The Arizona Republic
By KELLY CARR
The Arizona Republic
In the hallways of Tolleson High his name still resonates.
Students explain how they grew up with him, how their parents are good friends with his parents or that they live right around the block from his West Valley childhood home.
It’s the same type of situation on the practice field of the Far West Hombres, a Pop Warner team.
The middle-schoolers try to run like he did when he was on the team 10 years ago. They want his moves. Someday they want their life story to sound like his.
The legend is that of Mike Bell, who as a high school player rushed for 2,000 yards in each of his final two years at Tolleson. Then he went to the University of Arizona and made history, ranking fourth on Arizona’s career rushing list.
Now he has done what most high school athletes pray to attain: Bell made it to the pros.
And the man so many admire in the West Valley is coming home to play on Sunday in Glendale as a rookie running back for the Denver Broncos.
The game brings Bell back to his roots in Tolleson, a place that he has never forgotten and where people revel in his legacy.
“You dream of this as a kid, to play in your hometown,” Bell said. “Coming from the area I came from, it’s not all the time that a lot of people are successful after high school. I hope I can be a shining light for some people.
“I’m not the fastest, I’m not the biggest but I believed in myself.”
Bell believed in himself back when he was a third-string running back his sophomore year at Tolleson and throughout the rest of his high school career, when he would get so nervous he would throw up before each game.
He believed in himself at Arizona, a place where he pushed himself and his game to the next level, setting school records.
And in April, when he did not hear his name called in the NFL draft, he still believed he could make it as a professional athlete. He practiced and showed his skills until Broncos coach Mike Shanahan noticed and signed him as a free agent a week after the draft.
But even though his self-confidence and hunger have taken him far from his West Valley hometown, Bell has never forgotten where he comes from.
On Denver’s off week, Bell came home to Tolleson and made it to his alma mater’s homecoming. He spent half of the day at the school, signing autographs for the students. Then he went back to visit his old Pop Warner coach, the Hombres’ Mark King, and chatted during practice with players who idolize him.
Back in Denver, he continues to sport Tolleson shirts and hats in the Broncos locker room, keeping his school’s tradition alive, just like in college when he tried to make his teammates at Arizona sing his high school’s fight song after practice.
His favorite memory: making it to the playoffs as a Tolleson Wolverine.
“I’ll wear the gear in the locker room and the guys are like, ‘What’s Tolleson?’ ” Bell said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago. It’s just weird thinking that it’s been that long, even since Pop Warner.”
Those who knew him well from Tolleson say “he’s still the same old Michael.”
Stacia Edmond, who met Bell when she cheered at Pop Warner games and is still his close friend, said he’s still as goofy and fun as he was when they would hang at each other’s homes after school. She can still hear him as a kid saying some day he would play in the NFL.
The main thing that’s changed about Bell is his uniform and the fact that he’s becoming a household name outside of Arizona.
“The first time I saw him play in the NFL, it was a very proud moment to know my friend made it,” Edmond said. “On the field he looked so big. I was in awe the entire time, like that’s really Michael out there. It’s really weird to sit there and see signs that say Michael Bell or to go into the stores and see his jersey there.”
Even his old Tolleson coach, Dan Widmaier, revels at how Bell’s status has not changed him, even though Bell embodies every high school coaches’ and athletes’ dream.
“I know that’s why Mike Shanahan loves him, because he’s still the last one to leave and the first one there,” said Widmaier, who watches his old player every week on television. “He’s still the same guy. Nothing has gone to his head.”
Bell said the chance to play in front of his old high school friends and rivals on Sunday will give him an extra kick.
And even though he now runs for the Broncos, those in Tolleson always will remember him as the teenager who ran like lightning in high school.
“When I think of Michael, I think of Tolleson,” Edmond said.
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How former UA running back Mike Bell has fared in his first season with the Broncos:
Best game: Bell ran for 136 yards and a pair of scores on 15 carries in a 34-31 loss to Indianapolis on Oct. 29.