.”
Ronnie was home through June and played in a pair of all-star basketball games and was home briefly in July before fall workouts started.
“We are so used going to everything together, but this is the first time since he started playing sports we haven’t been able to travel as a whole family to support him. It is nice he is on TV and we have a lot people come over to watch him.”
Bell was part of quite a few snaps against Northwestern and appeared in the stats for fielding one punt return and a carry for a loss of two yards, on a jet sweep but he lost his footing trying to turn up field. That came on the second play of the contest in the nationally-televised game on FOX.
Ronnie’s goal was proving he belonged and so far he has done that.
The week after the Northwestern game, Bell hauled in a 22-yard touchdown against Maryland. In a recent story on ESPN, they ranked the top freshman on each of the top 25 teams and Bell was chosen for Michigan, now No. 6 in the Associated Press poll.
His family made sure everyone around them in section 135 knew they were there for Ronnie against Northwestern.
While tailgating, his mom, aunts and cousins all made signs for him. His mother held one that said ‘All Hail to the Bell.’ One of his aunts had one that said ‘No. 8 Hail to the Victors’ while another said ‘Ronnie’s Bee-Hive.’
The sign making opened the door for conversations and questions.
Little did Renee know what it meant to be a Division I mom.
“People were asking all sorts of questions about him and said he had a good game last week,” Renee said. “They were asking who we were to Ronnie and we start explaining and they were intrigued and wanted to hear how he got here. How did he go from basketball at Missouri State to football at Michigan? It is an interesting story.
“And these people were wanting to take a picture with me because I was his mom and I was like, OK. It brought tears to my eye. Everyone was wanting to take a photo with me. I’m just so proud of him.”