Sports Editor

Coach Keith Bell will not be back with his Claremore Zebras this week as had been expected.

His son, Thomas, 17, suffered a setback over the weekend and was returned to the intensive care unit of a Topeka, Kan., hospital where he had undergone surgery two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, by telephone from Topeka, Mary Ann Bell, wife of the Zebras’ football coach, detailed for the first time the series of events that have sidelined father and son.

Thomas Bell sustained a head injury during a Topeka West High School junior varsity football the first week of October. Mary Ann Bell described it as “a head-to-head hit.”

Surgery was performed Oct. 10 to relieve pressure on the brain stem, caused by slow bleeding in his brain.

Keith Bell has been at his son’s bedside since the day of the surgery.

Over the past weekend, Thomas Bell was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Topeka. Mary Ann Bell said last week that Thomas’ recovery was slow but encouraging.

“It was more serious than we thought,” she said Tuesday.

“We thought we were out of the woods on Friday.

“We took one step forward, and then three steps backward over the weekend.”

Late Saturday night, early Sunday, Thomas Bell began experiencing seizures and a buildup of blood on the brain.

He was returned to the hospital Sunday. The Bells feared additional surgery might be required.

“When you’re dealing with the brain, you don’t realize how serious it is,” Mary Ann Bell said.

“That’s something that time will tell.”

From Sunday to Tuesday, enough progress was made by Thomas that surgery was dismissed. Plans are now being made, Mary Ann Bell said, to have Thomas transferred to a brain trauma rehabilitation center in Lincoln, Neb.

Keith Bell, who was hired in the spring to coach the Zebras, will accompany his son to Lincoln.

“We had anticipated heading home today,” Mary Ann Bell said Tuesday.

“We thought we were on the road to recovery.”

There is no way to tell, no timetable to follow, she said, for Keith Bell’s return to the Zebras. In his leave, offensive coordinator Rob Gilbreath has guided the football team.

Bell has missed the last two games, but had expected to return to the sideline for Friday night’s home game with Catoosa.

The Zebras are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. A loss to Catoosa would eliminate their chances, and the Nov. 3 game against Tulsa Central would close out the football season.

“Keith has tried to keep in close contact with coach Gilbreath. As much as he can,” Mary Ann Bell said.

“He talks with his players, and keeps telling them, ‘Hey, you guys have got to go hard and play hard whether I’m there, or not.’

“He hopes that he has instilled enough work ethic and drive in those young men in the short amount of time he’s been with them — since May — to have them knowing what they have to do.

“Keith misses those boys,” she said. “If this was any one of those boys, he’d be at the hospital almost as much as he is here with Thomas.

“He cares about each and every one of those boys. He feels like he’s letting them down.

“But we have tried to reassure him that he is where he’s got to be. He has to be with his son.

“He knows that.

“He’s struggling. It’s been strenuous.”

A week ago, Thomas, a 5-9, 160-pound junior who turned 17 in the intensive care unit last week, told his father to pass along the words, “Fight for your pride,” to the Zebras who had endured a last-minute setback to Tulsa Rogers.

“That has become our motto,” Mary Ann Bell said. “Thomas told me to write it down.

“And now, that’s where we’re going with this. With Thomas. With Keith. With everybody. We’re fighting for our pride.”

Indeed, the last two weeks have been a fight.

Keith Bell said at one point he thought the fight had been lost.

On the day following his son’s surgery, the family was told to prepare for the worst.

Doctors informed the Bells that Thomas “wouldn’t make it,” Keith Bell told The Daily Oklahoman.

Keith Bell and his wife credit prayer, and Thomas’ faith in fighting for pride, with reversing that possible scenario.

“With all the prayers that everybody has put up, that’s why we are where we are today,” Mary Ann Bell said.

“We had that setback on Sunday, and on Tuesday, we’re already looking at a rehab center.

“We want to express our thanks and gratitude for all the prayers and thoughts. We couldn’t get through this without them,” she said.

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