LINCOLN, Neb. -- A split second after the last catch he will ever make at Memorial Stadium, Kenny Bell cut back and sprinted past the big red "N" at midfield on the third play of Nebraska’s opening possession Saturday against Minnesota.
Eyes on the end zone, the receiver crashed to the turf 4 yards from the goal line, caught from behind by cornerback Eric Murray.
Much like Bell’s career in Lincoln, it was a thing of beauty and triumph. With an unfortunate twist.
The third-down reception covered 73 yards, one short of his career long. But his helmet hit the ground hard, and Bell struggled to his feet, with help from teammates. Seconds later, he was down again, and with assistance from trainers, Bell staggered to the locker room, knocked out with a head injury on Senior Day.
Before his final home game, kids in No. 80 jerseys -- a few with iterations of the Afro that places Bell among the most recognizable players in college football -- walked the concrete outside Memorial Stadium. Inside, Bell grew misty-eyed when he was introduced to the crowd, and then he weaved across the end zone, arms extended like an airplane, enjoying the moment as always.
As Nebraska (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) approaches its season finale Friday at Iowa (noon ET, ABC), Bell prepares to depart the school, a beloved figure and one of the unique Huskers of his era.
This season, he shattered the Nebraska receiving-yardage record of Johnny Rodgers, which had been untouched for 42 years. He also passed Rodgers, the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner, in receptions and sits atop that chart, too.
Bell is flamboyant and outspoken, yet self-aware like few athletes at the age of 22, and full of perspective toward the game. The son of former Denver Broncos running back and return specialist Ken Bell, Kenny is a beacon of positivity amid an unsettling period in Nebraska history.
The Huskers, after back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin, have gone 15 years without a conference title (including in the Big 12 before moving to the Big Ten in 2011). Despite the presence of Bell and record-setting I-back Ameer Abdullah, inconsistency and a lack of identity on offense have continued to plague Nebraska.
It played for a Big Ten title only once, losing by 39 points to Wisconsin in 2012.
It used to bother Bell, but not anymore. He has largely ignored the armchair critics this season, he said, though he remains active on his popular Twitter account, @AFRO_THUNDERBIRD80.
"I’ve gotten away from trying to make everybody happy," Bell said last week in a wide-ranging interview. "It makes me that much happier.
"I just wanted to be liked so much. You want everyone to love you, and it’s impossible."
Bell said he learned perspective from his mother, Tami Campbell. In August 2003, at age 11, he served as the best man to Dan Campbell in their wedding, and Kenny grew up happy in Boulder, Colorado.
"When Kenny wakes up, he’s happy," Bell’s stepfather said. "He has a happy personality. He enjoys life, and he’s done it forever. It’s his spirit. That’s who he is."
Last month, after a 63-yard touchdown catch against Illinois, Bell hugged back judge Mike Brown. When he caught a first-quarter touchdown at Wisconsin that broke Rodgers’ yardage record, Bell bowed to the pocket of Nebraska fans at Camp Randall Stadium.
"That he allows his personality to come out," Dan Campbell said, "Tami and I are very proud of the way that he represents himself and represents his family. He’s very genuine and authentic to who he is."
That much is clear. Bell has never tried to disguise anything.
"You can control what kind of day you’re having," he said. "You can always have a better attitude about things. Does it suck that we lost? Yeah, nobody likes to lose when you invest the kind of time we put into it. But is the world over? Do we wrap it up and throw it in?
"That’s just absurd. You would think the sky was falling."
Bell said he wants to be remembered at Nebraska for treating people the right way.
"What I’ll remember is coming out here with these guys and having the time of my life," he said. "If I were to be put on my deathbed this week and you asked me [about] the most important thing to me, it would be the relationships I have in my life. That’s what matters to me. Stats and the game of football are not."
Coach Bo Pelini said Bell has "really grown up a lot" in four years. Teammates appreciate his genuine nature.
Cornerback Josh Mitchell, a fellow senior, said Bell brought "excitement and joy" to the Huskers.
"He’s someone who loves the game," Mitchell said, "a player that his teammates love, the fans love and a guy that’s always going to put a smile on your face."
Bell’s status for Friday's game is unknown. He might not return until Nebraska’s bowl game.
Count on Bell, though, for a memorable finish. His career, amid distractions on the periphery, never lacked for interesting moments.
"The game of football is just that," Bell said. "It’s a game, meant to be played for fun. People forget that. I know for dang sure people at this place have forgotten it. You want to win every single one, but when you don’t, you can’t crawl in a corner and hide. You can’t be sad forever. You lick your wounds and you get better.
"Enjoying these last few weeks with my teammates -- and winning -- that’s really the only thing that’s on my mind."