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Washington State’s Renard Bell has overcome his height by selling people on his heart

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 28, 2019

How do you get on Mike Leach’s good side, and stay there?

It may be a good question for Renard Bell, who two years ago received what may equate to the gold medal of compliments from Washington State’s notoriously critical head coach.

When the small, mighty slot receiver erupted for four catches, 113 yards and one touchdown in a 45-7 rout of Nevada in 2017, Leach showed up to his postgame press conference with proper kudos for Bell … and then some.

“He never gets in his own way,” Leach said. “He’s like one of the most incredible upbeat guys, even though he’s kind of quiet.

“He’s always kind of cheery, so if you’re in a crummy mood – long story short, I need to hang out with Renard Bell all the time. As a matter of fact, next game I think I’m going to room with Renard Bell.”

Take your spot in line, coach.

Rooming with Bell is a novel idea, but so is spending 30 minutes with Washington State’s redshirt sophomore “H” receiver inside a cool cafeteria at Lewis-Clark State on what winds up being a blazing hot August afternoon in Idaho as the Cougars toil through preseason camp.

It’s season No. 4 for Bell in Pullman and season No. 17 when you add it all up for the Los Angeles native: flag football with the Inglewood Jets; tackle with the Carson Colts; four years at L.A.’s Cathedral High School and now four more in the Pac-12 North – three spent as a top rotational receiver in the Air Raid offense.

This year, he’s Leach’s lone captain.

“(Bell was the choice) because he’s a real upbeat guy and everybody likes him,” Leach said. “And then he’s smaller than all the other captains pretty much in the league, but he’s just a very small, alert guy that practices great and he has the ability to pick it up, and we all just like Renard Bell.”

There’s a lot to the most diminutive player in Pullman – Bell’s 5-foot-8, 162-pound frame is smaller than that of even placekicker Blake Mazza.

As Bell pulls up a chair, he removes the Apple headphones from his ears and taps the pause button on his iPhone. Today, Bell has taken a detour into the musical catalog of Sabrina Claudio, an alternative R&B artist who emerged onto the SoundCloud scene a few years ago.

“I like her music because it’s real peaceful,” Bell said. “The melody and her vocals is really nice, like it’s soothing.”

Before games, though, he’d rather escape with rap and hip-hop – “Rucci, YG, Meek Mill, 1TakeJay,” Bell said. “All that.”

Bell toggles between artists who will lift his spirits and amplify his energy before disappearing into a tunnel and emerging in front of 30,000 fans, or sometimes twice that many when the Cougars are on the road, as will be the case Friday when WSU takes on Washington at Husky Stadium, capacity 71,000.

Bell draws his energy from music, but his teammates often get theirs from the short, vibrant slot receiver.

“Renard does some questionable stuff that I probably wouldn’t want to room with him,” former WSU quarterback Luke Falk said in 2017, responding to Leach’s comment. “But he’s a great energy guy and fun teammate to be around.”

Inherently, that’s Bell’s nature. It’s Renard being Renard. But it’s also deeper than that.

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Washington State Cougars wide receiver Renard Bell (9) sports a Joker mask following the second half of a college football game on Saturday, October 19, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 41-10. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars wide receiver Renard Bell (9) sports a Joker mask following the second half of a college football game on Saturday, October 19, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 41-10. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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Had Reginald and Yarvelle Bell not acted swiftly, doctors assured them that their middle child would’ve died before his first birthday.

In February 1999, Renard contracted what his parents diagnosed as a moderate flu. Reginald and Yarvelle traded days at home, watching over and taking care of their youngest son until he could recover. But Renard’s symptoms worsened – the color around his eyes became pinker by the hour – and his parents grew more concerned.

Surely he’d heal with another day of rest, but as overprotective parents, Reginald and Yarvelle weren’t willing to take the risk. When Reginald called his wife to relay information about Renard’s eyes, Yarvelle rushed the young boy to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Another day of idling and Renard would’ve died.

Doctors deducted he was suffering from Kawasaki disease, an illness that charges the blood vessels, and compromises the coronary arteries that transport blood to the heart. It’s treatable if detected early, but “it comes on fast” and “can lead to heart trouble in as little as 10 days to two weeks after the symptoms start,” according to WebMD.

This is the captivating, heart-tugging story Bell comes up with in Lewiston when he’s asked merely to share something most of his teammates don’t know about him.

“Nobody knows about that but my family,” he said.

Because of the uncertainty he faced for approximately 24 hours, and the heart syndrome that nearly claimed him, Yarvelle Bell calls Renard her “miracle baby.”

The miracles didn’t cease there.

Doctors needed to monitor the condition, performing biannual tests, and they informed Renard he probably couldn’t partake in athletics, which certainly took a physical sport such as football off the table.

“The doctors told my mom if I did recover,” Bell said, “I’d never be able to play football.”

But regular electrocardiogram (EKG) tests and ultrasounds revealed that Bell’s condition was improving rapidly. He was cleared to try out for youth football, as long as he completed medical checkups at the start of every season. Each one came out negative – a positive step toward a prosperous career.

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Renard Bell played his youth football for the Inglewood Jets. (Bell Family / Courtesy)
Renard Bell played his youth football for the Inglewood Jets. (Bell Family / Courtesy)

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Bell’s heart condition kept him from playing football at a public high school, which is why he wound up at Cathedral, a private all-boys school located in the Chavez Ravine area of Los Angeles. But perhaps that was another miraculous twist of fate, too, because Cathedral hosted the Washington State satellite camp that would offer Bell more exposure to the coaches who would eventually sign him.

“I’m just thankful,” Bell said. “I just give thanks to God, because I don’t know where I’d be right now, to be honest. If I wasn’t able to be cured and stuff like that. It just means a lot, and that’s why I practice so hard every day and I go hard in pretty much everything I do, and I try to enjoy my life, because I probably wouldn’t have one if I didn’t have the right doctors, or something went wrong within the surgery, or something like that. So it just means a lot to me.”

Reginald believes the charming smile and affable personality his son carries have some correlation to the heart defect he overcame as a baby – even if Renard isn’t cognizant of it.

“I really do, I really do believe it,” Reginald said. “I think it’s unconsciously. Maybe he notices it, I don’t know, but he’s a different kind of kid. He’s no problem whatsoever. You rarely see him griping about anything, you never see him mad. Of course he’s human, he does get angry about some things. But very rarely.

“He’s easy to please.”

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He knew Renard had the makeup of a wide receiver at a point when it’s hard to distinguish which kids are in it for the sport and which ones for the orange slices.

Reginald Bell isn’t the overbearing, helicopter, breathe-down-your-neck type of parent, but he made sure he was highly involved in both of his kids’ athletic endeavors, which meant helping assemble Renard’s 7-year-old “junior clinic” team while simultaneously coaching older brother Reggie’s (Reginald II) 9-year-old squad – both part of the Inglewood Jets organization.

The 7-year-old team needed help at quarterback – a strong passer who’d be the yin to Renard’s yang. So Reginald put on his recruiting cap and made a phone call.

“I had gotten another kid with a big arm that I knew could throw the ball,” Reginald said. “So I asked his dad, ‘Could he come over and play quarterback on the team?’ ”

The young boy with the strong arm found his way onto the team, but when Reginald checked in a few weeks later, the coach had made some alarming tweaks to his depth chart.

“He said, ‘Yeah, we found our quarterback,’ ” Reginald recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, the kid I brought over to you.’ He said, ‘Nah, Renard’s going to be our quarterback.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ ”

Renard was throwing the passes. Khalil Tate was catching them.

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Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell played youth football with Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate on the Inglewood Jets. (Bell Family / Courtesy)
Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell played youth football with Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate on the Inglewood Jets. (Bell Family / Courtesy)

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“He did not beat (Khalil) with the arm. Renard was always accurate, but of course Khalil always had a big arm,” Reginald said. “A BIG arm and he was a child.”

Tate apparently brushed it off, because by the time he and Bell met as collegians 11 years later, Arizona’s dynamic quarterback had already captured the national stage and catapulted himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation before he led the Wildcats to a 58-37 thumping of the Cougars, throwing for 275 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 146 yards and a score.

He and Bell posed for a photo afterward.

Bell grew accustomed to playing with and against eventual college foes – and the occasional teammate. When he flipped from the Inglewood Jets to the Carson Colts, Bell joined a roster of future Pac-12 athletes, including ex-Cougars safety Jalen Thompson, Oregon receiver Jaylon Redd, USC safety C.J. Pollard and Cal corner Traveon Beck.

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Hymn was the name of the gospel group that Reginald created in his home state of Louisiana, with the help of two friends/classmates at Southern University and an outsider from New Orleans.

When the group began to pick up traction around the Big Easy, winning various musical contests, a member of the popular Motown record label got in contact and urged Hymn to take its music out west. The quartet performed at churches, traveled with the Gospel Music Workshop of America Choir and opened for a few recognizable gospel artists, including MaryMary and Eric Benét. It also opened at Stevie Wonder’s House Full of Toys benefit concert, held at The Forum in L.A.

It’s no wonder that Reginald’s middle child is something of a showman, too.

More than 20,000 on hand for WSU’s 54-53 win over Oregon State on Saturday night witnessed it when Renard sprinted to the middle of the field and uncorked a backflip when there was still 1 second on the clock – a stunt that was well worth the 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty that followed.

Scroll through the player’s Instagram account and you’ll find a video of Bell comically re-enacting a vintage Tom Cruise scene from “Ricky Business” to the Bob Seger hit, “Old Time Rock and Roll.” While wearing a bright red doo-rag, an unbuttoned flannel shirt, gray shorts and “Go Cougs” socks, Bell slides into the frame on the wooden floor, lifts a water bottle up to his mouth as a makeshift microphone and begins to dance. Eventually, he’s strumming an air guitar while lip-syncing before shuffling back out of the frame.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

That Old Time🎸

A post shared by Renard Bell👅💦👑 (@bigpapinardy) on

“Everything he does on social media, he’s been doing since he was young,” Reggie claims. “So it’s no surprise to me at all. Dude is super goofy, funny, laid back, chill. So that’s just him being him. Ya’ll are getting all of Renard.”

“Please don’t tell him I told you, but he can hold a note,” Reginald adds.

Bell’s social media posts have drawn attention, and even some interest, from football teammates.

“(Quarterback) Gage (Gubrud) wants to do a dancing video with me,” Bell said. “I don’t know, we don’t have a song yet, but we’ve got to figure it out because he’s fasho doing that.”

It will be hard-pressed to break the 2.6 million views received by another video featuring Bell. When he was 13, a school teacher arranged for Renard and younger sister Ramia to appear in a music video for renowned rapper/songwriter Pusha T. In the opening scene of “My God,” Bell, wearing a white, short-sleeved dress shirt, can be seen pounding a bass drum behind six other young drummers as the group marches down a set of train tracks.

Washington State wide receiver had a role in Pusha T's music video for the song "My God" (YouTube / Courtesy)
Washington State wide receiver had a role in Pusha T's music video for the song "My God" (YouTube / Courtesy)

“I didn’t know how big (Pusha T) was at the time,” Bell said, “but later on when I got into high school, I was like, ‘Oh dang, he was big.’ ”

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Helping Bell charge onto college football’s recruiting scene was Chris Mack, a man who couldn’t teach the receiver the first or last thing about catching a football, but could help him get to his spots on the field quicker and track down deep balls with more ease.

Mack doesn’t spend much time around football fields, but he’s around football players almost every day. There are dozens of college coaches around the country who should be thanking the certified speed specialist in Los Angeles.

Bell does it every day when he dresses for practice, first slipping on an orange, polyester New Image Track Academy shirt before layering it with his crimson WSU jersey.

“I’m really grateful for him,” Bell said, “because without him, I would not be at Washington State.”

It’s hard to believe, and maybe Bell is exaggerating a little here, but he didn’t have his burners until he found Mack.

“I was slow,” Bell laughed.

That’s what Mack heard, too. One of Bell’s former youth track coaches cautioned Mack not to invest too much time in the young athlete, telling him, “ ‘Renard’s slow, you’re not going to get nothing out of him.’ I said, ‘No, he’s got a little bit of talent.’ He said, ‘Nah, Chris, you not going to get nothing out of Renard.’ So nobody had no faith in him.

“Like I said, he was always a sleeper.”

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Washington State Cougars wide receiver Renard Bell (9) poses for a photo with his prized orange t-shirt during a practice on Wednesday, August 7, 2019, at Sacajawea Jr. High School in Lewiston, ID. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Washington State Cougars wide receiver Renard Bell (9) poses for a photo with his prized orange t-shirt during a practice on Wednesday, August 7, 2019, at Sacajawea Jr. High School in Lewiston, ID. (Tyler Tjomsland)

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Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell still wears shirts and hoodies from the New Image Track Club. (Theo Lawson / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell still wears shirts and hoodies from the New Image Track Club. (Theo Lawson / The Spokesman-Review)

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Cathedral didn’t have a dedicated speed coach, so when Bell reached high school, his father took a proactive step and urged the school to find someone who could coach the sprinters. Mack, an IAAF Level Five elite sprint coach, gladly accepted and immediately started trimming Bell’s times in the 100 and 200 meters.

Mack worked on Bell’s stride, bringing his knees closer to his chest to form more of a 90-degree angle, and staged various plyometric-based workouts for his athletes, while building their endurance with grueling hill sprints.

Bell was running the 100 at a below-average time of 11.8 or 11.9 seconds – “somewhere around there,” Mack said – but he brought that all the way down to an 11.2 and improved to sub-11 a year later. His breakout came at the Simplot Games, held at Idaho State, where Bell bested race favorite and current Oregon defensive back Thomas Graham with a 21.92 in the 200.

“The technique was the main part of it, because I guess (Mack) saw I had a normal long stride,” Bell said. “I stride like I’m 6-(feet) something, but I’m not, and it’s crazy. So when he put my stride and he started implementing my turnover with it, that’s when I started noticing, OK, I’m naturally kind of fast. And he just kind of put it together.”

Because of California high school rules, Mack’s sprinters at Cathedral had to run under the name “New Image Academy” during the indoor season, but Bell’s best race came in a white Phantoms bib.

His 4x400 relay team came into the 2016 CIF State meet with the best time and some deserved swagger. But there was a hiccup for Cathedral in a prelim race. The Phantoms’ third-leg runner was bumped and fell to the ground, leaving the team’s state berth in peril. The anchor picked up the slack. Bell received the baton and trucked to a fourth-place finish, giving the Phantoms a split that would send them to the finals.

“I don’t know how Renard did that. He ran totally out of his race strategy,” Mack said. “But you can’t coach that. He knew this was our last chance to make it to the finals, and so he had to step his game up and run faster than he could ever run.”

Bell and Cathedral took the silver medal, bowing to a Vista Murrieta (San Diego) quartet anchored by Michael Norman Jr., a future USC star and national champion who holds the world indoor record in the 400.

College football programs noticed the small, shifty receiver when they watched Cathedral’s football team on Hudl.

“But it was like, ‘Is this really speed?’ ” Bell said. “Because we were playing people who weren’t that fast in high school.”

Bell’s blistering track splits helped reinforce what coaches thought they were seeing. A few Mountain West programs called after Bell clocked a 10.9. Former WSU outside linebackers coach/Los Angeles recruiter Roy Manning contacted the dual-sport athlete when his time dropped to a 10.8.

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Half a decade later, the relentless and often unsavory pursuit of high school athletes otherwise known as recruiting still rubs Reginald the wrong way.

“I don’t see how the people with the four stars, five stars can handle it because it’s a lot,” he said.

A prior experience with his older son, Reggie, a dual threat quarterback who starred at L.A.’s Dorsey High School, made Reginald leery of the entire process.

Reggie had essentially closed down his recruitment once he committed to Conference USA school Tulane in New Orleans, but the Green Wave broke their commitment when they pulled his scholarship two months before signing day, instead offering it to a junior college transfer named Nick Montana – the younger son of former 49ers star Joe Montana.

“We worked out with (Montana) before,” Reginald said. “I’m telling you, he’s not better than my son. But they wanted him, the name and so forth.”

Based on that, Renard fought the urge to commit to the Cougars right off the bat. Wait it out, his dad insisted. But Manning communicated with the Cathedral prospect almost daily, and Renard eventually rewarded his persistence, committing when the time was right, in May 2015. Manning was driving when he saw Bell’s number flash on his phone screen, so he pulled over to take the call.

“He said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, let me pull on the side of the road, you’re about to make my day,’ ” Reginald recalled.

Without football, without track, Bell guarantees he would’ve had to resort to his Plan B: the military. Bell’s grandfather on his mother’s side, two uncles and one cousin all served.

“So I really thought I was going,” Bell said.

The Cougars had other plans for the receiver with the small physique and the outsized personality.

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Happy and hungry, Bell has designs on snapping a six-year slump against the Huskies on Friday in the Apple Cup, and he could be a top contributor for the nation’s top passing offense one game after catching eight passes – two of them TDs – to lead the Cougars in both receiving yards (108) and backflips.

“He has that whole ninja quality out there,” Leach quipped Monday.

The ball often came Bell’s way two years ago as a redshirt freshman, when he caught 40 passes for 538 yards and three touchdowns. But the beauty of the Air Raid, or any spread offense, is its unpredictability. While Bell caught five TD passes last season, the rest of his numbers took a nosedive as he hauled in only 20 passes for 202 yards while splitting reps at “H” with Travell Harris.

Internally, it may have aggravated Bell, but you wouldn’t have detected it.

“One day he has one catch and he’s laughing and having a great time,” WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon said. “Some days, he has eight catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns, and he’s smiling just the same.”

It’s the type of attitude that will get you – and keep you – in Leach’s good graces.

“I think, one, he’s really excited to play, and then guys who are real excited to play are kind of obsessed with it because they enjoy it,” Leach said. “So then they improve quicker. And then he’s a real smart guy. He always knows where he’s supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be there. Then he is pretty athletic.”

The Bells are gathering in Seattle this week. Apple Cup score and receiving totals aside, the 30-something hours WSU’s redshirt junior will spend there promise to be memorable.

Bell’s grin will stretch wider than usual and the big heart that was once compromised by Kawasaki disease will pump with excitement when the wide receiver lays his eyes on Reginald Bell III.

At the time of the conversation in August, Bell was only a week out from being an uncle. Even before Reggie and his girlfriend gave birth to their first child, Renard guaranteed he wouldn’t be taking those duties lightly.

“I already planned out everything,” Renard said. “I can’t wait.”

When the Bells visit at the team hotel Thursday, it’ll be the first time Renard and Reginald III meet. Reggie, who wound up playing quarterback at Eastern Michigan and Ferris State, is still living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while his girlfriend completes her degree. He was recently hired as a motion capture, or MoCap, athlete for video game developer EA Sports and will help with animations for the next edition of the popular Madden Football series.

“We have to get to this game, to the Apple Cup,” Reggie said over the phone earlier this week, “because he has to meet his nephew.”

Reginald and Yarvelle have prepared Reginald III’s game-day attire. The nearly 4-month-old infant will be decked out in crimson, and the plan is to bring him inside Husky Stadium for a live viewing experience.

What does Reggie expect from uncle Renard?

“I think he’s going to be a great uncle,” Reggie said. “I think personally he’s going to love him, because he’s going to be that animated, goofy uncle.”

That big organ in his chest should take care of everything else.

“Renard just has a big heart, I’m not going to lie,” Reggie said. “Dude just has a big heart.”

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Washington State  wide receiver Renard Bell  hauls in a touchdown pass against Oregon State during the first half  Oct. 6 at Reser Stadium in Corvallis. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell hauls in a touchdown pass against Oregon State during the first half Oct. 6 at Reser Stadium in Corvallis. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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