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Photos by Sara Norris
Like many San Diegans, Jacob Bell was shocked when, on May 2, 2012, he learned legendary Chargers linebacker Junior Seau had taken his own life at his home in Oceanside. Six days later, after much introspection, Bell made a huge, life-altering decision, the most difficult one of his life.
He quit his job - as an offensive lineman in the National Football League .
“I was in Los Angeles with my friends, and it was just terrible news,” says Bell, 34, now the owner of SOL CAL Café, a quick-service vegan restaurant in East Village (910 J Street; solcal.com). “[Seau’s death] affected me a lot. It made me wake up a little bit, I guess, and made me kind of re-evaluate some things.”
By hanging up his cleats about a month after signing a one-year free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals , Bell was saying goodbye to millions of dollars and a high-profile career doing something he had loved since he was a fifth-grader in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. He had been looking forward to playing in his home state once again, with his adoring family and friends only a car ride away.
“It’s a leap. Everything changes. I mean, you go from being a football player your whole life to not being a football player,” Bell says. “Football was always my identity, and my identity was going to change overnight, so it was a big move.”
By then, Bell had already played eight seasons at left guard in the NFL, with the Tennessee Titans (2004-2007) and the St. Louis Rams (2008-2011). Prior to the NFL, he played high school football in Cleveland for the nationally renowned St. Ignatius Wildcats. He went on to a stellar collegiate career at Miami University of Ohio, where his quarterback was Ben Roethlisberger , who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers .
At 6’5” and 305 pounds, Bell was big and strong enough to bench-press a Volkswagen bus and almost fast enough to outrun one (he could run 40 yards in 4.98 seconds). But no one plays nearly two decades of high-level football, including 109 NFL games (100 as a starter), and comes away from it physically unscathed. No one.
“I’ve had eight surgeries altogether... two in college, six in the NFL [including one following a rookie-year injury that nearly ended his career],” says Bell. “It just came to be a part of the job, you know?”
Money, of course, was also a consideration. After starting in all 16 regular-season games for the Tennessee Titans in 2007 (as well as in the Titans’ loss to the Chargers in an AFC Wild Card playoff game), he signed his biggest contract: a six-year, $36 million deal with the St. Louis Rams.
“But, for me, in my last opportunity to play [with the Cincinnati Bengals], the risk and reward just didn’t really match,” says Bell, who reveals that the death of Seau, whom he had met and played against, might have been the tipping point. “I just felt that I had been through enough. I [had] had a couple of concussions. I didn’t want to risk getting any more surgeries.”
Concussion, a new film starring Will Smith , sheds light on the health issues NFL players face during and after their careers. Having consulted with numerous physicians in trying to determine how head injuries he sustained while playing professional football may impact the rest of his life, Bell says he can relate to themes addressed in the movie.
“I’ve had brain scans and seen psychiatrists,” he says. “What football players call ‘getting your bell rung’ [which means hitting your head hard] is actually a euphemism for brain trauma. It’s pretty scary stuff, to be honest.”
For many players, including Bell, the quality of life after football may stem directly from injuries that occurred on the field, the most devastating of which may remain invisible without a CAT scan or similarly elaborate and expensive testing. According to Bell and Concussion, however, navigating the NFL’s guidelines for medical-treatment reimbursement can be daunting to say the least.
Having developed a fondness for San Diego while training here during the offseason since 2007, Bell moved to the city after ending his football career. In October 2014, he opened SOL CAL Café, which he owns and operates with his cousin, Thomas McCann, a personal chef and nutritionist.
“We just really knew there’s a trend in the healthy-living, healthy- eating, natural-foods, natural-everything market,” says Bell, whose family owned and operated an Italian restaurant in Cleveland for 50 years. “It took us a good two years to get the project going, find a location and consult a chef [Anne Thornton]. We definitely did our research.”
The payoff has been at least twofold: business is booming for SOL CAL, the healthy cuisine from which has - with the help of regular yoga sessions and long walks - helped Bell trim down to 225 pounds... 80 pounds lighter than he was when he was battling opposing defensive linemen.
“Yeah, I take advantage of it, man,” Bell says. “Our smoothie list is organic, it’s super foods. We make all our own juices here. We’re gonna do some cleanses. We have a full menu of salads, sandwiches and soups, and we also do açai bowls and some breakfast items as well, that are really popular.”
Bell says the gluten-free waffles and avocado toast are among his customers’ favorite menu items at SOL CAL.
“It’s looking good; we are very happy with the support so far,” he says. “We have quite a following on social media, and just to be able to do the ins and outs of operating a business and making it better and all that kind of fun stuff is very rewarding.”
Jacob’s ladder, in the Bible, is a stairway to heaven. For Jacob Bell, a meteoric ascent to the pinnacle of professional sports ended with his coming back to Earth. Today, he’s living in paradise, taking care of his mind, body and... SOL.