29 October 2023
He counts running out to a Wembley Stadium crowd of 100,000 among his greatest moments, but Kiwi rugby league great Dean Bell reckons he’s living his best life now as a hospice worker and granddad.
Bell, a former player and captain for Wigan, the Warriors and the Kiwis, is a storeman and driver for the Harbour Hospice shop in Whangaparāoa, on Auckland’s Hibiscus Coast.
It’s a long way from the player’s tunnel at London’s Wembley, when he ran on to the field in front of 100,000 spectators under Kiwi coach Graham Lowe’s Wigan side in 1988.
“That was something like you could not even imagine, it was so powerful”, the 61-year-old said.
“Graham put the theme song to Rocky on and I could see all these granddads with their grandchildren on their shoulders. It gave me goosebumps.
“I thought, ‘This really means something to these people’ and it wasn’t that I needed to convince myself, but it was a reminder that this was all about the fans. I wanted them to see me at my best.”
It was the same when, as captain, he led the Warriors out for their first game in 1995, his final playing season.
“It was such a big event, there was such anticipation, and seeing all the fans - being back in my hometown after so many years away.”
Along with the rest of the country, he followed the Warriors’ journey to the preliminary finals this season for the first time in 12 years.
The side was “on the right track”, but there were still areas for improvement, Bell said.
And while he left the playing field on good terms, there’s still part of him that misses his old league star life.
Only coaching young players in Leeds had come close to the same feeling, he said.
“That gave me a buzz watching them develop. But in those first few years after I retired I found it tough - to have done something all your life and to not be able to do it any more was hard.
“I had been that skinny white kid from South Auckland who ran up One Tree Hill every morning and did weights in my dad’s garage because I loved footy that much. My debut for the Kiwi team had been a goal of mine growing up, and knowing how proud it made my family - that was another of my ‘greatest moments’.”
Now, Bell leads a quieter life with Jackie, his wife of 40 years, and spending time with grandkids Lucas, 3, and 8-month-old Arabella.
“You have your children and obviously you’d do anything for them … but then the grandkids come along and, probably because I’m getting older and I know that we’re in the second half of our lives, you just really appreciate them.
“They’re like therapy for us, and we can’t get enough of them.”
His other focus is his work for Harbour Hospice, where he’s daily humbled by the efforts of volunteers to support a vital service that relied on community grants and fundraising for half its funding.
“Most of the people I work alongside in the shop are volunteers, and just seeing the time and energy they give every day makes me feel very humble.”
And he was enjoying a job that not only kept him active enough to drop his gym membership, but also allowed him to leave work at work.
“As cliched as it sounds, I’m probably living my best life now. I’ve had a lot of pressure in my life and a lot of pressure to perform, so I’ve wanted to turn that tap off a little bit.
“I’ve come to a job … where I don’t have to take it home.”
This story was first published by the NZ Herald on 29 October 2023.