WALTHAM, Mass. -- Longtime New England Patriots fan Gary Bell was having a conversation with his 17-year-old son the morning of Super Bowl LIII, and his anxiety was high.
"I was so worked up. I get way too into it and I didn't know what to expect, and I said to him, 'If this is another 2- or 3-point Super Bowl, I'm going to have a heart attack. I can't take another game like that,'" Bell recalled.
"I was joking, but then I actually had one."
Bell's story has a happy, healthy ending, which is why the 51-year-old police officer in Waltham, a city just west of Boston with about 62,000 residents, can now tell it with smiles and laughter.
"I kept saying to the doctor, 'If they would just score a touchdown, I bet my heart rate would go down." Longtime Patriots fan Gary Bell
It's a tale that many Patriots fans who have experienced the emotional roller-coaster of Super Bowl triumph and despair in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era can relate to ... right up to the moment that Bell was told by doctors that he actually was experiencing a heart attack.
"I'm very, very lucky," said Bell, whose bulging muscles make him look as if he could fit well in the team's locker room. "There's no permanent damage. They said I should be living a normal life."
A big part of his life has been cheering on the Patriots.
"I always loved them growing up as a kid," said Bell, who first purchased season tickets in 1992 when he was with sheet metal workers Local 17. His seats in Section 220 of old Foxboro Stadium cost $28 apiece in those days, and the $280 investment for the season further fueled his passion for the Patriots.
So by the morning of Super Bowl LIII, when Bell considered what it would mean to add a sixth replica ring to the collection in his living room, his heart was pounding thinking about how each of the Patriots' previous eight trips to the Super Bowl under Belichick were decided by eight points or fewer. He was also fighting a nagging cold as he drove himself to a nearby urgent care facility.
"I wanted to feel better for the Super Bowl," he said.
Bell told doctors about a brief episode from the day before in which he struggled to catch his breath and felt pain in his chest. He attributed it to maybe eating too fast. It had happened again the morning of the Super Bowl, but similar to the day before, it passed and he figured it might have been nerves.
Bell's standing heart rate was 151, which led doctors to believe they might have wired his EKG test incorrectly. They showed him a picture in which he said lines were pointing down when they were supposed to be pointing up. Then, when the second test produced similar results, he was told that an ambulance was being called to take him to the hospital.
But Bell, who describes himself as stubborn, wondered if there was a chance to alter the agenda.
"The Super Bowl was in four hours, and I was thinking there's no way I can miss that," he said, as there were plans to watch with family and close friend Nick Martorilli at home, where they would eat Martorilli's homemade ravioli, meatballs and sauce as the Patriots took on the Los Angeles Rams.
So against his better judgment, he signed papers that acknowledged the risk he was taking by leaving, only to find himself in a nearby hospital a few hours later.
Bell had been getting things ready for the Super Bowl at his home when he again began experiencing pain in his chest, which led a friend to insist he go for further medical evaluation. That meant he would watch the first half of Super Bowl LIII from the emergency room.
"I kept saying to the doctor, 'If they would just score a touchdown, I bet my heart rate would go down. There's no way the Rams are going to score on them. One touchdown and the game is over,'" Bell said with a smile. "They kept saying to me, 'Would you stop worrying about the football game!' It was funny, but everyone there was still into it."
The Patriots held a 3-0 lead at the half, and Bell's condition had seemingly improved as his heart rate was down considerably and he said he wasn't experiencing any discomfort. He then asked doctors if he could leave to watch the rest of the game at home.
Doctors advised against it, but Bell's stubborn side won out again, and after signing a bunch of papers to acknowledge the risk he was taking, he returned home in time to watch Maroon 5's halftime show. And then, of course, the exciting second half in which the Rams tied the score before the Patriots ultimately recorded a 13-3 victory.
Everything seemed OK to Bell at that point.
He had promised to make an appointment with his primary care physician the next day. His heart rate at that visit was 116, and he was referred to a cardiologist, with the goal to determine why his heart rate had spiked to 151 the day before.
Bell returned to work that night -- he has been a member of Waltham's police department since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 -- when things took a scary turn on a detail at a homeless shelter.
"It was like an elephant was on my chest, like Darth Vader was choking me with the Force," he said. "I didn't want anyone in the department knowing about it, I was embarrassed, and I didn't want to believe it was a heart attack."
Later that night, Bell's jaw locked and his neck grew stiff, and he drove himself to the hospital.
"I was so scared," he said. "They remembered me from the day before, wheeled me in, and when they gave me the EKG, the person turned white as a ghost and took off. I knew it wasn't good. The next thing you know, I have a team of doctors surrounding me, sticking me with needles, giving me IVs, putting stuff under my tongue. They said, 'Listen, Mr. Bell, you're having a heart attack.'"
Bell was then transferred via ambulance to a Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"I thought my life was over," he recalled, thinking of all the things he would miss, such as his son's hockey game in a few days.
But his nerves were soon eased by those in the ambulance, and shortly after arrival at the hospital, the blockage in his heart was cleared by doctors. He felt instant relief.
"I spent the next two days in the hospital, and I'm looking out the window thinking, 'Shoot, you can't even see the [Super Bowl] parade from here,'" Bell said with a laugh. "But all my friends who went to the parade then came to my room. I had a lot of visitors.
"They all asked me the same question: 'Why would you leave the hospital?'
"I told them, 'It could be the last one they win. You never know.'"