Tyson Bell intended to play at Syracuse.
When he was finishing his high school days at Everest Academy, a number of colleges came calling for his lacrosse services. Syracuse was one of those schools.
Syracuse eventually joined a long list of programs to send an invitation to the product of St. Catharines, Ontario, and it was the one he wanted to accept. But there was a problem: grades.
Bell’s marks weren’t high enough to meet the NCAA’s requirements, and he would have to redshirt for one year while getting them in order. But no lacrosse for a year wasn’t viable to the player.
“I used sports as background music,” he said. “It helped me get through.”
Instead, he pledged for Onondaga Community College (OCC), located approximately five miles from Syracuse’s campus, which is a big part of why Bell picked it.
“I chose Onondaga simply because it was a feeder school for Syracuse,” he explained. “I know a lot of great players who went through Onondaga, continued their careers and journeys with Syracuse. That’s what I wanted to do.”
While at OCC one morning, Bell’s teacher didn’t say his name during attendance. Confused, he asked her why he wasn’t called. His name was no longer on the list.
In the afternoon, Bell tried going to lacrosse practice. He was met with faculty members who told him he couldn’t practice, because he wasn’t part of the school.
Bell met with his student advisor to get to the bottom of things. That’s when he learned how deep his grades issue has become.
“She brought it to my attention that I was failing and my GPA wasn’t high enough, so I was suspended from school,” Bell said.
That was the final straw that flipped the switch in his head.
“That was the big eye opener for me,” he said. “I have to play lacrosse, I have to make it through, so that’s when I turned things on a bit. There’s no room for joking around at that point.”
Bell enrolled in winter and summer classes and took on extra classes to catch up. He restructured his priorities to elevate his schooling.
“As a student, I started having a different role, whether it be doing extra work or even just helping around,” he explained. “I did every opportunity I could so I could play. I knew if I couldn’t get my grades up and was kicked out of school that I wouldn’t be playing, and then I would be sent home. That would have been a big kick to the butt and a big disappointment to me, my family, and my lacrosse team.”
Soon, Tyson Bell completely changed how he operated as a student and found himself on the other side of the desk.
“I had bad routines and bad habits where I would put things aside,” he said. “I had a little talk with myself on what I needed to do, and I came up with doing the extra classes, looking for extra credit, helping around the school. It went from me wanting a tutor to getting tutored almost every day to me being a tutor and a mentor to students who were in the same position I was.”
It was a lot to juggle, but Bell turned it around, and his lacrosse team appreciated it. In his two years at OCC, the Lazers won two national championships and didn’t lose a game, going 35-0 as the program continued its NJCAA dominance.
While the academic experiences Bell had at OCC were formative, so too was participating in a sporting dynasty.
“It was something special,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be part of Chuck Wilbur’s dynasty. What a life experience that was.”
After two years, it was time for Tyson Bell to make his next decision: to follow his plan and attend Syracuse, or enter the NLL Draft and go pro. He still wasn’t caught up enough to avoid redshirting for a year if he went to Syracuse, and he couldn’t commit to a year without lacrosse.
“With my grades growing up, it pushed me back. If I had continued my NCAA career after the two years at OCC, I still would have had to redshirt, and that was a very hard pill for me to swallow,” Bell said. “I know I would have been able to adapt, but I didn’t want to see myself go there, fail, and not be able to play. At that point, I had to bite the bullet and say that I didn’t know how much longer this could work out for me not being the smartest student.”
The alternative was pretty positive, though – a potential professional lacrosse career. Bell put his name in the 2015 NLL Draft ring.
After the combine the night before, Bell spoke with several teams who showed interest. Calgary was not one of them.
“I didn’t really have them in my mind,” he said.
But with the No. 24 overall pick in the second round, the Calgary Roughnecks made Tyson Bell their latest addition.
For the next five years, Bell played for the Roughnecks. He moved to Calgary and made it his home. He progressed from a rookie struggling to acclimate to the highest level of box lacrosse to a silver medalist with Team Canada at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships. In his time with the Roughnecks, Bell posted 17 goals and 31 assists for 48 points in 72 games.
His Calgary career concluded in September as he was dealt to the Halifax Thunderbirds in exchanged for two 2020 draft picks. It came after he achieved the self-described highlight of his career with the Roughnecks.
In 2019, the team went on a run as the No. 3 seed in the West to win the NLL championship, doing so in the most dramatic fashion on an overtime series winner, 14-13, in Game 2 of the NLL Final. Bell had two assists and scooped 18 loose balls in Calgary’s four playoff games.
“It meant everything. We had a very special group, and we went through a lot of adversity that season, whether it be injuries or crappy flights or whatever the case may be,” he explained. “But with that team, we were so close, and we deserved it. We played our guts out all year, and we battled all year with pretty much everything. Winning it for our coach, Curt Malawsky, it was very special for him, too.
“Like I said, we were all kind of going through some shit,” Bell added. “For it to pay off the way it did winning in Calgary, I think that made it that much better. It was the highlight of my career. I hadn’t done anything like that. Winning provincials or winning tournaments growing up, obvious it’s very special as a player, but winning the championship in the NLL – nothing can top it.”
In order to be on that team at that time, though, Tyson Bell had to go through what he did at OCC. If his grades had been better and he had gone to Syracuse on either occasion, there is no telling when or where he would have been drafted.
Now half a decade removed from OCC, Bell hasn’t had to worry about his grades in years. But the changes he made at the school have had a lasting impact, and they extend well beyond the classroom.
Grades were a symptom of the overall cause: responsibility.
“I matured as a person,” Bell explained. “I had to live on my own in an apartment with one or two other roommates. I had to find a role for myself in what I wanted and what I needed to do to get there. I changed a lot of things I wasn’t naturally doing going into OCC. I had to manage my money better, I wasn’t going out spending it on whatever.
“The bigger picture of it was me maturing as a boy into a man.”