Blake Bell sat in the middle of S&B’s Burger Joint in Oklahoma City celebrating with family at the end a day he’d waited more than three years to arrive. Almost 40 friends and family surrounded him, taking up an entire section of the restaurant. His dad and brother cornered him, looking for greater insight into the day’s most memorable moments. Bell was happy to oblige. There were picturesque touchdown passes of 35 and 25 yards to Sterling Shepard and Jalen Saunders. There was an 82-yard pass to Jaz Reynolds. By the end of the day, Bell had etched his name in Oklahoma’s storied record book with 413 yards and four touchdowns in a 51-20 in over Tulsa.
No Sooners quarterback had even thrown for more yardage in his first start. Even Bell’s grandfather, who hadn’t been to a game in about two years, got to see the debut.
Over and over again, Brock and Mark Bell wanted to ask Blake about his perspective on various plays throughout the day. He’d walk them through what he saw.
From the bleachers surrounding Owen Field, they had seen Blake enjoy one of his career’s best days because he found a way to fight through one of the worst.
Four months after Bell signed his letter of intent with Oklahoma, the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 43rd round of the MLB Draft. Bell made the easy decision to keep his talents focused on the football field as the nation’s No. 4 quarterback and a five-star recruit. He made that decision knowing he would have to wait his turn.
While Landry Jones played out his record-setting, four-year career, Bell earned a much bigger role than most young quarterbacks waiting their turn behind future NFL Draft picks like Jones. The week before Oklahoma’s game against Kansas State in 2011, Oklahoma installed a jumbo package in hopes of converting short-yardage downs that had proven problematic for much of the past few seasons. Bell, at 6-foot-6, 252 pounds, was asked to use his size and powerful legs to key the formation, which eventually became known as the Belldozer. He’d go on to score 13 rushing touchdowns in the next six games and was named MVP of an Insight Bowl win over Iowa. He reprised his role with 11 more touchdowns in 2012, and most assumed he would seize a role as Jones’ heir. That included Bell and his family.
On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 22, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told the team Trevor Knight would start the season opener on Aug. 31 against Louisiana-Monroe.
Bell had waited his turn. That was part of the plan. Losing the starting quarterback job to a freshman was not part of the plan. Blake was “blindsided” by the decision, his brother Brock told Fox Sports Southwest this week.
Around 11:30 that morning, Blake made his first call to his dad, Mark.
“That was a tough call right there. That was hard to swallow,” Mark said in a phone interview this week. “There were some tears going for sure, a lot of emotion. He didn’t know what to do.”
Later that day, Brock sent Blake a text and told him to come home after practice. The two have lived under the same roof for 22 years, and Brock knew a getaway was needed on the final weekend before the season.
Thursday night and Friday morning, Bell “kept to himself,” fullback and roommate Trey Millard said.
“Those were some tough days,” said Brock, who later added that transferring from Oklahoma was never seriously discussed. “The family’s all back home, it’s just me and Blake down here.”
Later that Friday, Brock and Blake jumped in a car and Brock drove the brothers back home a little less than 200 miles to Wichita.
“It was gut-wrenching, because Blake worked so hard for that,” Mark said. “We felt like he paid his dues. I just told Blake, it’s your turn, it’s your time, and when it didn’t happen, it was one of the hardest things our family went through.”
The brothers arrived back at the Bell house in Wichita on Friday night.
They didn’t leave the house until it was time for church on Sunday morning.
Bell’s debut against Tulsa wouldn’t have been the same without those few days in Wichita.
Blake’s mom, Sherry, kept the kitchen busy with home-cooked meals. In between chowing down, there were mostly movies and talk.
Very little of that talk had anything to do with football.
“It was just about being next to each other as a real close family, being together, getting away from the atmosphere in Norman for a weekend, just to kind of reflect and not really talk about much,” Mark said. “All he wanted to do was be home.”
Both Mark and his brother, Mike, were NFL defensive ends after careers at Colorado State. Both had experienced plenty of disappointment inside and outside of football.
“For a lot of people, they’d probably get angry at the program or get down, but Blake never did,” Brock said. “He stayed positive and probably handled it better than anybody else in our family.”
There wasn’t time to feel sorry for himself.
The message had to sound old by now, but it was the same one he’d heard from his dad for two years as Landry Jones’ apprentice.
“You’ve always got to be ready, because when your time comes, if somebody gets hurt or whatever, if you’re not ready, then they go to the next guy and it’ll be ‘I told you so,'” Mark said.
Before Brock and Blake headed back to Norman, Mark gave his son a hug, leaving him with a reminder to use his disappointment as motivation.
“When he first got there, he was just really down,” Mark said. “When he left he seemed a lot different. Those couple days were good for him to reflect.”
The disappointment wasn’t completely gone, but you wouldn’t have known it from Bell’s performance in practice on Monday after the trip home, even though he hadn’t shed his status as the backup.
“I could tell how focused he was,” former roommate and offensive lineman Gabe Ikard said.
That Saturday, he stood on the sidelines while Knight completed less than 40 percent of his passes in the season opening win against Louisiana-Monroe. A week later against West Virginia, he completed just 50 percent of his passes, but the “one play away” mantra became more than a cliché when Knight suffered a knee injury.
The injury limited Knight’s effectiveness, and Bell quietly played the role of closer in a 16-7 win over the Mountaineers. He was asked to carry the ball twice and throw it just once after replacing Knight at the beginning of the fourth quarter. After the game, Stoops officially reopened the quarterback competition. By Monday an examination of Knight’s knee revealed he would be out for up two weeks. Stoops no longer had a decision to make.
Bell finally owned the job he’d worked three years for. The circumstances weren’t what he’d envisioned. It didn’t matter. Opportunity had arrived.
Blake and his father usually talk quite a bit leading up to games, and as Blake’s situation changed, so did Mark’s message. Forget motivation, chips on shoulders and trying to find positives in difficult situations. It was hard to stop smiling the days before his first start.
“We talked about how you’ve got a window now, this is an opportunity for you. You’ve just got to take the most of it,” Mark said. “As hard as you’ve been working through the whole month or two months before, this week, you’ve got to prepare even more to make sure you’re ready.”
Blake’s performance against Tulsa only confirmed what Mark had hoped. His day proved that all the talk about being “one play away” had sunk in.
“I was so proud of Blake because he was ready,” Mark said.
Most importantly, he ensured himself a second start on Saturday against Notre Dame, even after Knight returned to practice earlier this week.
He’s still a long way from providing a definitive answer to the “Yeah, but can the Belldozer throw?” question. Saturday at Notre Dame, he’ll have an opportunity to chip away at critics who argue he’s little more than a short-yardage weapon incapable of efficiently running the Sooners’ entire offense.
“Blake’s very confident and he understands the situation. That’s one thing about Blake. He’s got no problem rising to the occasion and stuff like this doesn’t really make him nervous. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen him anything but calm and cool,” Mark said. “Blake’s from a Catholic family and a Catholic boy, and he’s going back to play at Notre Dame, probably one of the most special universities in the country. I mean, what could get better than that?”
More than 20 family members will be in South Bend watching him on Saturday, along with a handful of friends. Thanks to sky-high hotel prices, the family rented out a house for the weekend, so at least a few of Bell’s family members will be camped out on the floor for the weekend.
He’s waited his turn. He dealt with disappointment and didn’t let it slow his development. Now, he’ll get another opportunity on one of the biggest Saturdays of his life. The outcome may determine much of the future of the quarterback situation in Norman.
“He’s ready,” Mark said.
If Mark is right, there’s no doubt South Bend will play host to another loud, smile-filled family dinner for the Bells on Saturday night.