Imani Bell wasn’t an athlete when he got to high school.
Bell is a junior at Archbishop Ryan High School, and when he arrived, the Mayfair resident had spent a little time playing basketball as a kid, but he admits he was no Michael Jordan, and he didn’t even like it that much.
He did it because he was a big guy, and the team needed a big man.
“I went to Cedar Grove Christian Academy and they said they needed a center, so I played center,” Bell said. “I wasn’t very good, but I figured I’d try it out, and once I did, I kept playing. I just tried it to see if basketball was my sport, but it wasn’t.”
Then he got to Ryan.
The kid who wasn’t an athlete is now starring in two sports and getting better every time he takes the field and the mat.
“I knew when I got to high school, I wanted to play sports, I knew I was going to play football,” Bell said. “I wasn’t that big going into high school, but I knew I wanted to play football. I decided to try it.”
He’s not just playing, he’s excelling.
Bell is an offensive and defensive tackle for the Raiders, and this year he started both ways. He earned honorable mention All-Catholic for his play on the defensive line, and he did his best to help an undersized, young Ryan team compete in the Catholic League.
“I think this year was all right because we got better and worked really hard,” said Bell, whose team didn’t win a game during the shortened season. “It was more like an exhibition season for us because we’re young and we knew we had to get better, and we did. I think it was a lot of hard work. I think we did pretty good at getting better.”
Bell’s work doesn’t stop when the footballs are put away.
He’s now hoping to get back on the mat shortly after picking up wrestling as a sophomore last year.
Wrestling is a hard sport and one that doesn’t come naturally to many, including Bell. At first, it was very difficult for him, but by the end of the season, he took Third Team All-Catholic and became a solid wrestler at the top of the Raiders’ lineup.
Like football, it didn’t start out the best because he wasn’t used to working that hard, but he refused to quit and eventually figured it out.
“Sports, especially practice, can be hard, but I realized I had to start doing it if I wanted to get better,” said Bell, who stands 6 feet 2 and weighs about 260 pounds. “I didn’t really think about wrestling until one of the guys on the football team told me that I should try it, that it would be fun.”
Eventually, it was. But at the start, it was far from it.
“Wrestling practice is really hard,” Bell said. “The conditioning is crazy. You really work hard. But it’s fun. I like it. It made me a better football player, too, because I’m in much better condition from wrestling.”
Bell had a hand in a memorable season for the Raiders, who advanced to the Catholic League championship meet last year and had a lineup full of wrestlers who made noise at the All-Catholic tournament and beyond.
“We had a great time last year,” Bell said. “We got a lot of medals. It was a good team, and we hope to have a good team this year.”
Wrestling is slated to begin early next year, though that could change as coronavirus forces shutdowns. Bell is looking forward to getting back on the mat.
He has now been All-Catholic in both sports, but he wants to take it up a notch in both sports. He’s also hoping to find success as a team.
“I would love to be All-Catholic in football, and I hope we can win a championship,” Bell said. “I think we’re going to be a lot better. We got better this year and we can do it again.
“In wrestling, I just want to wrestle. The Ryan wrestling team is very unique. It’s a team. We’re a family. It’s crazy, we work so hard together, that brings you closer. I would love to win a championship and my goal this year is to get (First Team All-Catholic).”
Bell has the potential to be the best in both sports.
And if he does, he’ll continue to take after his father. His dad, same name, was a star lineman at Cardinal Dougherty before graduating in 1996, and went on to start at Penn State.
Just like his mom and his older sister Melanie, his dad is very supportive, but he never influenced him into playing sports. It just worked out this way.
“My dad let me find my own way, he never really brought it up or forced football on me,” Bell said. “My family let me choose my own path. They’re all really supportive of me. When I need help, they’re there, but they didn’t tell me what to do. I made the decisions myself and I’m glad I did.
“They let me pick my high school. I didn’t do a lot of research until I was in eighth grade, and I saw people say Ryan was a great school. They were right. I like it. It’s a great school. I like the people. There are a lot of different people there, but we all learn and get along great.”
And some of them are pretty good at sports. Even if they were a late bloomer.
“I never would have thought I’d be All-Catholic in two sports when I was in middle school,” said Bell, who hopes to play football in college but would also consider wrestling. “I’m pretty happy, but I’m not satisfied. I still want to get better.”