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November 11, 2010With the University of Alabama football team enjoying its bye week, they hung out together that Friday.
Defensive end Marcell Dareus did the driving because Nick Bell, a Mississippi State defensive lineman who started earlier this season, wasn't feeling well. The friends from Birmingham had some fun, laughed a little and went out that night, making it an evening that Dareus will never forget.
"The next day he called me and I was seeing how he was doing, just chatting," Dareus said. "He said he had a friend coming down from Mississippi State. I said okay, then they chilled and I didn't speak to him. That's when he told me everything that was going on."
Bell, who had tumor removed from his brain Oct. 1, had since been diagnosed with a form of skin cancer that was spreading. He was to start chemotherapy the following week.
However, a headache developed Sunday while watching an NFL game, which worsened along with a burning sensation in his arm. Bell ended up at University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital where doctors discovered another mass on his brain, and emergency surgery was performed Monday morning.
Bell fell into a coma and died the next day. He was 20.
Dareus wasn't able to attend the funeral last Saturday because he was with the Crimson Tide in Baton Rouge. But this week Mississippi State will play its first game since Bell's death when it visits Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"It's been a very difficult nine days," said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen, who also used the word "rough."
How could it not be?
"I have several friends on Mississippi State from Birmingham that I grew up with," junior center William Vlachos said. "It was very tough on them. I heard they thought the world of him."
So did Dareus. Although they never played football together, but twice found themselves on opposite sides as Bell went to Minor High School and then Jess Lanier while Dareus was at nearby Huffman, they did suit up together for an AAU basketball team. The massive athletes understood each other in ways others could not, and clicked.
"He was a real close friend of mine," said Dareus, who also lost his mom this year. "Even when we got to college he would come down and stop on his way to Starkville. If he came through Tuscaloosa he always stayed with me. We were real, real close.
"We'd always just act like kids. We'd have so much fun with each other. When we got together we didn't have to talk about football. That was our escape from football and everyone else."
But sports were never too far from their lives.
"We used to joke and play, and were always in competition," Dareus continued. "Every game we always called each other and were always like 'I bet I had more tackles than you,' or 'I bet I made more big plays than you.' 'When we play you all we're going to do the best. I bet we win.' He was so competitive.
"We would be playing a game and he would always say he's going to beat me."
Madden football was a favorite of theirs, even though neither was especially proficient. Dareus would play as Alabama and Bell countered with Mississippi State, which in the video game is a bit of a mismatch because the Crimson Tide was loaded after being the preseason No. 1 team.
"I'd be beating him and wouldn't know what I'm doing," Dareus said. "He'd get a sack and he'd be jumping around like he's lost his mind."
The over-reacting, playful taunting and celebrating were pretty much the norm. When the trash-talking reached a fevered pitch, or one of them simply couldn't take it anymore, they'd end up wrestling on the floor.
"I always beat up on him," Dareus said with a short laugh, perhaps the carnage of broken furniture still fresh in his mind.
It seems almost trite to try and put some perspective on a football game in light of the tragedy and how it may affect the teams - especially on Veteran's Day weekend -- although MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin put it well when he said that, "Words can't express our sadness."
But it'll also be the best way to pay tribute to Bell, by honoring his memory with the game that he loved, between his team and his favorite opponent, going at it like there's no tomorrow.
It's also a big game for both sides, with Alabama looking to bounce back from its second loss and the Bulldogs trying to make a mark on the national scene and perhaps earn one of the biggest bowl bids in program history.
"We just have to hold it together," said Dareus, who is dedicating the rest of his season to his friend. "We have to finish the season strong."
The Mississippi State Athletic Department has established a memorial fund for the Bell family through the Bulldog Club. Donations can be made by calling 662-325-3074.Cards and messages may also be sent through the MSU athletic department at PO Box 5308, Mississippi State, MS, 39762.