There's a sad feeling that accompanies it all. Kenny Bell was saying that the other day in Chicago. It was an honest reply that, for some reason, you rarely hear when a college football player is asked what it feels like entering his senior season.
Guys always bring up other things. The extra motivation a final year provides, how fast it all went, the need to hug a trophy before the door closes.
Seldom, at least in the summer, do they talk about the feeling that would seem most natural of all: Sadness.
Maybe it’s because many don’t want to acknowledge the end until absolutely necessary, but Bell sees it coming up fast in the left lane. And that’s, well, sad. It’s as sad as whatever comes after life as a Husker is exciting.
“I kind of realized that I’ve took what I’ve been doing in life for granted, and I haven’t fully appreciated or cherished what I get to do for a living,” Bell said. “I think I sit down now and look back at how amazing this entire experience has been, and I’m so thankful for it that I have one more year, too. That’s something I’ve been trying to do differently in my life, is appreciate things more.
“That’s the thing I think you’ll see different out of me this year. I’m going to really cherish this year a whole lot.”
Those thoughts came to Bell early this summer, after a session of yoga, which the receiver practices daily.
His exercises complete, Bell began meditating on what’s been and what’s to come.
“I kind of just realized how good life is,” Bell said. “Life is beautiful, man. Life’s a good thing. I realized and started to appreciate how good my life is. I get to play football for fun and … get to go to school for free, get to make great friends. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
Whatever happens this season, it can’t be denied that Bell has already amassed an unbelievable fan following.
Whether it’s that he could leave Nebraska as the most statistically accomplished receiver in school history, or that easily recognizable Afro, or that he isn’t hesitant to voice an opinion on a wide range of topics ... whatever the reasons, Bell has a way of drawing Nebraska fans into his world.
When Bell joked on his popular Twitter account @Afro_Thunder80 in May that he had shaved his familiar ‘fro, it was good enough for blog and message board headlines across the state, not to mention 378 retweets.
Counting a man’s Twitter followers is not normally a useful evaluation tool, but geez, Bell has almost 56,000 of them. To put that in perspective, even the beloved Rex Burkhead has only 44,000.
When Bell tweeted earlier this offseason a seemingly innocuous opinion of what he thinks of night games — he prefers them in the day — responses of all kind swarmed his account.
So it goes … and goes.
“It’s fun,” Bell said of his tweets and whatever exchanges that follow. “Some people take it a little too far. But it’s fun. I can’t always say what I want to say because you got to be politically correct and I represent the university right now, so I have to bite my tongue sometimes, but I enjoy it. ... Now as far as feedback, everyone’s going to have a different opinion. That’s what’s beautiful about America.”
It’s a different time than it was even 10 years ago, with social media bridging the gap that previously separated communication between fans and athletes.
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Mostly that's an enjoyable thing for Bell, who said the following he’s created would be hard to duplicate anywhere but Nebraska.
“I couldn’t be doing the same thing in Colorado as a Buff. No one would care,” Bell said. “But here, it gives me an opportunity to build a brand. But I don’t really have a brand. I have a personality.”
With all that, of course, comes occasional dissenting opinions to Bell's tweets, sometimes delivered with a nasty edge, especially within a seven-day window after a Husker loss.
“I’ve been told that I’m a pompous idiot on Twitter, and it’s like, ‘You clearly don’t know me at all,’” Bell said. “But you know, it happens. You can’t make everybody happy. Ever. It’s literally impossible. You could be so nice to everybody but some people just won’t like you.”
For Bell, those people are of no worry. Not usually, and especially not now, as he prepares to enjoy his final Husker ride.
The goal for his senior year can be explained simply enough: Have fun with teammates and win a lot of games.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to do, but I just want to go out and play football right now,” Bell said. “I don’t really talk too much about what I think is going to happen or whatever my goals are.”
What he will tell you is he’d like to have a better year than 2013. While he had 52 catches for 577 yards, and a 99-yard kickoff return that may have saved Nebraska’s bacon against Penn State, his receiving numbers were down 284 yards from his sophomore year.
That can be explained in different ways. The emergence of Quincy Enunwa as a senior was a factor. So, too, was the fact Bell had a dislocated shoulder and strained AC joint that plagued him from October to the end of the regular season.
He isn't going to use that as a crutch.
“I didn’t like last year,” Bell said. “One, we didn’t play as good of football as I thought we should have. … But, yeah, personally, I didn’t play well enough for our team last year. Hurt, not hurt, new quarterback, same quarterback, I didn’t perform the way I needed to last year.”
Even so, Bell finds himself closing in on some significant milestones. With 138 career receptions, he’s 32 from surpassing Nate Swift for Nebraska’s all-time record. With 1,901 receiving yards, he’s 578 from catching Johnny Rodgers at the top of that list.
A college football player doesn’t have 56,000 people following him on Twitter for personality alone. You have to have some game too.
As for possibly catching a Husker legend such as Rodgers in the record books, Bell is taking that in stride. It’s hardly his main point of emphasis this final fall wearing the "N" on his helmet.
“Yes, in the terms of record books, it’d be cool to see my name up there, but honest to God, look me in the face and tell me that Nebraska fans will think that I’m better than Johnny Rodgers. Not a chance,” Bell said. “Would it be cool to hold the records? Absolutely. Stamp that one. That’s cool. But will people actually consider me as the best receiver in Nebraska history? I don’t know and that’s not what’s really important to me.
"I want to be known for the type of man I am … the interactions I have with people, way more than I care about what people think what type of football player I am.”
Life is good. Life is beautiful. A football season draws closer.