From time to time, we enjoy writing about the unique lives of our students, including those who overcome distinct challenges. In this profile, Matt Bell explains how he endured health problems, depression, and poverty to focus his life-affirming and entrepreneurial spirit on marketing and movement as a student in the College of Education’s School of Kinesiology.
As a boy growing up in tiny Lineville in rural Clay County, Alabama, Matt Bell always believed in himself. Something told him he was destined for big things, though he knew he would not have an easy way in life. Clay was the last dry county in Alabama, and home to legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, as well as Alabama’s 52nd governor, Bob Riley. It is probably best known as being home to parts of Cheaha State Park in the Talladega National Forest. Its population peaked in 1920, when it had 22,000 souls, and is now down to about 13,000. Good employment opportunities are few and far between, and many families struggle to make ends meet.
“Although it is my ancestral home, there’s not much going on in Clay County,” Bell said. “Almost everyone in my family has just gotten by on hard work, although I do have one uncle who graduated from Auburn on my mother’s side. He is an attorney. I’ll be the first college graduate on my father’s side, so I’ve got a lot to live up to. I want to make them proud.”
Things were going well for Bell before he was sidelined, both literally and figuratively.
“As an offensive tackle on my high school football team, I was having some real success, and attracting the attention of a few colleges. But I broke my leg as a sophomore and it’s like everything I hoped for went out the window. I got depressed and wanted to quit school. But my girlfriend, Erin Staples, wouldn’t let me. She brought my books to my house and said we’re going to get through this.”
But there was another problem. He was overweight.
“Our school’s scale went up to 350 pounds and stopped there, so I really don’t even know how much I weighed. But it was hard to get around.”
After graduation, Bell spent a year at Alabama A&M but ran out of money and returned home.
“I felt like I had always had a real vision for myself, but that vision had been taken away,” he said. “I was working in a cabinet factory and didn’t see any future. I stopped believing in God, stopped praying, but somehow decided to give church one more chance. And on my way to church my car engine locked up! I had been crying a lot, but at that point I just had to laugh. I thought maybe God had a sense of humor and I made a promise that I would never leave God again.”
About this time, Bell’s father retired from his job at the Honda plant in Lincoln and offered to pay off his son’s student loans. This enabled Bell to enroll at Southern Union with the hope of getting into Auburn. He knew it would not be easy, since he went to school in the daytime and worked a second shift job at Briggs & Stratton in Auburn until midnight. At work one day he got on the pallet scale and learned his weight was up to 386.
“A co-worker challenged me to lose 20 pounds in a month,” he recalled. “This was hard. I grew up on soul food, and didn’t know how to start. But I joined a 24-hour gym and worked out from midnight till 2:00 a.m. I cut out the junk food, and dropped the weight. That meant a lot. I hit my goal and was energized. I felt I was regaining my vision for myself and stuck with it. When I graduated from Southern Union with a 3.48 GPA, I was down to 266 pounds. I had lost 120 pounds and still had Erin beside me. I felt like I was on my way.”
Auburn brings new opportunities, new challenges
Out of the blue, Bell received a call from his father. He had managed to get money from his previous service in the Army and used it to pay his son’s tuition.
“I started crying,” Bell recalled. “I could not believe it. This was the fall of 2016, and I was able to get really engaged at Auburn. It was a great year, but I realized I needed to switch out of software engineering and follow my real passions. I began what I call my entrepreneurial journey, which I am still on. I knew that if I could lose 120 pounds I could do anything. So I became a Kinesiology/marketing major. I opened my own social media company and endured some more rough times, but finally just changed my attitude and decided to share my experiences with others.”
“I want to inspire people through my personal brand of weight loss, which is where my education in Kinesiology comes in. I completed my KINE 2251 Motor Development course with Dr. Pangelinian and my before-and-after Body Mass Index numbers were great. I was so happy I cried, right there in front of my classmates. If things keep going like they are now, I’ll soon be the first person on my dad’s side of the family to graduate from college. I feel like I owe that to him.”
For Bell, it’s all about helping others. He has seen the importance of having a caring person in his life. He has seen the depths of depression. He knows how it feels to have no place of his own. But he has also seen what changing your life can do for yourself and others.
“I want to create an impact,” he said. “This is not about me any more. I tell myself every day that I am not naturally as good as everyone else, so I have to work extra hard. No one is going to outwork me. I look at how I used to be, almost 200 pounds ago, and see clearly that my biggest disadvantage has become my biggest advantage. That’s my vision. I’m ready to share it with others and transform lives along the way. And there’s no better place to grow that spirit than right here at Auburn.”