Football Writers Association of America 2011 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Jon Solomon, The Birmingham News

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TUSCALOOSA – Little things remind the family of Bessemer's Nick Bell that he's gone, such as Mississippi State buses pulling up Saturday to Bryant-Denny Stadium to the echo of cowbells ringing.

Jon Solomon
The Birmingham News
Age: 35
College: Maryland
Background: I am approaching six years at The Birmingham News, where I am a columnist and enterprise reporter. Despite difficult economic times for newspapers, I am extraordinarily grateful to my sports editor, Tom Arenberg, for giving me the time to dig into meaningful subjects, even if it means no stories from me for a period of time. Tom is as good a sports editor as you will find, in terms of editing copy, challenging reporters and fighting for stories. Before Birmingham, I covered the Clemson beat for seven years at the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail and The (Columbia, S.C.) State. I also previously covered high school sports at The Washington Post. My amazing wife, Mandy, graciously accepts the life of a sportswriter's wife while pursuing her own goals. We have two cute boys, Daniel, 4, and Josh, 2, who put up with their dad's crazy schedule.

Few experiences replicate the pageantry of the pregame sendoff in the South. For players and their families, that moment can validate that the player is making it in life.

Monica McAlpine, Nick's sister, would normally wait for the bus with her 3-year-old son Zion so they could see Uncle Nicky, a starting defensive end for Mississippi State.

"It has started to hit me this is the first game without him," McAlpine said Saturday. "My stomach is starting to hurt because I don't see No. 36 and my brother get off the bus."

We interrupt Alabama fans grieving over the end of their SEC West dominance to remember Nick Bell, who died Nov. 2 after a battle with cancer. We pause the Cam Newton saga for a moment to remember there are worse things in life than allegedly shopping a player for money.

Alabama's 30-10 rout of Mississippi State was as much about the Bulldogs still grieving as it was about the Crimson Tide still having pride. Crimson Tide fans even suspended Rammer Jammer out of respect.

"Athletics is supposed to be an escape from life," Mississippi State Athletics Director Scott Stricklin said. "It's been hard for our kids to cope with death. In a way, playing a game again seems like the most normal thing."

Bulldogs safety Charles Mitchell wore Bell's No. 36 jersey. Next week it will be tight end Kendrick Cook, followed by defensive end Pernell McPhee.

"It's weird seeing No. 36 on the field," Stricklin said.

Eight relatives and friends of Bell's attended. They dressed in maroon and black No. 36 jerseys and Nick Bell pins as they entered Bryant-Denny, the place where Nick badly wanted to play while in high school at Minor and Jess Lanier.

"Knowing that he's in heaven with God, knowing that he's with his father, that's the only thing that's keeping me going," said Linda Bell, Nick's mother. "He's still alive."

One day, Bell's death may keep someone else alive. Birmingham's Children's Hospital has created a fund to help fight against synovial sarcoma, the rare cancer that killed Bell only five weeks after his diagnosis.

Approximately 30 percent of patients with synovial sarcoma are younger than 20. Because it's a slowgrowing tumor, a person may not notice symptoms for some time or mistake them for conditions such as arthritis and bursitis.

Mississippi State set up a memorial fund to help the Bells pay for funeral and hospital expenses and raised $17,000 in the first week, Stricklin said.

The Bell family has been touched by the support from Mississippi State fans. McAlpine received more than 500 friend requests on Facebook from strangers wanting to offer condolences.

"I always knew my brother was special, but just to see how special he was to all these many other people is just mind-boggling," she said. "It's like I have a new extended family. His frat brothers pledged to be my son's uncle."

But it's still not Uncle Nicky. McAlpine didn't bring her 3-year-old boy because it would be too painful not to be able to replicate their pre-game ritual.

"He tells me all the time, 'Uncle Nicky is in my heart.'"

Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Tastefully handled story of player’s passing without being too maudlin. Good quotes from the player’s sister and also the Mississippi State athletic director. Worked in good information explaining the rare disease.

Second Place: Peter Kerasotis, Florida Today
Third Place: Brett McMurphy, AOL FanHouse
Honorable Mention: Kevin Armstrong, New York Daily News; Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Parrish Alford, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal