Junior safety Julian Bell was a huge part of North Central College’s run to its second NCAA Division III national championship in three seasons.
How he got to that point, however, was quite a journey.
After winning the 2019 title with the Cardinals, Bell was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He also transferred to Roosevelt for the 2021 season.
After a season at Roosevelt, however, he realized where he needed to be — and it was back in Naperville.
“What I can say is being gone made me appreciate what I had,” Bell said. “It just made me reflect a lot on who I’m trying to be as a man. How do my goals align with where I’m at?
“It made me think a lot about the environment that North Central is.”
When Bell made the decision to come back in January, defensive coordinator Shane Dierking laid out how it was going to go.
“I told him you have to earn everything back,” Dierking said. “You have to earn your coaches’ trust back, your players’ trust back, and he did that and more. Within six weeks, he earned it all back.”
It paid off for both sides.
Moving to safety this season, Bell accounted for 38 tackles, 28 solo, with 3 1/2 tackles for loss and two interceptions.
Bell played his best game of the season in the Cardinals’ 28-21 win over Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl. He had six tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss.
“I’m just super grateful to be a part of a community that believes in me, on and off the field,” Bell said. “I knew coming in I would have to earn my teammates’ trust as well as my coaches’ (trust). I put my head down and grinded.
“When the opportunity presented itself, I took advantage of it. I didn’t have a starting role when I came back. I had to earn everything.”
Coming out of Oswego, Bell originally landed at Wisconsin-Platteville. He didn’t see the field there and wound up talking to Jeff Thorne, who was NCC’s coach at that time, and transferred.
Halfway through the 2019 season, Bell became the starting cornerback. He had two interceptions in the Cardinals’ win over Wisconsin-Whitewater in the Stagg Bowl.
Shortly thereafter, his life changed.
“My stomach was bothering me,” Bell said. “I wasn’t feeling right and got checked out. Turned out I had bladder cancer. I went through a round of chemo.
“The doctors were able to go in there and scrape the tumor out. It was five centimeters. It made me appreciate more about life. Life is short. It helped me learn a lot about myself.”
After focusing on recovery, and with the 2020 season canceled due to the pandemic, Bell decided to move on to Roosevelt. He kept up his ball-hawking ways, intercepting four passes, but something was missing.
He came back to the Cardinals and quickly fit right back in.
“I’m so proud of his development as a leader,” Dierking said. “He knows our defense better than anybody. He’s gone above and beyond. He’s a joy to be around every single day.
“He really has a sense of wanting to be all North Central. That’s what he is. He’s North Central football through and through. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Bell pushed his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in marketing to next winter so he can spend one more season making memories at NCC.
He couldn’t have imagined where life has taken him since graduating from Oswego, but he wouldn’t change any of it either.
“It’s been a journey,” Bell said. “And I’ve loved every single second of it.”
Paul Johnson is a freelance reporter for The Beacon-News.