As Bettendorf keeps rolling, quarterback Carter Bell keeps mother's cancer fight in mind

Dargan Southard
The Des Moines Register
Bettendorf quarterback Carter Bell (11) rushes during a 4A varsity football game on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, at TouVelle Stadium in Bettendorf.

BETTENDORF, Ia. — The fresh-white cleats pop against the dark green surface, almost glistening as they tear up the TouVelle Stadium turf. After every performance, Carter Bell makes sure his shoes are shining.

A closer look at the footwear reveals a deeper meaning, Pink and gray ribbons cover the cleats’ white outer layer, consistently reminding Bell of the pain his family endured — and ultimately, defeated. Each time adversity strikes on a football field, the Bettendorf quarterback takes one glance at his shoes and refocuses.

“To wear them and have my mom be on my cleats,” Bell says, “it means a lot to me and my family and everyone around it.”    

It’s been three-plus years since Robin Bell was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and scans have been coming back clean for more than two. But Carter — then a freshman, now a senior — certainly hasn’t forgotten the tumultuous time, when his mother’s health and family stability wavered day to day.

Carter Bell's cleats he's worn this season in honor of his mom.

He busted the cleats out during Bettendorf’s Week 2 win over Iowa City West and hasn’t changed them since. As part of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Bulldogs and Carter further honored Robin with Friday’s Pink Out victory over Cedar Rapids Kennedy.

There’s no convenient time for cancer to barge in unannounced, but the initial timing on Robin’s diagnosis added another element to the Bells’ situation. Her husband, Steve, had recently taken the Augustana College head football job in January 2015, only to have cancer enter the picture six months later.

Steve had already been shuffling multiple hours each day between Rock Island and their former home in Monmouth, Illinois, where the family waited to complete the move until the house sold Along with Robin and Carter, daughters Chloe and Claire had to absorb the cancer-moving mix.

“We just tried to get through as best we could,” Robin says. “I tell people a lot of times that you don’t know how close your family is until you get hit with something like this. Really, it was a blessing. It brought our family closer together than ever before.”

Robin’s first mammogram fortunately caught the cancer early, but she still required a mastectomy in September 2015. Some lymph nodes were tested during the surgery as well, helping aid the overall situation.

No radiation or chemotherapy were needed — Robin is quick to call herself “one of the lucky ones” — but scheduled scans and checkups were still part of the standard follow-up procedure. Even as her children tried to process such an uncertain time, Robin didn’t truly notice a change with them until she came home after surgery.

The Bell family had to work through trying times before moving to the Quad Cities area.

“You don’t know how your kids take it and how they’re affected,” Robin says. “And even though Carter is pretty silent about stuff, he didn’t say much. Going through the treatment, I didn’t feel sick and wasn’t sick — so it was hard for them to understand what cancer was. To them, it was everybody is sick.

“So for Carter, until that day of surgery and seeing me in the hospital and coming home and not being able to lift my arm or move or do anything for weeks and months of healing, I think it was then, ‘Oh gosh, mom is sick.’ They asked, ‘Mom, are you going to die?’”

Carter is the Bell trio’s oldest, but there’s no crash course on maturity when cancer enters the family.

Dad was away a lot, trying to get settled. Mom was sick, trying to battle. Then throw in a move that took a 14-year-old out of his comfort zone, away from his current crop of friends and sports teams.           

“It was pretty tough, especially with dad and his work,” Carter says. “He wasn’t home a lot, but he tried his best to get home when he could. It was me and my sisters, basically, with my mom all the time. But when my dad was home, he did a lot too.

“The cancer really just hit us because we weren’t expecting that. We were moving, and it came out of nowhere.”

The Bells all know this obstacle could’ve been much more daunting. Robin still has scheduled checkups, but after receiving a clean showing in September, another scan won’t be needed for 12 months. September 16 marked three years since surgery without any further complications.

As time has wedged its way between now and then, everyone involved can reflect with a greater appreciation.

The Bells’ house didn’t sell until March 2016, immediately after Robin got the six-month all-clear. She now believes that was a blessing hidden in plain sight, as the Bells’ resources and support system were much stronger in Monmouth than the Quad Cities at the time.

Family chaos has subsided as well.

A former nurse, Robin has settled in as a realtor for Keller Williams in the Bettendorf area. Augustana has already surpassed last season’s win total under Steve’s guidance, while Carter has transformed into a legit college prospect while leading one of the state’s best Class 4A teams.

Bell has FCS offers from Western Illinois and South Dakota at wide receiver, as well additional options from Northwest Missouri State, Minnesota-Crookston, Northern State, St. Cloud State and others.

Bettendorf, meanwhile, sits 6-1 as a cemented eastern Iowa title contender. Bell is at the controls on everything, having piled up more than 1,200 total yards so far.

“When you have a player like that, you’re lucky,” Iowa City West coach Garrett Hartwig said earlier this year, after Bell broke in his new cleats with a riveting showing (234 total yards, one passing TD) against the Trojans.

“He’s a unique talent.”

 A talent who doesn’t keep his mom’s fight far from memory.    

“It means the world to me,” Robin says.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.