McCarthy profiles a Gold Star Family, avid Panthers fans, for Sunday Countdown

Producer Dominique Goodridge talks about the organizations and the people who helped make ESPN’s story possible:
“TAPS put us in touch with the Bell family. They were our liaison throughout the process, and they were exceptional. 1st Sgt. Russell Bell’s wife, LaToya, and her dad, Cliff, were so open and welcoming to our crew, and told an extremely difficult story with love, dignity, beauty and honor for their loved one. The Panthers were happy to help share in honoring 1st Sgt. Bell and in sharing the story of his sacrifice as well as the family he left behind.”

Gage Bell was one-year-old when his father, Army 1st Sgt. Russell Bell, made the ultimate sacrifice for the country he so dearly loved.

The senior Bell lost his life in 2012 serving in Afghanistan. But before his deployment, he and his father-in-law, Clifford Welch, purchased season tickets together for Carolina Panthers home games at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. The seats have become an NFL Sunday family ritual for young Gage, now five years old, and his grandfather.

This Sunday, the Bells will join other Carolina-area military surviving families at the Panthers’ Salute to Service game, where players wear patches on their helmets with initials of a fallen soldier in recognition of their service. Carolina star tight end Greg Olsen will wear the patch saluting the Bell family when the Panthers play the Kansas City Chiefs.

SportsCenter anchor Jade McCarthy and feature producer Dominique Goodridge will tell an ESPN Veterans Week story of how the Panthers are honoring local heroes and their grieving families on Sunday NFL Countdown (ESPN, Sunday at 11 a.m. ET),

Every Panthers player is matched with a military surviving family. The families will be honored during a special halftime ceremony. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national peer support network for military surviving families grieving the loss of their loved ones, helped facilitate the connection between the Panthers and the families. McCarthy discusses her planned piece with Front Row.

What appealed to you most about this story?
McCarthy: Anytime we can find a way to show how sports connects with life, it appeals to me. In this case, the Panthers have provided a link to a young boy and his father, who gave his life protecting freedom all of us are fortunate to have. Gage was one year old when his father, 1st Sgt. Russell Bell, was killed in Afghanistan. He ultimately will know his dad through the stories that people share about him. For his grandfather to be able to sit at Bank of America Stadium and tell him of the days that he and Russell went to Panthers games is more than special – it connects a boy and his father.

Describe the emotions you feel in reporting this kind of personal story?
McCarthy: When I first walked into the Bells’ home, the first emotion that hit me was pride. They have more than a wall for Russell – it’s a room. There are so many photos, and plaques, and memories of Gage’s father, LaToya’s husband, and a soldier who protected millions of us he never met. The love for Russell was so strong that I felt like I could touch it. It’s a heartbreaking story, without a doubt, but it made me feel really good that the Bells have channeled that love in a powerful and purposeful way. LaToya smiles when she speaks about her husband. Gage will grow up hearing stories about his dad. That is love.

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