The Buffalo Bills’ 1984 season was a living nightmare until Greg Bell had a dream.
“I remember it like yesterday,” Bell says. “I dreamed I took the first handoff of the game and ran for a touchdown – and then it actually happened.”
The Bills were 0-11 when the Dallas Cowboys came to town. But, on the first play from scrimmage, the rookie running back took a handoff from quarterback Joe Ferguson and busted it 85 yards for a touchdown.
Monday it will be 35 years ago to the day since that dream of a run. At breakfast that morning, he told fellow Bills running back Booker Moore about his overnight vision.
“I remember telling Booker – bless his heart, he passed a few years ago – that I had had this premonition, man, I was going to take the first handoff for a touchdown,” Bell says by telephone from Los Angeles. “After the game I told the newspaper guys about my dream and Booker looked up and said, ‘Hey, he said it to me this morning.’ ”
Moore, who died of a heart attack 10 years ago, was selected by the Bills out of Penn State in the first round of the 1981 draft. Bell was selected by the Bills out of Notre Dame in the first round of the 1984 draft.
“It was such a funny thing to say and I didn’t know how Booker would react when I told him,” Bell says. “He just looked at me and he said, ‘You the man, GB.’ ”
Bell really was the man that day, running 27 times for 206 yards and catching two passes for 12 yards, including the other Bills’ TD on a pass from Ferguson. The Bills were 0-3 in their history against the Cowboys until that 14-3 win and wouldn’t play them again until Super Bowl XXVII.
The temperature at game time was 38 degrees, with a wind chill of 29, which hardly counts as cold by Buffalo standards, but was cold enough for the Cowboys.
“When you get a team that’s not used to the cold weather, you know they’re going to come out – I don’t want to say soft, but a little slow,” Bell says. “And we hit them on the first play and they never caught up.”
Cowboys running back Ron Springs was a good friend of Bell’s and, through Springs, Bell had friendships with some other Cowboys, including Tony Dorsett and Everson Walls.
“When you’re 0-11,” Bell says, “you at least want some kind of bragging rights with your friends.”
Bell played in the Pro Bowl his rookie year, but ankle injuries limited his production in succeeding seasons in Buffalo. The Bills traded him to the Los Angeles Rams in 1987 as part of the blockbuster 10-player, three-team deal that brought Cornelius Bennett to Buffalo and Eric Dickerson to Indianapolis.
The change of scenery was a bell ringer for Bell, who was the NFL’s 1988 comeback player of the year. He led the league in rushing TDs with 16 in 1988 and 15 in 1989. He finished his career with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990.
These days Bell, 57, is president and CEO of Athletes For Life, a foundation that provides educational services, summer camps and after-school programs for young people in Southern California.
“My passion is to be a mentor for kids,” Bell says. “Teaching kids to make the right decisions in life, sending 90% of our kids to college and watching them become quality, taxpaying individuals. We’ve worked with more than 40,000 kids over 30 years.”
Bell says his bent for public service began when he played for the Bills and was named by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo as spokesperson for the state’s Athletes Against Drunk Driving program.
“Health-wise, I feel pretty good,” Bell says. “If I’m above the earth, I’m good. But I’d like to get my weight down. I’m 260 (pounds) and I’d like to be 230.”
He was listed at 210 when he took that handoff 35 years ago and ran into his own dream.
“I can still see it in my mind,” he says. “I can’t see it with my feet anymore, that’s for sure. I don’t remember what the cadence was, but it was a sprint draw to the left. That was one of my favorite plays. I made a lot of yards off of that play.
“My shoulders were square. I was coming downhill. I had a complete 180-degree view of the field. I knew where the holes were going to pop open. I made a couple of quick cuts in the beginning to get through the line and then it just became one of those arguments – you know, catch me if you can.”
The Cowboys couldn’t.
“Me and Tony Dorsett used to argue about who was faster,” Bell says. “I told him I was a track guy but because I was 20 pounds heavier he just assumed I couldn’t run with him. And so we used to joke about it all the time.
“I remember him coming up to me on the field after the game and saying, ‘Yeah, maybe you can run.’ I’ll never forget that.”