Wide receiver Ronnie Bell was one of the lowest rated recruits of the Jim Harbaugh era. In fact, Bell — more widely regarded for his abilities on the basketball court than the football field — was a fringe three-star prospect out of Missouri who only started to garner collegiate attention as a pigskin prospect as a senior.
After a tip from a family friend, Harbaugh was intrigued by this hyper-athletic prospect no one was recruiting and decided to offer him a scholarship. Bell, who once thought D-2 basketball was in his future, now had one Division 1 football offer to play for the Michigan Wolverines.
The young freshman enrolled in June and hit the ground running in Ann Arbor. Bell appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2018 and totaled eight receptions for 145 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
In a deep wide receiver room, Bell quickly carved out his role on the Revenge Tour and earned the team’s offensive rookie of the year award.
However, Bell’s early usage and success was met with a mixed reaction from fans. As he got his feet underneath him, he had drops and mistakes as every freshman does, but because he was playing over a pair of highly touted sophomores (Tarik Black, Oliver Martin), his growing pains were met with snarky criticisms.
“Three star gonna three star!” was the most popular, but the simple, “Why is HE playing?” was a close second as a certain portion of fans focused more on narrative than fact. Bell was a better wide receiver than Black and Martin, and he continued to prove that in his sophomore year.
His breakout season was 2019; the true sophomore led the team in receptions (48) and receiving yards (758), and this was a team that featured Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins (both now starting in the NFL) alongside him.
While Bell was producing at a high level, his inconsistencies reared their ugly heads on one of the biggest stages of the season. Facing a hostile white-out environment on the road against undefeated Penn State, the Wolverines had slowly battled back from a 21-0 deficit to be within one score late in the fourth quarter.
Facing a fourth and goal from the Penn State three yard line with two minutes remaining, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson eluded pressure and hit Bell square in the numbers in the end zone. Unfortunately, the ball leaked from Bell’s grasp and fell to the grass. Penn State 28, Michigan 21.
Bell was visibly distraught on the sidelines and in the biggest moment of his athletic career, he had never felt smaller. The “three star gonna three star” crowd sharpened their mangled Twitter fingers, but everything took a dark turn when Connor Grady — a recent UM graduate — personally emailed Bell a hate-filled rant:
“Please quit the team already. Utterly sad that my tuition goes to paying for the scholarship for such a scrub a— player like you. Bum a—. Go play basketball somewhere. Please do us all a favor and never play football again.”
Bell’s father, Aaron, shared the message on Twitter and the Michigan faithful quickly galvanized to express their support. In the following game, fans were able to personally express their sentiments to Ronnie.
In a rain-filled game against Notre Dame, Bell only registered one catch, but as soon as he secured the pass, the Big House erupted into chants of “RONNIE, RONNIE!” It was a special moment for Bell that proved for every one loud detractor, there were 110,000 supporters who were louder.
At the conclusion of 2019, Bell was named the team’s offensive skill position player of the year and expectations for his junior season were sky high.
While Bell again led the team in receptions (26) and receiving yards (401) in the six-game 2020 season, the year was a colossal disappointment for a 2-4 Michigan team. Fingers were being pointed, players were leaving the program, and the future never felt more directionless. But thanks to several key players including Bell, the team rediscovered its purpose, changed directions and reinvigorated their culture.
For his efforts, Team 142 elected Bell as a team captain for the 2021 season.
During Michigan’s season opener, Bell was the best player on the field. Last year, I wrote: “Bell looked poised for a Biletnikoff Award run in the first game of the season against Western Michigan. The receiver had one catch for a 76-yard touchdown and a spectacular one-handed reception that was negated for pass interference.
“However, while returning a punt in a similar incredible fashion to previous Michigan greats, Bell went down awkwardly. His agony was visible by all viewers and immediately the worst fears of fans, teammates and coaches were realized. Michigan’s best offensive player was lost for the season less than halfway through the first game.”
It felt unfair. Why did it have to be Ronnie? Harbaugh understood the severity of Bell’s injury but offered words of optimism in terms of his team captain’s road to recovery: “If anybody can do it, Ronnie will,” Harbaugh said.
Despite having his on-field season prematurely ended, his impact would be felt throughout 2021. Injury forced Bell to relinquish his player responsibilities, but not his captain duties.
Continuing from my aforementioned article last year:
“While Bell would not see the field again, he became more visible and impactful than ever for the Wolverines. Bell did not miss practices or games and despite being reduced to crutches, he continued to carry the burden of being a team captain by leading and coaching teammates from the sidelines.”
Bell was one of the heartbeats of Team 142; the team that finally beat Ohio State, won a Big Ten Championship and changed the expectation for the Michigan football program.
The 2021 season was supposed to be Bell’s, and in a way it was. But he was not going to accept that ending to his playing career in Ann Arbor. His career started with a Revenge Tour and it was going to end with one; captain Ronnie Bell was returning for his fifth year.
In 2022, Bell — for the third time in four healthy seasons — once again led the Wolverines in receptions (62) and receiving yards (889). But in doing so this time, he directly helped the team beat Ohio State and win another Big Ten Championship. The latter game saw Bell snag the game-sealing touchdown against Purdue.
Michigan enjoyed its winningest two-year stretch in program history from 2021-22 and that would not have been possible without players like Bell. The two-time team captain refused to let his career be defined by recruiting rankings, dropped passes, disgruntled fans, a pandemic and a knee injury.
Bell’s career is defined by leadership and perseverance; a career that sneakily saw him appear in 47 games and finish top 10 all-time in receptions and receiving yards at Michigan. How quickly things can change from, “Why is HE playing?” to “I wish he could have stayed one more year.”
Oh well, three star gonna three star.