When Nick Bell died Tuesday afternoon, it marked the end of a young life that up until less than a week ago was still brimming with promise.
It was only last Thursday that he underwent tests and saw that there was a spot on his lung that needed to be removed. He'd begun losing feeling in his right arm the previous day. But no big deal. An appointment was set for Nov. 19 to have the spot removed.
"We were optimistic that once they got that spot out of his lung, the doctors said they thought that he could make a complete recovery, and his neurosurgeon told him he was pretty sure he'd be able to go back out and play a little football in the spring," said Moreland Smith, a longtime friend of the family and Bell's mentor.
The next day, Bell had more tests. The pathology report showed that he had synovial sarcoma, and a very aggressive form of it. That changed everything.
Bell was told to forget about school and football for now, because he was facing at least six months of chemotherapy. He was told the chemotherapy would make him sterile. That's what got to Smith. That's what made him cry in front of Bell for the first time.
"That hurt me, because Nick loves kids," Smith said. "I saw how he interacted with every little child that ever came around, whether he knew them or he didn't know them, he just loved kids. And telling him he wasn't going to be able to have his own, that struck a chord in me that went deep."
Bell's reaction to the bad news: Resolve. He would go to a sperm bank Monday, begin chemo a few days later, and keep his usual positive outlook on things.
"We sat down, we talked, and I asked him was he going to fight with me, and we were going to beat this thing," said Smith. "He promised me he was going to fight."
Bell and Smith spent Sunday at Smith's sister's house, watching the Jacksonville Jaguars play the Dallas Cowboys. A friend from Starkville came to visit Bell. MSU coach Dan Mullen spoke with Bell that evening and made plans to have lunch with him the next day after talking to the Monday Morning Quarterback Club in Birmingham.
But then Bell began having severe headaches. He called Smith, who had left to take his kids back to Selma, and asked what to do. Take some Excedrin. That didn't work, so he took something else. His arm was burning, his vision was becoming blurry.
Smith told Bell to have his friend take him to the emergency room, so he wound up at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Medical Center's Bessemer branch. By the time Smith got back, a CAT scan revealed blood on Bell's brain and what doctors thought was a tumor the size of a tennis ball. The cancer was spreading. Doctors gave him medication, moved him to the main UAB hospital in Birmingham, and monitored him.
Smith went home but was awakened at 3 a.m. by a call from Bell's mother, Linda, who told him her son had been experiencing seizures. At 7, one of Bell's sisters called to say he'd slipped into a "deep coma." He went into emergency surgery soon after.
Areas of Bell's brain had been oxygen-deprived for a while.
"His brain was pretty much dead," Smith said. "The only thing that was left was to hope for a miracle."
Monday afternoon, Mullen and his wife Megan visited Bell at the intensive care unit. He was going to bring some team members over Tuesday but decided to make that happen Monday night. Mullen grabbed the first bus he could find, loaded up about 50 people, and went back to Birmingham.
Smith went home about midnight Monday, and he got a call at 1 a.m. Bell was brain dead, he was told, but his mother wanted to do whatever was necessary to keep him alive.
"I guess she thought about it, and she called me back two minutes later and said that she had talked to her daughters, and they basically told her that they didn't want them to do no extraordinary measures or whatever to keep him alive," Smith said. "She asked how I felt about it, and I told her that I felt the same way, that that wouldn't be no quality of life that Nick would want. We had to make a decision on how long we were going to keep him on that machine before we let them flip the switch."
Bell was taken off life support Tuesday afternoon, and Smith said he was pronounced dead at 2:20 p.m. MSU's players learned of it around 3:30.
Smith said the last real conversation he had with Bell was Sunday.
"I was hounding him about that dead arm he had, and I told my wife to pick him up a sling. At first it was funny, and then he said that it was starting to get frustrating, because he was bumping into things and couldn't even feel it."
They spoke again about the headaches, and then later that night at the hospital.
"I could tell something wasn't right, because he wasn't lucid. He told me to set him up, and I went to raise the bed, he was like, 'No, no, no, no, pull my arm up. Pull my arm up.' I was like, 'Dude, what the hell are you saying?' That was our actual last conversation."
Through his whole ordeal, Bell tried to stay positive.
"It was hard on him," Mullen said. "Obviously, a scared young man at first. And then someone that had the positive outlook that he had all of our support, and he could accomplish it, and he would find a way to be victorious over what was going on. That's how he was."
• MORE ON BELL: Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News has more on Bell's condition and the synovial sarcoma that took over his body. … I wrote a column about Bell for today's Journal. … Fans gathered in the Junction last night to honor Bell. Here's some video (via David Lay).