All in the Family: Football, Walt Bell and the pursuit of perfection
"This is all I’ve got.”
October 23, 2019
Day after day, rain or shine, the families are always at practice.
It’s a full house on a Friday in late September, as the Massachusetts football team is running through its final walkthrough before hosting Akron the following evening.
Emma Paschall, assistant head coach Luke Paschall’s three-year-old daughter, scurries across the concrete just outside the turf at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. Bear Shadeed, strength coach Matt Shadeed’s three-year-old son, is hot on her heels. They’ve been playing tag for 20 minutes, running and running with no end in sight.
Emily Shadeed has to remind Bear every few minutes not to go running into the dirt and gravel underneath the stadium — he’s wearing brand-new sneakers, bright white soles just waiting to be dirtied — while she chats with Lauren Paschall. Emily and Lauren were pregnant at the same time while their husbands were on staff at Arkansas State, before their respective paths diverged, before Walt Bell had reconvened them all in Amherst.
At the end of practice, once Walt’s finished with his last team address before gameday, he strolls over and greets his wife Maria with a kiss as he always does, leaning over the fence on the west side of the field, UMass’ sideline on gamedays.
Walt and Maria have been married for a year and a half now, and it wasn’t always like this at their last couple of stops, with the families hanging around during practice. With Walt and Luke calling the shots now, they’ve got a particular past experience — one that predates Walt meeting Maria — that they’re trying to emulate.
“It’s really refreshing,” Maria says. “You feel like you’re with them a little, at least in the same vicinity — you get to have a little community.
“And you get a smooch at the end when they’re running in to watch film, too.”
At his introductory press conference in December, Walt talked a lot about family — his football family, the coaches that he owed thanks for every step in his career, the players who’d put their blood and sweat on the line for him; his own family, his stepmother and half-sisters, his half-brother and adopted brothers.
And lastly, his father.
“Like any son, especially a son from south of the Mason-Dixon line, I spent my entire life hoping for this moment in time, to make sure that he was proud of me,” he said. Before he spoke about his father, he made clear that this would be the tough one. A couple deep breaths, a second or two to collect himself.
“It’s kind of your mission as a son to make your father proud, and I hope I’ve done that.”
Nine months later, there’ve been hardships. Ahead of the Akron game, the Minutemen are 0-4. The staff and the team have been through plenty — roster turnover, culture implementation, a changing of the proverbial guard. Walt Bell’s a man who always needs a task; his most difficult yet sits in front of him.
Emma’s been on the run for a while, and she splits a pair of benches to get away from Bear. Eventually she runs out of steam, and she knows Bear has her trapped as she moves back towards the adults. She ducks behind Maria, and uses her leg as cover.
She feints left and right; Bear tags her anyways.
Dickson, Tennessee sits about 45 minutes west of Nashville, a few exits down I-40. The Bell family is fairly well-known, as small-town doctors in a place with only a few thousand people tend be. Walt Bell’s the latest to inherit the family name — Walter A. Bell IV, after his father, grandfather and great grandfather.
The nicknames became a necessity after Walt’s father came along. The men of the house got sick of someone yelling “Walter!” and having three heads turn; Walter A. Bell Sr. was Walter Sr., Walter A. Bell Jr. went by “W.A,” and Walt’s father, Walter A. Bell III, somehow, someway, became Butch.
Butch was a doctor, like his father and his grandfather before him. He met a woman in Memphis in the early 80s, a nurse by the name of Jane Harper, and together they had a son in 1984. Jane left when Walt was a year old. She and Butch were both very private people, not much for sharing, but in all likelihood they just weren’t all that compatible. Having Walt was probably a big part of the reason they’d gotten married in the first place, after all, though the details of the separation weren’t the sort of thing they’d have shared.
And for a while, Butch was left to raise two boys on his own, Walt and his older half-brother Jason, Jane’s son from a previous marriage. Butch was old-school; tough lover, not a lot of hugs, not a lot of “good jobs” and high-fives. He was up at 4 a.m. for work, did his rounds and had the boys up and rolling with a list of tasks to complete. Chores, jobs around the house, always a task.
Walt and Jason would head to school, then after-school sports, and when they were home after Butch got off work at 3 or 4 p.m., same thing: another list of tasks. Another list of chores, or 100 free throws to hit, or 100 balls to hit off a tee, he always kept them busy.
“So if you were in a laboratory, trying to create kind of a psychotic high-achiever, he probably did a pretty good job,” Walt says with a laugh.
Butch remarried when Walt was six or seven. The Bells were living in a trailer house while they built a home on Walt’s grandfather’s land, when he met his soon-to-be stepmother, Mary.
“I remember my dad very specifically walking in and saying ‘Hey, I’m going on vacation, when I come back, she’s your mom,’” he says. “And I said, ‘Okay, yes sir.’ And they went to Bermuda and got married.”
That was par for the course for Butch — not a lot of sharing, not a lot of heart-to-hearts, not a lot of long, sentimental talks, just a quick heads-up. Butch and Mary had two girls together, Sophie and Rachel, Walt’s half-sisters, before they separated when Walt went off to college.
He was a decent high school quarterback, though he still laments not being quite good enough to have led the team to a state title his senior year. Dickson is the sort of place that lives for football, where you could rob any place in town on a Friday night because everyone was at the game.
After his final game at wideout for Middle Tennessee State, a blowout loss to Central Michigan in the 2006 Motor City Bowl, Bell came home to a message on his answering machine: do you want to GA?
Bell had been close with Blake Anderson, the offensive coordinator his first two seasons at Middle Tennessee. After a couple years away from football, Anderson was taking the offensive coordinator job at Louisiana. But they didn’t have a graduate assistant position until August, and it was still spring.
Bell had some decisions to make. Law school was an option, perhaps with some tie to athletics, or maybe he could join the military to have any further education paid for — his brother Jason is in the Air Force, as was his grandfather.
Butch was always really clear about one thing: Walt needed to do what he wanted to do. The Bells are a family of doctors, and Walt even came to Middle Tennessee pre-med, eventually winding up with a biology minor having completed all the pre-requisites — but if that wasn’t the path, so be it. Truthfully, it perhaps shouldn’t have been Butch’s.
“This is nothing my dad ever said, but there were some pieces of him that were a little unhappy, and I think a lot of that had to do with — he never did what he wanted to do, he did what his dad did, like a majority of sons,” Walt says. “That story’s been a told a million times. And my dad was just very adamant, ‘I’m okay if you do medicine, but you gotta make sure that’s what you want to do.’
“My dad did not talk a lot, we didn’t have a lot of really deep, personal, loving conversations, that’s just not who my dad was — love was more through action and his hard work to ensure that I had what I needed. But I think that of the one or two conversations that we may have had that may have been 30 seconds apiece, he was really adamant, just do what you want to do. Whatever you choose to do, as long as you’re passionate about it and you love what you do, good things will happen.”
The call came from Anderson, and Walt packed all his stuff into a Ford Bronco and drove from Murfreesboro, Tennessee to Lafayette, Louisiana. He lived in the coaches’ locker room for six months, eating whatever food the staff happened to bring in, walking to the Raising Cane’s across the street whenever someone was willing to pay. If not for Anderson, he’d have had much more trouble feeding himself and taking care of himself, and within six months, had gone from just north of 200 pounds to around 170.
Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee’s coach Bell’s senior year, heard about his situation, and helped him get a GA position that had just opened under Tommy West at Memphis. It was $513 a month, no food, no housing. “That first year was either afford a cell phone and gasoline, or have a place to live,” Bell says, so he spent the first year living in a big closet in the GA room at Memphis.
Bell eventually followed Anderson to Southern Miss, then North Carolina and finally to Arkansas State. Anderson the head coach, Bell his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Without Blake Anderson, Bell would never have become a coach, and he probably wouldn’t have survived his first couple stops.
“I’ve said this before: other than my father, Blake Anderson’s the most important man walking the face of the earth,” he says. “He taught me to be much more empathetic, he taught me how to really love and care for kids, and what’s really important about this game.
“Because without him, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.”
Bell says he has one professional goal and two personal goals, the first personal goal the one he cites as most important.
“Everyone that I come into contact with, I hope I can make their life better. And that’s it,” he says. “As much time as I spend with someone, I hope I can help influence their life in a positive way. Whether it’s a smile on my face, just being somebody to give you a hug and ask how your day is, because I truly believe that the more good that you can do in the world, the more good you get in return.
“Every time I’ve made a selfish decision, whether it’s based on prestige or a contract, things don’t work out well. Every decision I’ve ever made with good intentions in my heart, trying to help others, great things have happened.”
Bell took the offensive coordinator job at Maryland in 2016, where he re-connected with Maria. They’d met years earlier, when Luke and Lauren Paschall were still dating — Lauren and Maria have been best friends for years, and lived together in Washington, D.C. while Walt and Luke were at North Carolina. Walt made the trip with Luke when the latter visited Lauren — Walt slept on the couch.
They knew each other for quite a while, but the timing wasn’t there, they were always dating somebody else. Eventually a single Walt came to Maryland, Maria had just broken up with a boyfriend, and the stars had finally aligned.
“It’s funny how things work out, when things are meant to be and you land in the healthiest, best relationship I’ve ever been in,” she says. “I really believe there’s someone out there for everybody, and I wouldn’t have believed that until I met him.”
She went with him to Florida State, and they married in June of 2018. There were three guests: Maria’s parents, plus Walt’s stepmother Mary. They’d probably have gotten married at the courthouse if one of Maria’s friends hadn’t talked her out of it, convincing them to just have a small ceremony somewhere, and at least have some pictures taken. Maria wasn’t even going to get her hair done.
“One of my girlfriends in Tallahassee was like, ‘don’t be dumb,’” she says with a laugh. “’Get your hair done.’”
Maria hired a wedding photographer, plus a videographer from Florida State football to document the proceedings. Little fanfare, little hoopla. Bell-style.
Maria’s the team mom these days, as much a pillar of support as anyone within the program. She was a real estate agent back in D.C, a fast-paced, ego-driven world in as competitive a market as there is.
“It was crazy hours, like 7 to 7, an every day grind,” she says. “I’m glad I did it, because I think I respect his time more — I was working 7 to 7, and he was still outworking me. You understand what it takes to build something, and the time you need to invest to be really great at something.”
She laughs talking about how much easier things are now, without that 7 to 7 grind. She’s invested in all the players’ lives now, whether that’s her presence at every surgery if someone gets hurt or hosting a group of kids for dinner. She’s had to adjust to Walt’s schedule — waking up at 4 a.m. was not her speed, initially — but it’s been otherwise seamless.
“You just love them and support them,” Maria says. “We want to be an example for them, with happy and healthy relationships, just surrounding them with positivity. The more they start to see what’s possible for a healthy relationship and marriage, the better.”
At the end of practice in October, Emma Paschall scurries onto the turf to meet her dad. While Walt addresses the media, Luke plays a game of ring around the rosie with his daughter, and they fall to the turf every few seconds. As he sits Emma comes running in to tackle him, and he catches her and throws her up in the air.
Luke’s pretty old-school: outwardly he’s the toughest coach on the staff, a picture of intensity throughout practice. He’s the only coach you can regularly hear on the field, a bit more Bobby Knight than he is Coach K.
He handles the wide receivers and the special teams units, and lives and dies with the little details. Break a half-yard too early on a post route? You’re in trouble. Make a catch, but not quite extend your hands enough? You’re in trouble. Blow your coverage on a punt return? Oh boy.
“I think that’s all that matters,” Paschall says. “I really do. In anything you do in life or in this game, I think there are no such things as ‘big things,’ just details — I know it sounds like cliches, but if you really buy into it, there really aren’t.”
His office doubles as the wideouts room, and there’s a sign on the door that makes clear that cell phones are not allowed; a small plastic tub sits at the foot of the door, into which all phones are placed at the start of meetings, and from which they are retrieved only when the work is finished.
Paschall sits at his desk, a black UMass football hoodie and black Adidas sweatpants, a color scheme he rarely deviates from. He wears the same black Adidas longsleeve at almost every practice and certainly every game. He’s only wearing a maroon t-shirt while he plays ring around the rosie with Emma because he took his favorite longsleeve home to wash it and forgot to bring it back. It was the same deal back at Arkansas State, too — all black, always. It’s simple, a workman-like mentality.
Like Bell, Paschall was a wide receiver at Middle Tennessee. He was an offensive graduate assistant at Oklahoma State, Ole Miss and North Carolina before he got his first full-time job at Arkansas State in 2014, where he spent four seasons as a special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach, before taking the same job at North Carolina under Larry Fedora in 2018.
It was fortunate timing, in a way — Paschall figured they’d have at least one more season in Chapel Hill, but after a 2-9 finish, Fedora and his staff were fired, Paschall included, on Nov. 25. A few days later, Bell was hired at UMass.
“Walt got hired, he called me and said ‘hey, it’s all but done,’” Paschall says. “’I’m going to be the head coach at UMass.’ And I said good, because I’m out of a job.”
“I had some opportunities, some interviews at some Power Five schools at the time. But he’s family, so I’m going to come make it work for him.”
The Paschalls moved to Dickson when Luke was in the fifth grade. Luke and Walt were best friends before long — Luke finally had someone who cared about football like he did, Walt had someone who wanted to play basketball as much as he did, a match made in overcompetitive heaven.
The Paschall family was in a slightly different situation than the Bells. Luke grew up trailer park to trailer park, project to project. “I lived differently than he did growing up,” he says. “Walt lived across the train tracks.” Eventually, the Paschalls moved to Bluebird Drive in Dickson, less than a half mile from where the Bells lived, and it made hanging out that much easier.
In the summertime, Luke and his brother Tyler were out playing with Walt until it got dark — football, baseball, basketball, whatever — and they were close enough that it was convenient to sleep over, especially on the weekends. They’d spend Fridays and Saturdays at the Bell residence, then Sundays, then Thursdays too.
Over time, Butch could see what was going on in the Paschall household. The overnight stays got longer and more frequent as he started to figure it out.
“(Walt’s) family probably saw the writing on the wall about what could happen to me, knowing what could happen to me, knowing that Walt and I were best friends,” Luke says. His face shifts a bit. “Falling into the same traps that a lot of kids in America do, a lot of the same cycles as everybody around them when you grow up that way. They saw it. My original parents, loving me as much as they did… but Walt’s parents put me on the right track. They loved me just as much as my parents did, but they had the means and the mindset to put me on the right track.”
Eventually, Butch went over to the Paschall home to have a conversation that needed to be had, and Luke and Tyler stopped going home. They were 11 or 12 when Luke moved into Walt’s room, and they were roommates from then until they graduated college.
It took some getting used to: Butch had his own brand of love, tough as could be, but it came from the right place. That was new for Luke and Tyler.
“Dr. Bell was very tough, very tough on you but very wise at the same time. He could find a way to be really, really hard on you but still teach you the lesson at the same time,” Luke says. “My background was a little different than that, it was a little in your face growing up, and there wasn’t a lesson behind it sometimes. It was just very different to get that side of it.
“At first, knowing Dr. Bell, I took that a different way because of how I grew up, and eventually over time he broke down the walls and I started to learn those lessons a little more.”
The Paschall boys always addressed him as Dr. Bell, and still refer to him with his formal title; Tyler once made the mistake of trying to call him “Mr. Bell” and was promptly reminded — half-jokingly — that Butch hadn’t gone to medical school all those years to be called “Mr.” For the back half of their adolescence, he was their father, the man that put them on the right track and kept their futures from falling into that trap.
Eventually Butch was the one to step in once Walt and Luke were old enough to hurt each other, once their bodies caught up to their competitive drive.
“There’s been many a fight between him and I, my brother and him — we still are [competitive], but when it came to competition, true competition, it was bad,” Luke says. “To this day I’ve lost a bunch of friends over like sand volleyball games. I don’t like losing. If we ever had to coach against each other, we probably wouldn’t talk for a while. I’m being serious.
“When I say we fought, we fought. And that’s when his dad told us like, y’all can’t be on opposite teams anymore, y’all got to be on the same team. No more 1-on-1 in the driveway. It was a hard line, because someone was coming in with a black eye. It was bad.”
When they were re-united at North Carolina, a girl Walt was dating at the time — he hadn’t met Maria yet — said she just had to bring her friend down for a double date with Luke. He’d been set up on blind double dates before, they are what they are, but he agreed, and they hit it off. Her name was Lauren Hediger, a former collegiate basketball player at George Mason — the “competitive spirit” box was sufficiently fulfilled.
“Even in the beginning, she’s one of those people that you knew would deal with your s—, but she wouldn’t put up with your s—,” Luke says. “There’s a fine line, and she’s that. She deals with it, and she understands, but she won’t put up with my stuff. It’s competitive, to keep her, to like me. So that was good.”
They married in 2015 and Emma came along soon after. He hesitantly admits that Emma’s softened him as a coach – “It’s sad for me to say,” he says — which is incredible, given his usual level of intensity. It used to be worse?
“They wouldn’t know that, these coaches think I’m tough, but this is softer,” Luke says. “There’s still a job to be done, and I’m still going to let them know about it, but it used to be a lot worse. my first year at Arkansas State, when my name was on the special teams title, I was brutal. I was brutal. It could get bad.
“But that’s how I knew how to do it: coach the details really hard, don’t focus on anything else and if you don’t get the details the way you want it, give it to them loud and give it to them dirty.”
Blake Anderson eventually had to pull him aside and tell him to tone it down, but that’s Luke Paschall. It’s tough, but it comes from the right place.
“All I want is for them to be successful,” he says. “That’s it. I’ll do anything I gotta do. If I gotta pat them on the back and tell them I love them to make them great, I can do that. I can also do it the other way. Whatever it takes for you to be great.”
It was decided a long time ago that he’ll never coach Emma. He says it’s a really bad idea, and he promised Lauren that he’ll never do it, never be that dad in the stands, coaching from the bleachers. He’ll coach etiquette and effort on their own time, but that’s it.
Luke has a harder shell than most, but once practice ends and Emma comes running into his arms, the cold exterior melts away, and he’s Dad for a little while.
Like Walt, Luke’s intense and task-driven — he didn’t inherit the same genetics, but he’s a product of the same environment.
“Luke’s a great competitor,” Walt says. “Very frank, very upfront, very forthright, but also has the ability to put an arm around a kid and love in a really positive way.
“Kind of me and him both, for better or for worse, are a lot like my father.”
Luke leans forward in his office chair, pursing his lips as he stares at the ground. He shakes his head.
“God, I miss that man.”
The call came around 5:30 a.m. Walt was at Memphis, living in that closet in the GA room.
His phone was ringing as he went to shower before work — he came back and had eight or nine missed calls. Walt’s grandmother Lavenia, Butch’s stepmother, was sick at the time. He braced a bit.
“You get that many phone calls that time of the day,” he says, “you know it’s not good. I figured it was her.”
He finally picked up the phone, and it was his half-sister Sophie on the other end, screaming. It’s him, it’s him, it’s him. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.
The sad irony was that Butch had been doing fairly well; when he was 30, he looked a lot like Walt. Fairly trim, took good care of himself — a decade or two later he was nearly 300 pounds, with the health problems you’d expect as a result. The first heart attack came when Walt was in college, and Butch started taking better care of himself. He’d lost 40 or 50 pounds, he was in better shape, he was starting his own clinic and doing well, as healthy as he’d been in some time.
But like his father and his grandfather before him, a heart attack — his second — took him in May of 2008. Butch was 59.
Walt got dressed and went to work. Later in the day he pulled aside coach West and offensive coordinator Clay Helton and told them what was going on, and asked permission to head home. It was spring, and GAs weren’t so needed — Walt’s half-brother Jason drove up from Mississippi and they headed home to Dickson. They held the funeral, and Walt cleaned out his father’s house, took care of anything he knew his father would’ve wanted taken care of. He was back at work the day after the service.
“My dad died when I was 24, so at least I was mature enough that when he passed away, you can compartmentalize — you don’t look at him as ‘dad’ anymore, the all-perfect, the all-knowing,” he says. “When you’re old enough to really compartmentalize kind of who he was, and I always tell people this, and in some ways jokingly but there’s a lot of truth in humor: he was an average citizen; he was a below-average husband; but he was a wonderful father.
“There’s never any time in my life — because there were times where it was just he and I and my older half-brother, from my biological mom — there were times it was us, and he never missed anything. He was a wonderful dad, and he did everything he could for me.”
Walt says it all the time: for better or worse, he’s a lot like his father. “Smart, really smart, but hard-headed,” as Luke puts it.
In August, Walt was at the helm of his first college football game as a head coach, a Friday night trip to Rutgers. The Minutemen started well, taking a 21-7 lead into the second quarter, but found themselves on the wrong end of a 48-21 rout. He was asked afterwards if he took any deep breaths before the game to take it all in; he shot the question down.
A month later, sitting in his office in the Football Performance Center, he reflects on that night. He leans back in his chair, feet up on the coffee table. He mentions the questions about deep breaths and sentimental moments. His tone starts to shift.
“I never once had that deep breath moment, other than the fact that — my dad invested so much in me, and when he passed away, I was a nobody,” he says. “I was living in a closet in Memphis, Tennessee. I was f—– broke, literally living in the building in Memphis, Tennessee. And at this point in my life, I just wish he was here, just to know that everything that he did paid off.”
He pauses for a few seconds to collect himself. He’s not an emotional guy, but there’s something to hold back now.
“On the way to the stadium [at Rutgers], everyone was talking about, you know, are you going to go and walk around and take a big deep breath.
“My deep breath was, I just wish he was here for this.”
The staff Walt’s assembled has a common denominator — he cites them all as people he has personal ties with. He knows there are more growing pains ahead; he needs the right people in the foxhole with him.
“That’s important for me, especially at a place like this where it’s going to take an unbelievable amount of staff buy-in and energy and work,” Walt says. “It was really important to me that when we hired this staff, we hired young, energetic teachers that were desperate for success.
“You know that because there’s real love there, that they’re not going to let you down. No different than you and your mom or you and your dad, you know that when it really comes down to it, you know exactly where their intentions lie and you know that they’re going to do whatever it takes to find a way to fulfill the mission.”
When Walt and Luke — among others — were at North Carolina, Larry Fedora instilled that family environment: have the family around, and see them when you can see them. Families were there at the end of practice, they came in for meals on Monday nights, they were ingrained. Blake Anderson took that to another level at Arkansas State.
“Most head coaches don’t want distractions, you’ve got a job to do,” Luke says. “But we spend so much time away from family, it makes you want to work harder when you see your family. You almost forget sometimes that you’re not only doing it for the kids that you’re coaching for, but you’re doing it for your family too. Blake understood that, but it was genuine.
“That was so near and dear to Walt and I. We always said that that was the best atmosphere, having that and having that laid back, families around all the time, if we ever got a chance to do it we’d do it just like that. He’s been unbelievable with that, and — like, I’m his brother, (Emma)’s his niece, we’ve known Matt and Emily forever, Maria’s Lauren’s best friend, it makes it real easy to come around. It’s fun, I’ll tell you. It’s fun.”
It’s a football family through and through. Walt needs that in his life. He’s lost a lot. His father died when he was at Memphis, and while he was there, he started to reconnect with Jane, his biological mother. Walt had only seen Jane a handful of times by the time he’d got to college. They weren’t far from each other, and were really checking in on each other more as friends than anything else, something he says is hard to admit.
Jane had gotten her nursing degree from Vanderbilt and later returned for a masters in divinity, focusing on holistic medicine and faith healing rather than faith itself. She was a research assistant at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for some time, and returned to Memphis to teach at the University of Tennessee’s College of Medicine as Walt was taking the GA job.
Walt was at North Carolina when she died of an overdose in 2013. She was living on her own in Memphis, teaching bedside professionalism, bedside manner, that sort of thing. Polydrug toxicity was the official reason on the death certificate, some mixture of alcohol, depression medications and some street drugs mixed in as well. She was 60.
“I don’t have a lot of family left,” Walt says. “And knowing what we’re going to go through, the growing pains that we’re going to go through, the hard times and the trials and tribulations to ultimately get what we all want in the end, which is a sustainable, winning culture, it’s important to have people with you that you love and you care about.
“To me, this is my family. Other than Maria, this is all I got. So to have a bunch of players that we can invest in, to have a bunch of coaches that I know and that I trust and that I’ve got backgrounds with, and that we all have skin in the game together, I think when we go through hard times that we’re going to get through it.”
After Bilal Ally bursts through the hole for a game-sealing first down, all Michael Curtis had to do was kneel out the rest of the clock. Curtis had thrown for two touchdowns and walked in for another, leading UMass to a 37-29 win over Akron at the end of September, the day after Bear Shadeed and Emma Paschall’s marathon game of tag.
The families have a little viewing party in Walt’s office, and are out on the Football Performance Center balcony above the tunnel when the players run in — the wives pose for a photo just before the alma mater starts.
As the last notes play out, and the band lets out a final, collective “Massachusetts, yours and mine,” the players come flying into the tunnel back to the locker room, happier than they’ve been all season. It’s the first win of the new era. Injured cornerback Chris Hunt comes speeding through on his medical scooter, one leg propped as he wheels nearly out of control.
Emily Shadeed scans the crowd for her husband, and spots Matt near the back of the pack, oozing enthusiasm as only he can.
Luke Paschall — in his black Adidas long sleeve — walks briskly off the turf and looks up, locking eyes with Lauren, and blows her a kiss. She’s pregnant again, the Paschalls expecting a boy in January. Settling on a boy name has been rough — the Shadeeds struggled with that process with Bear once upon a time — and nothing has quite rolled off the tongue like “Emma Rose” did.
Somewhere Maria looks on, in one of the proudest moments of her marriage to date. The Bells are trying to start a family of their own, the next big step in their lives. If they’re fortunate enough to conceive — Maria crosses her fingers when the subject arises, Luke raps his knuckles twice on the wooden desk in his office — and it’s a boy, Walt settled on a name some time ago. Walter A. Bell V, some insurance that his father’s memory will live on.
“I don’t know if I necessarily wanted that to be the name of my first-born son, but when my father died — part of it feels selfish when it’s about you, but when it’s more about his great great grandfather, his great grandfather and his grandfather, the fact that my father’s not around to be there, that’s something that’s really important,” Walt says. “Even in name alone, that his grandfather, my father, is with him and around him in some way.”
Therein lies Walt’s second personal goal: to be a better father than his own. He does have a bar to clear — Butch Bell was a private and complicated man, with his fair share of flaws and struggles; but he loved his children dearly, his own, those he took in and those he inherited, and worked tirelessly to provide for them.
He made Walt tough, self-sufficient. Walt’s grateful for that, even if there are certain parts of life that can be made difficult. The result is an ever-present dangling carrot: always another goal, another task, another challenge.
“I’m a little bit not too high, not too low, and some of that’s training by dad,” Walt says. “And a lot of people may think that I’m not happy or I’m not satisfied, because what I’m chasing is perfection. And that’s never going to happen. And knowing when you live that life, if you’re always trying to achieve at a high level, you’re really not going to happy be very much. But at the end, the achievement at the end of that chase is something that you’re satisfied with.
“One way or the other, I’ll always be around football, until the clicker goes off.”
Once the locker room celebrations dies down and Athletic Director Ryan Bamford hands Walt the game ball, the spoils of his first career win, he’s a bit subdued. When he addresses the team, he isn’t loud or cheerful or enthusiastic; he’s a little quiet, a little withdrawn.
“I just want you guys, more than anything else — my father, and Luke Paschall’s dad, he couldn’t be here,” he says. He pauses occasionally. His voice breaks once or twice. “And I just want you to know how proud I would’ve been to make sure that he knew that I f—ing turned into somebody.”
He breaks the huddle and slips out the side of the whiteboard wall that serves as his backdrop when he speaks, heading for the exit. He passes the plaque just inside the locker room door that commemorates the Michael Boland Inspirational Award, given annually to the program’s most dedicated player, and hangs a right out the double doors. A left and another left takes him to the back stairwell of the FPC. It’s quiet by now. Can’t really hear the band anymore, can’t hear the locker room either.
He emerges on the second floor and moves down the maroon-painted hallways, photos of Minutemen past and present lining the halls. He steps into his office for a moment to see Maria, as he always does. He’s a long way from Dickson now, but those he loves couldn’t be closer.
He shuffles back out and continues down the corridor, toward the front lobby of the FPC, past donors and alumni filing out of the Hunt Room where he’d delivered his first remarks as head coach back in December, back when all the laying of foundation was only beginning. He’d stood at the dais in a full maroon suit, that one professional goal in mind: one night, one time, to be part of an organization that was the best in the world. He used to think that meant a national championship as a head coach, a Super Bowl as a head coach; that meaning is deeper now, a little less selfish, he says.
“So much of college football is about opportunities and timing and things going your way,” Bell says. “And to me, being on a stage and winning a bowl game here at the University of Massachusetts with everything this program’s been through, the transition it’s had, the difficulties it’s had — to me, that’d be pretty damn close.”
One final right and left brings him to the team auditorium, where the assembled media are waiting for the head coach after his first win.
Still, he’s a bit subdued. Perhaps after the struggles of the first few weeks, the joy manifests more as relief. Maybe he’s just a little tired. Maybe he’s still thinking about his dad.
Eventually, he’s asked about it; the first win. Butch Bell wasn’t really one for deep breaths and sentimental moments, and Walt Bell isn’t either. Walt’s answer is short and to the point, six words and nothing more, the sort of single-mindedness Butch would have been damn proud of:
“That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.