JACKSONVILLE, Florida (AP) – In his dreams, Kent Bell doesn’t run across fields, doesn’t toss balls or hoist himself over walls.
No. In his dreams, he’s always in his wheelchair, zipping along at giddy speeds.
How could he know anything different?
Bell was born without arms and without legs, for reasons never fully determined.
Doctors told his mother he had 24 hours to live.
That was 49 years ago.
He hasn’t wasted the time.
Consider: For the past 17 years, he’s been the scorekeeper at pressure-packed University of North Florida basketball and volleyball games, working the clock and scoreboard with a stylus he holds in his mouth.
But Bell now ponders his own mortality: He has kidney failure and the last four years have been tough, with dialysis three days a week.
It’s taken a toll on his health and his spirits, he admits.
But it’s also driven him to write and publish a book that tells his story, a book whose title gives a hint at the humorous streak that’s buoyed him through a life many would find almost unimaginable:
It’s called “Look Ma, No Hands, No Legs Either”.
He wrote the book even though he doesn’t usually like stories about disabled people. He says they either make you want to kill yourself or they’re so sweet your teeth rot.
People, he says, sometimes call him a hero. An inspiration. He appreciates such sentiments, but really he just wants to be thought of as normal.
Bell got an electric wheelchair at age eight. For a boy with no arms or legs, it was a revelation. He remembers scooting around the hospital hallways, passing his mother. “Look ma! No hands!”
His mother, Bobbie Chestnut, lives in Kingland, Georgia, near Kent’s sister, Kimberly Bell. Chestnut says experts told her that Kent should be put in a home for disabled children.
She was young, in her early 20s, and had four children. But she resisted: Kent would be as normal as possible.
Take the family’s Easter egg hunt ritual. She’d hide eggs for the other children in all the usual spots. But for Kent, she put them on the floor under sofas and tables.
He’d roll around to each spot to find the eggs, which his siblings would then collect for him.
Bell’s father was in the Army, so the family moved around a lot. Even so, Bell says that while growing up he was friends with jocks and geeks, and was rarely teased.
If he was teased, it wasn’t about his lack of limbs; instead they picked on him for his prominent nose and his Eddie Munster widow’s peak.
His older brothers, meanwhile, used the empty sleeves of his shirts to smack him in the face.
“Stop hitting yourself!” they’d say. And then they’d all laugh.
Woe, though, to anyone who really messed with Kent. “Do that, and the wrath of the Bell family shall cometh down,” he intoned.
Bell lives alone in an apartment in Arlington. A caregiver is with him a couple of hours a day. His family and some friends visit occasionally.
Much of the time, though, he is by himself.
When he greeted a visitor on a recent afternoon, he was lying on his side on a blanket, his head on a pillow.
The Food Network – he likes cooking shows – was on TV. A big bowl of Skittles was within reach on the floor, next to a diet soda with a curly straw. His phone, the TV remote and a tablet computer rested on a nearby stand.
He figures he came along at the right time, with all this technology at his disposal. It’s better than the days when he used his little sister as a remote control.
He works everything with a stick in his mouth. He calls it a mouthstick, though others call it a stylus.
“Twenty-seven words a minute, no mistake,” he said.
He’s been running scoreboards since high school, a way to keep close to the sports he loves. But that stylus has also allowed him to be UNF’s scorekeeper through every home game.
He doesn’t like to brag, but “when it comes to scorekeeping, I really am good”.
Men’s basketball coach Matthew Driscoll concurs.
“If you had a competition with three dudes to see who the best scorer is, I’d put my paycheck on him,” he says.
Women’s basketball coach Mary Tappmeyer says Bell became an institution and – yes – an inspiration as well.
“He’s such an effervescent personality. He’s never down,” she said. “College athletes, sometimes, they think their lives are so hard, with practices, games, studying. Then you look at someone like Kent, and they realise how truly blessed they are.”
In 1988, Oprah Winfrey’s people flew Bell and his mother to Chicago, to appear on her national TV show.
She asked him a question he’d heard many times before.
How does a guy with no arms and no legs live day to day?
“At the time, I didn’t know how to answer,” he said.
Bell used to wonder: Why am I here? What good am I doing here? He used to ponder the unfairness of it all.
No more, he insists.
“I stopped thinking about that at 16. It wasn’t going to do me any good. And nothing’s going to change.”
Still, it took many years for the answer to his questions to become clear.
He’d had a complicated relationship with his father, Everett Marshall Bell, a Vietnam veteran and longtime alcoholic who quit drinking in 2002.
Two years later, Bell’s father was on his deathbed with inoperable cancer. Kent Bell says he visited him in the hospital and urged his father to accept religion in his life. He did.
Sports has been a constant in Bell’s life.
As an infant, he watched sports on TV as readily as he would cartoons. He can talk players and stats going back decades.
He’s participated when he can, as well: He’s waterskied, coached and played wheelchair basketball, and still plays soccer.
He’s going to Alabama soon for a wheelchair soccer championship, so he’ll miss UNF’s first women’s basketball game. But he’ll be back courtside for the men’s home opener Nov 17.