Kahlil Bell played running back for Kell High School, a top-notch program in the state of Georgia that has been to the state playoffs six times in the last eight years, winning two titles in that time.
“I had, I want to say, around 130 carries for a little under 600 yards and 14 touchdowns last season,” said Bell. “I played running back with a guy I shared a spot with. He was just like me and left football for a year, so it was kind of funny that the two guys in the backfield had left football for a year and then came back for the senior season.”
Bell played at Kell High School as a freshman but left to attend a private school where he played his sophomore year. Halfway into his junior year, he left the private school and returned to Kell, missing football altogether his junior year.
“Kahlil was a freshman player for us but transferred to a private school, so I wasn’t able to coach him for two years,” said Kell head coach Derek Cook. “He came back to Kell as a senior and I told him he needed to start from the bottom up. There were guys that had been in the program longer and had worked in the program, so I told him, ‘You had been gone and you need to earn what you’re going to get if you’re going to get anything.’ So, I sat down with him and him mom and told them what route Kahlil needed to take.
“The first step was for him to be on the scout team and he was going to have to go against our first-team defense – which is always stacked and loaded – without the best offensive line. I told him if he could break off some runs under those circumstances, then he’ll earn the respect of the coaches and players and will move up the depth chart. That was all he needed to hear. He just kept going at it day after day and moved up the depth chart. It was really after the third game that he kind of broke out and by the fourth game he was a starter. He earned it and got better and better as the season wore on.”
“I really think if I had played football my junior year I would have been recruited, I really do,” Bell said. “I switched back halfway of the first semester of my junior year, so I missed my junior year and didn’t play any football. Then I wasn’t even going to play football my senior year because I was going to focus on baseball. Kell High School has a great football program, so I think if I would have stayed there all four years I would have, for one, been a better player. I also think schools would have known more about me, but God has a plan for me and things happen for a reason.”
When Bell was a young boy, he heard about a place called BYU. He had a few friends talk about a college far away that was different than most. It was the uniqueness of that university that planted the seeds of interest when Bell became a senior.
“I have a friend [Benjamin Farrer], and his entire family except for him is LDS,” said Bell. “He doesn’t go to BYU but goes to a high school, Mountain Crest, out here in Utah. Me and him have been friends since we were about four years old. He grew up in Georgia and moved out here a couple of years ago.
“He has a cousin Conner Ogden who is serving a mission right now and will be going to BYU when he gets back in November. They were all going to BYU, and when I was younger I would always ask, ‘What’s BYU? What’s BYU?’ And they would tell me about it. It just seemed like a great place. I would see BYU on TV when Jimmer [Fredette] was there, and I saw some of the football games on ESPN. I don’t know, I just loved BYU. I really did. It sounds weird because I'm from Georgia.”
Little by little, Bell learned that not only was BYU a place of high academic standards with a great football tradition, but it was also a place that demanded more of its student athletes.
“I feel like it’s a really great program, the school part of it and the football part of it,” Bell said. “I’ve really grown up with a strong foundation of having God in my life and felt BYU would be the best fit for me to keep that part going in my life. I wanted to be a better person on and off the field, and BYU was just a great place for me to keep me away from all the partying that goes on at a lot of the SEC schools down south. BYU just makes me feel at home.”
“Kahlil is a spiritual kid and I know he holds God is in his life on a daily basis,” said Coach Cook. “I’ve seen the things that he does. Now, by no means is he perfect. He’s a young man trying to find his way in the world and we all make mistakes along the way, but the thing about him is he’s always trying to do the right thing. He’s always trying to do the right thing. He’s always studying in school and his tail is always in a pew at a church. He does a good job of balancing his life spiritually, academically and athletically, and it’s paid off. He’s now at BYU looking to do some good things and it’s paid off for him at an age when kids aren’t looking for things like that in this day and age.”
Bell took it upon himself to get in contact with BYU’s coaches.
“I had to because I'm a guy who has played baseball my whole life, I played football too, but I started to solely focus on football my senior year,” said Bell. “I had to take things into my own hands because it was tough for me to get recruited. I didn’t go to football camps and combines and do things that other guys who play football do, so it was tough and I had to put myself out there. I sent my film out to BYU and I reached out with some emails to a couple of the coaches and they got back to me. I thank God they did.”
The BYU coach that took the time to evaluate Bell’s film and respond was running back coach Mark Atuaia.
“I really like him and he’s a great guy,” said Bell. “I told him when we first started talking on the phone that I wanted to go to law school and wanted to be a lawyer. He told me that’s what he did and that’s what he got his degree in, so it’s just something a little extra. He’s a great guy and I really like him.”
“Kahlil did most of the work from what I remember, and then one day he came in and said, ‘Hey coach, I'm going to go to BYU,’” said Coach Cook with a laugh. “I said, ‘Hey buddy, I'm not going to get in your way if that’s what you want to do. I'm going to support you 100 percent because I’ve heard some great things about BYU. From what I gather it’s a great facility and program and they win a lot of football games.’ I told him, ‘Now, you better be sure willing to commit to the standards,’ because there’s some stipulations that many young men his age aren’t willing to adhere to. He just said that’s where he was going and I'm very proud of him for doing that. He will be the first football player from Kell High School to go to BYU, and like I said, I'm very proud of him for that accomplishment.”
Bell had the opportunity to walk-on at Auburn, but he chose to leave the South and attend a school located about 2,000 miles away. So, why would he do such a thing?
“BYU demands more of you than just athletics,” Bell said. “I wanted to go to a place that demanded more out of you as a person as well as an athlete. A lot of schools down in the South just look at one side, and that’s how athletic a player is, and that’s all they demand, but they don’t look at the whole person and demand the best out of you in all areas. Why would I want to go to a school that will just shortchange you? I want to become a great man who is educated as well as becoming a great football player, and so the decision for me was easy. I want to be the best I can be in every way possible, and that means also being the best football player as possible. I hope to go the NFL, but if that doesn’t happen then I’ll leave BYU with one of the best degrees in the nation as a man. It’s just a great place to be and has that extra side to it other universities don’t have.”
“I know BYU is a beautiful place and they have great facilities,” said Coach Cook. “I think it’s a place that has the type of major he’s looking at, and I think it’s law. BYU has a specific program that he’s looking at, and it’s a place that isn’t a dump. I mean, it’s a place that’s out in a part of the country that’s impressive and they’ve done a great job of winning football games. You throw all that in a package and it was an easy decision for him to make.”
Now that he’s at BYU, Bell’s mother Sheila and sister Aliyah also moved out to Utah a couple of weeks ago.
“My mom got a promotion, so she moved out here to take that job and be closer to me as I go to school at BYU,” said Bell.
This new opportunity for Sheila came about because of the Farrer family, the same family whose son Ben helped Bell become familiar with BYU years ago.
“My friend Ben [Farrer], his mom is an attorney and started an office in Georgia when they were living out there,” said Bell. “When they moved out here they started another office and said to my mom, ‘Hey, if you move out here we’ll give you a promotion.’ So, my mom and my sister came out. I love my family very much and they’re very, very supportive of me. It’s been a blessing having my family out here with me.”
Aliyah, meanwhile, will be a sophomore at Summit Academy.
So far, Bell’s experience in Utah has been very positive.
“It’s definitely living up to all my expectations so far,” said Bell. “It’s a great place, a great place. I'm definitely excited about attending BYU in the fall. I’ve just been doing nothing but working out six days a week. I feel like I need to be more than ready. I'm coming in as a freshman and there are guys that have been here longer than me, so I have a lot of catching up to do. That’s why I’ve been working out as much as I have since I’ve been here.”
Bell will join BYU’s football team as a preferred walk-on with the opportunity to earn a scholarship. Coach Cook believes Bell will earn that scholarship in time.
“Oh yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind because of the type of young man he is,” he said. “He will run the ball hard and is a dependable, physical back that will put a move on you and make you miss. I wouldn’t say he’s a sprinter, but he’s quick enough to make you miss. He also does a good job of delivering the blows and plays with good pad level. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield really well. He’s the type of kid that can catch a screen pass and do some things with the ball once it’s in his hands.
“He’s just a well-rounded guy and I feel he’ll jump in and rise up to the level of challenge that’s presented to him. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll earn a scholarship and become everything he’s set out to become over time. He feels good about what he’s accomplished in his high school career and so he’s confident in his abilities. He’s not a cocky type of kid but he will bark at you, but he is a confident young man and has aspirations of becoming a great football player down there at BYU.”
“I just want everybody to look at me and think, ‘That guy is something special,’” said Bell. “I want people to look at me as a good player on the field and a great person off the field. I want BYU fans to know that I work hard and have a good work ethic and will go 100 percent every single play. I'm grateful for this opportunity and I thank God that I'm here.”