Two months ago, Nick Bell stumbled toward the brink of death.
Surgery after surgery, he lay in a hospital bed as his body continued to wither. Any thoughts of his highlights while starring as a running back at Iowa or playing for the Raiders weren't really on his mind. Rather, as death approached, Bell thought of ways he could give back.
The Costa Mesa resident had played four years in the NFL, and along with his legacy at Iowa, he had done some special things. But life could be more than just that, he thought.
As it turned out, the bell never tolled for Bell this summer, so he took action on the thoughts he had while coming so close to death.
Bell is now a volunteer assistant coach for the Costa Mesa High football team. He said he came to the Mustangs on a whim — and it appears Costa Mesa is grateful for that. The Mustangs now have a former NFL pro coaching them, one who will be working with the running backs and linebackers this season.
"In the past two months, I've had all this realization of life," said Bell, 42. "I've asked myself: What role should I play? Should I be a helper or a destroyer? Or should I just sit back and let things happen?
"I'm a man of action. I can't sit back. I want to let them know that every decision they make is a life decision. It impacts their lives. It's about being a man of your word, being dedicated to what you're doing and about loving what you're doing. If I can't instill that in them, then I failed."
Two weeks ago, Bell went to his doctor for a checkup. He wouldn't disclose his medical condition, only saying that he is disabled from his years of playing football and from the toll of the recent surgeries. It hurts for him to walk. He lost 120 pounds four months ago. But he wants to be active, and coach, at least.
On his way home from the checkup, Bell drove to Costa Mesa High. He asked around so that he could meet head coach Wally Grant.
Diane Allison, the team's booster president, met Bell and directed him to Grant, a Costa Mesa High alumnus in his first year as interim coach since taking over for Jeremy Osso, who was fired in June.
Allison said Bell becoming a Mustangs volunteer was amazing.
"He can inspire a lot of the boys and make them work even harder," she said. "My husband [Mark] is happy too because he's a Raider fan."
It hasn't taken long for the Mustangs to become fans of Bell, too. So far, his addition has gone well, Grant said.
"He's made it clear that he wants to give back to the community," Grant said. "He's going to be there every moment. It's not like he's showing up every once in a while. He's investing a lot of time into it.
"I think it's going to be a fun ride. I think the kids are the ones who will benefit from all of it."
Bell was a force at running back while at Iowa from 1986 to 1990. As a senior, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Bell helped the Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl. He was a big back with speed, and one of the fastest players in the NFL Draft when he came out of college.
Bell said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds two straight times during the draft combine. In 1991, the Raiders picked him in the second round.
Now he wants to pass on his knowledge to young players — especially the Mustangs. Bell expressed excitement when he talked about working with Mario Smith, a transfer running back expected to be a key player for Costa Mesa.
Smith, though, is even more thrilled to be tutored by Bell.
"I feel like he's a great coach and a great addition to our team," Smith said. "I feel like he's going to change our team dramatically and make us a lot better. He's going to make me a lot better. I'll be able to see the running back position from a different view."