Above photo of Caleb Bell making a tackle provided by Caleb Bell
BELTON- When Caleb Bell announced his transfer from Hardin-Simmons to UMHB just over a week after the Cru’s Stagg Bowl victory in December, it quickly turned heads.
In a way it seemed almost unrealistic, considering the fact that the one conference game circled on both teams’ schedules each season is the rivalry contest between the Cowboys and Crusaders. It is often a Top 10 matchup, with a spot in the NCAA D-III playoffs on the line.
Several members of the UMHB faithful took to social media to express their excitement in the fact that the Crusaders had successfully gained an all-conference defensive tackle from their bitter rivals. Any feat, whether on the gridiron or the recruiting trail over HSU, counts as a win.
But it is fair to say that many looked at the surface, unclear about the journey Bell took to his decision to come to Belton. His transfer was not to spite HSU, or add fuel to the fire. In fact, a year ago, Bell was unsure if he would ever step onto the field again.
“When I left the team, it was probably a week before the first game [of the 2021 season]. That is probably the first fall of football I’ve missed since I was five years old. I thought, ‘I’ve given this game everything I’ve had for the last 15 or 16 years, maybe it’s time to hang it up.’
The influence of UMHB defensive line coach Nick Brace changed that for Bell. who last played during the abbreviated 2020-21 season for HSU. He will have two years of eligibility with the Cru.
“I mentioned that [thought to leave football] to other coaches. They understood and would reach out every now and then. But Coach Brace told me, ‘I’m going to respect your decision. If you want to play football, that’s cool, but if you ever need to get in touch with someone to get a job or anything like that, call me. We can work it out.’ It’s a credit to Coach Brace because he kept my head on right and put me back in a good spot in life.”
It did not take Bell long to realize that Brace’s encouragement and support was genuine. And that played a major role as he considered the options before him as to where his collegiate career would continue. Brace represented a coaching staff whose ideals and character, perhaps even more than its high-football IQ, made UMHB the clear No. 1 amongst the list of programs who offered the 6’3 native of New Waverly, Texas.
“One thing that stuck out to me was the coaches,” Bell recalls. “Of all the coaches I talked to from last fall to this spring when I made my decision, there was never anything bad about any of the coaches. It felt like they cared for me more than the football aspect, and how they could help me even after football was over.”
The support from the UMHB coaching staff was a clear motivator for Bell to continue his extended offseason work through the fall and into the spring, even despite the challenges that came with fitting workouts in around work and classes.
“Starting off, it was hard, but once I decided, ‘I want to go back to giving this football thing everything I got’, I went for it. I didn’t have to force myself to do it, because I wanted to do it. But it was sometimes in the 40s and 50s, or snowing, and I was outside on that little field outside my apartment getting ladder work in or jogging around the block, doing anything to get better.”
Looking back, Bell says he knew that the tireless work, not performed in front of the eyes of any teammates or coaches, was eventually “going to pay off.” But he had another source of motivation through the struggle: his brother, who is 19.
“Most of my inspiration comes from my little brother, because I know he’s watching,” Bell continued. “If I give up, then he’s going to think giving up is ok. That’s when I thought, ‘I could quit football and do these last three or four semesters and be finished,’ but I didn’t want to show him that when things get hard, you can just quit. That’s not how it goes.”
And so he has set out on this journey to return the gridiron, playing for more than just his name alone. For Bell, there is not just a family he is representing, but more broadly, his hometown of 1,142 in a rural part of southeast Texas. Whether he dominates the stat lines in Belton over the next two seasons remains to be seen, but he is resuming his collegiate career for more than the on-field accolades. The same drive that pushed him to put the idea of quitting behind him and work towards this opportunity with the Cru is found in his exploits in the classroom.
“It’ll be a big deal in my life when I get that degree, because not just my family, but people where I’m from, they don’t believe they can do this,” Bell said, speaking at length. “I’m one of the first, not only in my family, but in my hometown to go do this, so I’m doing it for more than just myself. I’m trying to show younger kids that there is a different way. When I graduate, I feel like it won’t just change my life but my family as well because there are other routes I can take to get my family into a better environment or be able to start what they want to do.”
Things have come together for Bell within the last year, preparing him for what he hopes is a stellar career in the purple and gold. Through the encouragement Brace showed him, as well as the motivation drawn from his family, and hometown, he is poised for his return to the field. But he is quick to note his faith in God as a driving force in getting him to this point.
“I don’t only want to do it for my family and those watching me, but first and foremost for God,” Bell said. “There were many times he could have taken me off this earth or put me in a different place where I wouldn’t have been any good.
“I just thank God each day that I can wake up and get a breath of fresh air, because I have friends who are either dead or in jail. No matter how bad it gets out here, it is never as bad as it is in those two places. There were hard days where I would go literally all day without talking to anybody. It was really just God and Coach Brace that got me through it. It all worked together.
“When I transferred to UMHB, a lot of people thought it was because of the rivalry. But I left HSU for a reason. I’m not going to UMHB to get revenge, I’m going to UMHB to continue doing what I love.”
The foundation of Hardin-Simmons
Bell’s path to the D-III level mirrors that of a number of current D-III players, in the sense that he had significant interest from programs at the D-I level prior to an injury outside of his control. In fact, three FBS schools; Houston, Tulsa, and SMU, held significant interest in Bell prior to his senior year. But a struggle then came about, as he played in just three games during his final prep season, suffering an ac joint (shoulder, which compounded an already-tough fall with the loss of his grandfather.
“Growing up, football meant so much to me. When I was in high school, in my 12th grade year, my grandfather died coming into the season. When that happened, my family lost the man of the family. It was then I decided, ‘regardless of what it is going to take, I know reaching the college level is what I need to do.’”
The majority of schools quickly lost interest in Bell following the injury, but Chris Jones, then HSU’s defensive line coach, took a chance, and gave him an offer. Bell is glad he did.
Almost immediately upon arrival in Abilene, he was thrust into the action. He spent the team’s first two games on the sidelines, but in a Sept. 22 victory over Howard Payne, he made his collegiate debut, tallying one assisted tackle in the process. Over the course of a relatively successful 2018 season for the Cowboys, he saw action in seven more games, making his second career start against none other than UMHB in a 27-6 playoff victory for the Cru inside Crusader Stadium.
“[Coach Jones] threw me into the fire quickly, and that benefited me,” Bell said. “My freshman year, in eight games, I had 13 tackles, and then in my sophomore year, I doubled that, with 26 tackles. Going against a lineman in college was a lot different than going against a lineman in high school.
“Coming from a small school, we didn’t see guys who were college-size athletes. In my four years of high school, I might have gone up against a 6’3, 300 lb offensive lineman once. So going to college was a big jump.”
The code of the Cru remains a special aspect to UMHB’s program, especially to outsiders looking in
When Bell was evaluating his options, the culture of UMHB’s program instantly stuck out to him. Besides Brace’s impact, it was the high expectations held by everyone on the team that made Bell confident in his future in Belton, considering his mentality mirrors that of his future teammates.
“Out of all the schools that contacted me, I feel like what sets them apart is they expect to go get it every year,” Bell added. “It’s not rolling the dice every season. It is, ‘this is what’s expected and what we are going to do,’ They expect greatness. We all have the same mindset.”