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On Second Thought

Upton Bell is putting on a display at UMass

A display case containing items donated to UMass by Upton Bell in honor of his father, Bert Bell, the second commissioner of the NFL.
A display case containing items donated to UMass by Upton Bell in honor of his father, Bert Bell, the second commissioner of the NFL.UMass

Everything you’d ever want to know about Upton Bell is displayed in perpetuity in a glass case in Amherst, on the 25th floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, the tower in the center of the sprawling UMass campus.

OK, a slight edit before we continue. For everything you’d want to know of Bell’s 83 years, and counting, the display case surely would have to extend out to the Berkshires, possibly with a few acres annexed from neighboring Vermont (visible from the windows on the library’s 25th floor).

The man has led an interesting life, and he has stories. Lots and lots and lots of stories, loads of them chronicled in his recent book, “Present At The Creation,” an overview of his life in football that he authored with ex-Globe sportswriter Ron Borges.

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“He’s a talker,” said Kirstin Kay, the sport innovation archivist at UMass, who spent a sizable portion of the last 18 months curating Bell’s artifacts for display. “I think that’s safe to say.”

Many of Bell’s tales are intertwined with those of his father, Bert Bell, the second commissioner of the National Football League (1946-59), whose legacy is also weaved into the exhibit. The crown jewel in the collection is Upton’s ring from Super Bowl V (final: Baltimore 16, Dallas 13), earned for his work as the Colts’ director of player personnel.

Only some five weeks after that Super Bowl triumph on Jan. 17, 1971, Bell, then only 33, was hired by the Patriots, who made him the youngest general manager in NFL history.

“And at the behest of Billy Sullivan,” recalled Bell, referring to the owner/founding father of the Patriots, “I was fired on Dec. 5, 1972.”

A brief stay.

“Yeah,” he said, “about as short as the Kennedy Administration.”

There is, and always has been, an intelligent, somewhat whimsical, and charming self-deprecating side of Bell. He is curious and ever engaging, qualities that served him well for his long career in the media, often as a talk-show host, which he launched soon after his final foray in football ended with the folding of the World Football League in 1975. He was part-owner and GM of the WFL’s Charlotte Hornets, and one of the team’s playbooks is part of the 140-piece collection at UMass.

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“One of the things that I wanted to make sure in this collection is that you see the bad moves I made as well as the good ones,” noted Bell. “The one thing I learned from my father and my family is, basically, don’t hide you failures … never make excuses.”

Upton Bell in 1972 when he was general manager of the Patriots.
Upton Bell in 1972 when he was general manager of the Patriots.Paul Connell/Globe Staff

In Charlotte, said Bell, one for the win column included talking Arnold Palmer into being an investor. Bell wasn’t as convincing with his pitch to Ted Turner to put the Hornets on his local TV station.

“He’s in my office, with his feet up on my desk, and we’re having a delightful conversation,” recalled Bell. “Then, he just sort of drops his interest and says, ‘You know, I’m going to start a venture in the next couple of years … probably won’t make it.’ ’'

Turner’s venture, CNN, was founded some five years later. It made it.

“He said to me, ‘Yeah, I know it’s a gamble … probably won’t make it,’ ” said Bell. “And my last line to him was, ‘Ted, I don’t think that it will either.’ There you go, Upton, messed that one up!”

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UMass formally announced less than two weeks ago that it acquired Bell’s collection, parts of which, including the Super Bowl ring, now can be viewed online. Had it not been for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there would have been a grand reception at the library. Now UMass is eyeballing a late-winter virtual event as a substitute for the traditional unveiling ceremony.

“I think Upton would do a wonderful fireside chat about his career,” said Kay.

According to Bell, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, initially evinced interest in being the permanent home of his artifacts. A Hall representative visited Bell’s home in Cambridge and the two made a trip to a bank in Harvard Square, where Bell kept the artifacts in a safety deposit box.

“I thought the Hall of Fame was where it belonged, in some ways,” Bell said. “Because there is a Bert Bell room there, with my father’s desk, and I thought I’d like all of us to go in that room.”

The Hall, said Bell, wouldn’t agree to that idea and, worse, could not guarantee that the artifacts would be on permanent display. Many halls of fame have far more stock kept in dusty storage than in shiny display cases.

“What really represents Bert Bell, Frances Upton, and the Bell family?” said Bell, named after his mother, who was a Broadway actress. “I wanted it somewhere where kids and their parents have to sacrifice for them to go there — a working-class school, a public school, where it can be shared.”

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The UMass library also houses the collection of Mark McCormack, founder of IMG, and the personal works of Daniel Ellsberg, the political activist whose name forever will be synonymous with the Pentagon Papers.

The Du Bois Library is also where visitors can see the Olympic gold medal that Hungarian long jumper Olga Gyarmati won at the 1948 Games in London. Gyarmati later married Hungarian author Tamas Aczel, who emigrated to the US with Olga and became a UMass professor.

Gyarmati’s medal, noted Kay, is highly popular with students, and she’s sure Bell’s Super Bowl ring will impress.

“Sports,” she said, “is the universal connector for everyone.”

There is a relief, said Bell, to have handed over his treasures. He believes they have a great home at UMass, a place where the Bell family story will be respected and preserved. He donated the Super Bowl ring in the name of his son, Christopher, and two of Bert Bell’s prized mementos, a pair of gold football charms, were donated in the name of Upton’s grandsons, Jack and Peter.

In ’71, best Bell can recall, the average NFL player earned around $25,000 year. In recent years, he said, collectors offered him many times that for the ring, and there were times, he admits, that he was tempted to sell.

Now visitors to the library forever will be able to marvel over the ring’s glitter. Bell’s eye always looked elsewhere for life’s jewels.

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“Money has never been a factor in my life,” he said. “I’ve had it and not had it all. The thing that is always a factor to me, relationships, people. When I’m ready to go, am I going to worry about how much money I had, or am I going to go say, ‘What a run you’ve had, Upton, good and bad.’? What a ride!”



Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.