Packer fan’s memory bringing smiles to others

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Julie, Tyler and Craig Bell proudly share one of their favorite photos of Todd Bell, who loved the Green Bay Packers so much that he applied for season tickets shortly before he passed away in 2012 from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In his honor, those handicap game tickets are now donated, through the Wheel of Todd organization, to kids, like Todd, who deserve a break in life. (Photo by Correne Martin)

By Correne Martin

Todd Bell’s great big smile was a contagious one. It was a smile that lit up every face around him. And it was never bigger than when his beloved Green Bay Packers were winning.

It’s been three years since Todd passed, 11 days before his 27th birthday. Yet, his unforgettable grin, along with a little team spirit in his honor, is still making an impact on kids and families across Wisconsin. Through the unrivaled Wheel of Todd, a non-profit organization started by his parents, Craig and Julie Bell, his joyful legacy lives on in the experiences of kids attending Packer games.

Born and raised in Eastman, Todd Orland Bell inherited Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and was diagnosed at age 5 with the genetic disorder, characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness.

“Only women carry it, but only boys can get it,” stated Julie, whose side of the family carried the DMD gene. Todd had two uncles and two cousins who passed away from the disease as well. His younger brother, Tyler, does not have the disorder.

Though he was confined to a wheelchair by age 9, Todd’s beaming personality and brilliant mind were limitless. He was a kind, loyal friend though extremely shy. He loved hunting and computers, which were his source to the outside world. His favorite pastimes were watching professional wrestling (for the drama and storylines) and football, especially cheering for the Packers.

“He was a very passionate fan. He’d get pissed when they were getting beat, go to his room and say he didn’t want to watch anymore. But then, he’d yell out and ask how they were doing,” Craig remembered. “But he never swore in front of his grandparents.”

“He was the Mel Kiper of Eastman,” his mom laughed. “He had his own mock draft every year.”

Todd excelled in knowing the NFL’s favored draft picks. One year, Craig said, he correctly guessed 13 in a row at the start of the draft.

Craig and Todd were fortunate that they were able to follow their love of the Packers to Lambeau Field for one game each year. Some of Craig’s friends from Eastman invited them along on a trip and “rolled out the red carpet for him.”

“He absolutely loved it,” Craig said.

From then on, the same group of guys traveled to Green Bay once a year, always tailgating before the big game.

Wheel of Todd concept
“The first time we were up there, he was getting bored. So I grabbed a paper plate and marked it up like a dart board, and taped it on one of his wheels,” his dad recalled vividly. “People bet a dollar for a number. Then, Todd drove all around [the parking lot and returned]. When he stopped at our mark on the pavement, that number got the pot.”

Named after the TV show, “Wheel of Fortune,” what was once just an amusing diversion eventually became known as the Wheel of Todd.

That night after the game, Craig and Todd found $150 in his backpack. “It turned out nobody was taking the money. They were just watching him laugh,” Craig remarked. “We played that every year, for nine years.”
In 2011, the Bells received a letter from the Packers explaining they would no longer sell single game tickets and that they should consider getting Todd’s name on the season ticket waiting list. They did so and, in 2012, they received another letter stating that Todd’s name had been moved up to number one on the list.

Unfortunately, Todd never got to use those season tickets, as he passed away one month later on Nov. 11, 2012.

Tickets in Todd’s memory
After he passed, Craig decided to purchase the three-game, two-person ticket package anyway. He planned to donate the tickets until his brother urged him to do more, in Todd’s memory.

That is how the Wheel of Todd organization came to be.

The intention is that two handicap game tickets are donated to a child who deserves a break in life. He or she and a guardian receive a two-night hotel stay, pre-game tailgating activities with the Bells, a $100 fuel card and $300 cash—totaling about $1,500 per family. The fuel card is to help get them to Green Bay. The cash is to cover the cost of souvenirs, Hall of Fame or stadium tours, a visit to Brett Favre’s Steakhouse, or otherwise.

“We try to give them as free of a trip as we can,” Craig expounded. “The only requirement is that they have to take a picture somewhere at the stadium with a sign that says, ‘Thank you, Todd.’”

Initially, Craig wanted the tickets to go to kids in wheelchairs. “So I contacted the southern district of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). They said they would absolutely help us,” he said, noting that Todd attended MDA summer camp yearly as a child.

Then, an informational brochure about the Wheel of Todd organization was created and interested campers were encouraged to apply for tickets to one home Packer game by writing a personal letter to the Bell family, describing, “Why I want to go to a game.” Ticket recipients need not have muscular dystrophy, this was simply a way for the Bells to make connections.

“What started as a great idea turned into this organization,” Craig said. “We cried on every letter.”

Julie added, “Some of the letters are just hilarious though. One kid said all he wanted was a cheesehead and a foam finger.”

The Wheel of Todd, which is now a 501(c)3 non-profit, officially started with the 2013 football season. Altogether, in Todd’s name, the organization has donated game packages to nine kids (three a year)—the youngest being 6 and the oldest 17. Most of them have been in wheelchairs and several have been from southwest Wisconsin.

“We’ve gotten donations and letters from people all over who’ve heard our story. That is what encouraged us to start this, by ourselves, with our own money,” Julie commented.

Until now, that is.

Wheel of Todd fundraisers
As members of the Prairie du Chien Eagles Club, the Bells were approached by the club to do a meat raffle fundraiser recently for the Wheel of Todd.

Bryan Beneker, a close friend and 2004 classmate of Todd’s, is also creating a website for the non-profit.

To further raise funds, the owners of Leisure Time Sports Bar & Bowl offered to host a bowling fundraiser on Saturday, March 5, at noon. Teams of five who are interested in bowling in the eight-pin tap tournament are asked to call Leisure Time at 326-2782. In addition to bowling, there will be a silent auction with a chainsaw, weed eater and smoker as top prizes, and raffles of a 73 shotgun, a pistol and another shotgun from Fergie’s Firearms. From this event, 100 percent of the proceeds will go into the Wheel of Todd organization.

“The nature of people in this area is amazing,” Craig noted.

“I know Todd is proud that we’re doing this in his honor. It keeps him close to us. We get to help families create a memory they can have forever, and we get to see it through his eyes,” he said.

“Todd was shy, but he was very happy, especially when he was at a Packer game. He loved the flyover (it’s even depicted on his headstone). Whenever we’d see that, he’d say, ‘I’m home, dad. I’m home.’”

Without a doubt, Todd is flying high and flashing his mighty smile in Heaven, as the game he loved continues bringing great happiness to fans just like him.

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