Le’Veon Bell: villain or vilified?

Pittsburgh Steeler JuJu Smith-Schuster, left, celebrates a touchdown scored by Le'Veon Bell on Christmas 2017 in Houston. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

He’s the highest-paid running back in the NFL. But he’s unhappy. As Bell’s relationship with the Steelers deteriorates, his family wonders what legacy he’ll leave behind.

The chess set was a Christmas gift. Ten years ago, Le’Veon Bell tore away wrapping paper to find the ivory and black pieces and his initials — L.A.B. — carved into the wooden board. The rooks and pawns have worn over the past decade, but they’re still part of a tradition. Before each Steelers home game, Bell pulls out the set, puts the pieces in place and starts to play.

it’s so hard to be a hero in a city that paints youu out to be the villain..

A post shared by LeVeon Bell (@leveonbell) on

He takes the game seriously. He has since second grade when he saw a chess match in a movie then learned the rules on the internet. These days he mostly plays on his phone. But on game day, when his house is swarming with out-of-town guests, it’s face to face. He wants to read his opponent’s eyes, trying to see three steps ahead. His moves are swift, yet calculated.

He runs the same way. The first option isn’t always the best one, so he waits. That running style has made Bell the most tantalizing, terrifying running back in the National Football League.

Bell’s mother, Lisa Bell, hasn’t studied chess strategy. “I wish I did,” she says, “because I know I’d beat him.” But she knows the future of her son’s football career hinges on the result of his latest chess match. He’s played it patiently, sitting out the past two training camps after the Steelers slapped consecutive franchise tags on him. For two summers the sides seemed close to brokering a long-term deal to keep Bell in Pittsburgh, but they never solved their stalemate.

This year, Bell’s holdout has seeped into Week 1. He’s playing hardball, risking a weekly paycheck in the name of preserving his health and future earnings.

At the outset of what is likely Bell’s last season with the Steelers, his contract standoff has strained his relationship with the team and distanced him from fans. In March, Bell tweeted, “it’s so hard to be a hero in a city that paints youu (sic) out to be the villain.” In his mind, it’s not complicated. It’s black and white. The chess match continues. You’re either with him, or you’re not.

“Regardless of what people think, they’re not walking in his shoes,” Lisa says. “They don’t know.”

room to run

The house where Bell grew up stands next to an empty lot where his grandparents used to live in Columbus, Ohio. Their house burned down in the early 2000s. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

Clarence Bell Jr., Lisa’s brother, parks his truck at the corner of 22nd and Hamilton in Columbus, Ohio, and cuts the engine. The tour of his nephew’s past begins here. There’s not much left to see anymore, Uncle Clarence says, but they used to call this “the Bell section.” There were two small houses side by side; now there’s only one and an empty grass lot.

Mama Bell Throwback Thursday photo – let know if you like

A post shared by Lisa Bell (@lab2983) on

The house still standing is where Lisa raised her sons Le’Veon, Lavonte and Clarence as a single mom. Her parents lived next door. Her father, Clarence Bell Sr., strung a chain-link fence around the two houses, separating them from the street and the struggling South Linden neighborhood. The boys had room to run, but they weren’t allowed outside the fence.

“It was their own little world,” Lisa says.

In that world, there was a rule for NFL Sundays.

“You wear nothing if it ain’t Steelers,” Lisa says. “That’s how it worked.” Her father, who moved from Pensacola, Fla., to Columbus in the 1970s, has been a diehard Steelers fan for as long as Lisa can remember. His fervor infected the rest of the family. The only times his children have seen him cry were when his mother died and when the Steelers drafted his grandson in 2013.

On a rainy August day in South Linden, Uncle Clarence doesn’t stay long. His parents’ home burned in the early 2000s, he says, and the city knocked it down. The other house, where Le’Veon lived, is occupied, but its windows are boarded up and half the fence is missing.

Years ago, in the backyard of his childhood home, Uncle Clarence gave Le’Veon and his sons Justin and Jalen the same football education he’d received as a kid. While they each wanted the ball, Uncle Clarence put them on the offensive line. “Because I started on the line,” he explains. “That’s how I got tough.” His first team, the neighborhood’s Linden Eagles, was their first team.

“Le’Veon was 4. Justin was 5,” Uncle Clarence says. “They just picked grass.”

The building beside Bell’s childhood home has the name of his neighborhood on it in graffiti. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

After games, he bought pizza and sat the boys down to study the film. They watched each tape twice. The first time “so they’d get the oohs and ahs out the way.” The second time to learn. He taught them to not tolerate losing. One night, after Uncle Clarence beat him in Madden, Le’Veon stomped up the basement stairs, crying. He turned and said, “I’m going to call my Mom!”

“Call your Mom!” Uncle Clarence crowed. “She’d play better than you anyway.”

The training paid off. Justin now plays for the Kuopio Steelers in Finland, and Jalen is a senior tailback at California University of Pennsylvania. But Lisa has a theory about what made Le’Veon special. Something about the way he darts and dodges, pausing and stutter-stepping in the backfield. She swears her son got his running style from the family dog.

Zee, a lab mix, was 4 months old when Lisa brought him home from an animal shelter. He took to Le’Veon immediately. The 10-year-old boy tucked a football under his arm and raced out the door with puppy in hot pursuit. They developed their brand of football. Le’Veon would run until Zee nipped his pants. He was down. Then Zee would run the other way, and Le’Veon chased.


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'SOMETHING TO PROVE'

Maloney Park is where Bell's first youth team, the Linden Eagles, practiced. He played alongside his cousin Justin Bell when they were 4 and 5, respectively. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

He is elusive.

Le’Veon Bell ignored multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, yet he signed off on his family speaking. Glimpses into his life came periodically on social media and — occasionally — on TMZ. His agent, Adisa Bakari, did not respond to emails, and a note left at his office in Washington, D.C., last month did not receive a reply. Bakari and Bell limited their public comments this summer, surfacing only to say Bell hoped to retire as a Steeler. Then, midway through Week 1, Bakari hinted the holdout could extend into the regular season.

If they don’t feel like you’re worth it, they cut you.

Clarence Bell Jr., Bell's uncle

When the deadline for a contract extension passed in July, ensuring Bell a $14.544 million salary this season, Bakari already was looking ahead to free agency. “Now that there’s no deal,” he told ESPN, “the practical reality is this now likely will be Le’Veon’s last season as a Steeler.” The issue, the agent said, was the Steelers “wanted to pay the position, not the player.”

Bell believes he has revolutionized the running back position, and he may be right. He’s averaged 128.9 yards from scrimmage per regular-season game, more than any other back in NFL history through his first five seasons. Edgerrin James averaged 126.0, Eric Dickerson 125.6, LaDainian Tomlinson 123.4 and Jim Brown 121.1. All but James are in the Hall of Fame.

Then there are the games he missed. Bell was suspended for two games in 2015 after an arrest for DUI and marijuana possession, and three games in 2016 for multiple missed drug tests.

“I was hurt, and I was disappointed,” Lisa says of the arrest. “That’s not who he was. That’s not who he is. I believe in forgiveness, so I forgave him. The hardest part is when others act as if they’ve never made mistakes and they constantly want to throw daggers at my son.

“I didn’t like that. They didn’t know him.”

In the offseason, Bell lives in Miami. His mother frequently flies in, helping baby-sit when his 1-year-old daughter visits from California each month. (Bell has two children and a third on the way.)

The past two summers, Bell’s cousin Jalen lived and trained with him in Miami. Bell keeps a small friend circle there, Jalen says, usually just a few people and a cameraman. Outside of workouts, they spend their days at a recording studio, where Bell works on his rap albums, or on the basketball court at LA Fitness. Bell is a gamer. Lately, his obsession is Fortnite.

“I think he’s handled it perfectly,” Jalen says of the contract dispute. “He could’ve messed it up by saying something wrong or doing the wrong actions, but he’s kept his cool. He’s going to be better than ever. I think it’ll be his best season yet. He’s in great shape, and it’s added more fuel. They franchise tagged him again. So it’s like, OK, I’m going to have to show you again.”

Aware a subset of fans prefers he’d stick to football, Bell’s doesn’t appear to care. Some days it seems he’d rather play the villain. On July 31, the Steelers’ sixth day of training camp, Bell’s girlfriend, Marliesia Ortiz, posted a video of him at a Miami strip club. Four days later, Bell released a new album, “My Side of Things.” The cover depicts him seated on a throne behind a pile of poker chips.

All of this is a gamble. When Rams running back Todd Gurley signed a four-year extension in July worth $60 million, with $45 million guaranteed, Bell tweeted, “lol and ppl thought I was trippin?” The Steelers reportedly offered Bell five years and $70 million — $33 million guaranteed. Bell, however, is not Gurley. He’s 26, two years older, and he’s taken nearly twice as many hits in the NFL. As one friend cautioned, “There’s some wear and tear on those tires.”

In Columbus, Uncle Clarence shakes his head. He recalls the Steelers’ contract conflicts with Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. “This don’t surprise me,” he says, “just because he’s my nephew. Pittsburgh is business. They give up guaranteed money the first year. After that, you can play for it. If they don’t feel like you’re worth it, they cut you. Who wants that?”

“Le’Veon’s got a chip on his shoulder,” Uncle Clarence continues. “He knows he’s got something to prove.” The chip never leaves. Despite his salary and success, Bell senses he’s undervalued. The way he sees it, he’s forever the underdog. Because while it may seem obvious a running back of his size and skill would take the NFL by storm, Bell’s arrival was anything but inevitable.

'YOU STAYED WITH ME'

The Groveport Madison High School football field was renamed Le'Veon Bell Field at Cruiser Stadium prior to the beginning of the Cruisers' 2017 season at Groveport Madison High school on Friday August 17, 2018, in Groveport. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

The man who changed the course of Le’Veon Bell’s career had him dead to rights. It was Bell’s freshman year at Groveport Madison High School, and principal Donis Toler Jr., had just found Bell in the middle of a dance circle in the cafeteria. “When you have 2,000 kids in a building that has the capacity for 1,100,” Toler Jr. says now, “there’s some things that just can’t be tolerated.”

He’s got ridiculous abilities.

Tim Brown, Bell's high school head football coach

Later that day, Toler Jr. met Bell’s mother and informed her of the incident. He told her there was something special about her son, a pied-piper quality that drew in his classmates, but he could be disruptive. The rapping. The dancing in the halls. If only Bell would focus on school as much as football or fooling around with his friends, the principal said, he’d be headed somewhere.

Bell started for the Cruisers “as soon as he walked in the locker room,” says Bryan Schoonover, the offensive coordinator at the time. Initially, they butted heads. Coaches wanted Bell to lower his shoulder and not try to slip every tackle. Not long after, then-head coach Tim Brown says, “I decided I’d quit trying to force him to be a battering ram, because he’s got ridiculous abilities.” Bell was a savage competitor. Before practice one day, he beat a teammate in Madden, 127-0.

Toler Jr., a former Ohio State running back, saw Bell’s talent. He also saw immaturity. Coaches reported Bell skipping practices, and even when he attended them he often hardly tried.

“At game time, he was A-plus,” Toler Jr. says, “At practice time, he was just average.”

By now, the story of Bell’s college recruitment is local legend. Everyone tells their own version, and they all involve Toler Jr. The principal advised Bell to take summer classes and graduate midway through his senior year, enabling him to enroll early at a Division I school. That season, Bell checked his Rivals.com recruit ranking every day. It never budged beyond two stars. After suffering a deep thigh bruise, he was deployed mostly as a decoy, suppressing his numbers.

“He was dragging his leg,” Schoonover says, “but he didn’t miss a game.”

In early December 2009, two weeks before he graduated, Bell had scholarship offers from Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Marshall. Ohio State showed some interest, but only as a linebacker or safety, and no scholarship. On the drive home from Bowling Green, Bell told his mother he was almost ready to commit there. “If I don’t get another offer,” he said, “I’ll do it.”

That week, Toler Jr. got a call from Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. They had history — Toler Jr’s father was Dantonio’s high school coach. The Spartans needed to replace a running back who’d been kicked off the team. Dantonio knew Toler Jr. would shoot straight.

“Little Donis,” he said, “what can you tell me about this Le’Veon kid?”

“He’s gifted,” Toler Jr. said. “I bet he could start for you next year.”

“Really?” Dantonio replied. “Well what does he need to improve?”

“His work ethic. It’s horrible,” Toler Jr. said, and Dantonio laughed. “But if I’m telling you his work ethic is horrible, but at the same time I’m saying he can start for you as a freshman … .”

That weekend, when Bell returned from touring Michigan State and accepting a scholarship offer, he marched directly to his mother’s bedroom. She was a Michigan fan. (Not anymore.) Bell took her Charles Woodson throwback jersey from the closet, grabbed the Mike Hart autographed photo and put them in the trash. “I go, ‘Whoa, you haven’t even been to school there yet!” Lisa recalls, laughing. She put the items in a box, and they’ve sat there ever since.

Within a month, Bell was enrolled at Michigan State. If he never cracked the depth chart at running back, says his position coach Brad Salem, the staff felt he’d be a good linebacker. On his first snap in spring practice, Bell caught a screen pass, split a seam and ran 60 yards for a touchdown. “Everybody looked at each other,” Salem says, “and went, ‘Yep, he’s a running back.’ ”

Three years later, as Bell entered his last season at Michigan State, he sent Toler Jr. a handwritten note. In it, Bell wrote: I truly appreciate everything that you have done for me. For being a father figure these past 6 years & really keeping me focused on school & football. I know I was a piece of work & you didn’t have to do it, but you stayed with me.

GIVING BACK

The Groveport Madison High School football field was renamed Le'Veon Bell Field at Cruiser Stadium before the beginning of the Cruisers' 2017 season. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

“I’d like to have a quote by him to go up here.”

Schoonover, now Groveport Madison’s head football coach, is pointing toward a blank wall in the weight room. It’s a week before the Cruisers start their season, and Schoonover is giving Lisa a tour of the school’s brand-new building.

“Maybe ‘Shrimp Bayless,'” the coach jokes.

“Oh, that’d be funny,” Lisa says.

The reference is to one of Bell’s rap songs, a diss track aimed at sports-talk provocateur Skip Bayless. Lisa likes some of her son’s music. “As long as he’s not cussing or degrading women, I’m OK.” She thinks he needs more variety — it’s too much about football, she says — but he doesn’t listen. In the studio, he goes by “Juice.” He mines beats and lays contract demands over top.

One day in middle school, Bell got in trouble for rapping while he sat in the back of class. Lisa made him write apology letters to the teacher and class. Around then, Bell recorded his first tracks on his mom’s desktop computer with his neighbor Kwan Bailey. More than a decade later, Bailey, or “Bizzoe,” was featured in two tracks on Bell’s debut album, “Post Interview.”

As Bell’s celebrity has grown, his persona has become harder to read. The failed contract negotiations the past two years have given rise to the narrative that Bell, the highest-paid running back in the NFL this season, is greedy. That label bothers his family and friends.

Lisa Bell, Bell’s mother, takes a tour of the team room at the newly constructed Groveport Madison High School. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

“He’s one of the most generous human beings I’ve ever met,” Schoonover says.

As evidence, he points toward the school’s football field. A sign above the entry reads, “Le’Veon Bell Field at Cruiser Stadium.” It was renamed last year after Bell donated $750,000 to fund the installation of a turf field. When Bell holds youth camps at his old high school each summer, they’re free, Lisa says, because Bell couldn’t afford them as a kid.

Bell’s mother shows a photo of the family’s 16-year-old dog Zee. She believes her son’s running style came from playing in the yard with Zee. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

“Our old field was a mud pit,” Schoonover says. “It was in shambles. It was scary to play on. He knew that — he played on that field. He took care of us. He took care of these kids. He didn’t have to do that.” The coach pauses. “Greedy people don’t do that. Caring people do.”

When Bell was a rookie, his birthday gift to his mother was a new house. A farm, really. He bought 30 acres in Baltimore, Ohio — east of Columbus, giving her a head start toward Pittsburgh — and had the home built to her specifications. There are ponds, pole barns and a quarter-mile between the house and the road. There’s plenty of space for Lisa, her husband, Anthony Russell, and their 12 dogs. “I love it,” Lisa says. “It’s quiet.”

Zee is still around. He turned 16 last month, and he’s slowing down. The veterinarian told Lisa to take down the dog gates in her house. Zee thinks he can jump them. He can’t anymore. But when he sees Bell, the aging dog still crouches, ready to chase. “He’s not as quick anymore,” Lisa says, “When he was in his prime, oh, [Le’Veon] was not catching him.”


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AN UNCERTAIN LEGACy

A Steelers helmet signed by Bell sits in a display case at Groveport Madison High School (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

For Le’Veon Bell, Sundays start with chess and end with film study.

When he returns to his house or the team hotel after a game, Bell sits beside his mother on the couch and clicks ‘play.’ They critique his carries, his catches, the blocks he made and missed. Bell pauses and rewinds, leaning forward to read the defense on the TV screen. He explains audibles and alignments. They started this post-game routine when Bell was in high school.

“He likes to tell me, ‘You’re not a coach. You don’t know!’ ” Lisa says, laughing. “I tell him, ‘I’ve watched enough football, and you taught me, so I do know what I’m talking about.'”

Groveport Madison head football coach Bryan Schoonover gives a tour of the new school building to Lisa Bell. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

Since her son joined the Steelers, Lisa has missed only one game — his NFL debut in London. (She didn’t have a passport. She does now.) She watched on her laptop as her son scored two touchdowns, and she hated it. Every other game, she’s sat in the stands in a No. 26 Steelers jersey, holding her cell phone in her hand. You never know when she’ll need to text her son.

Once, Bell checked his phone after the game and saw this text: “Don’t you EVER do that again.” Bell knew his mother was referring to him hurdling a defensive back. When they met outside the stadium, Bell asked, “Mom, why do you text me during the game?” She replied, “Because I’ll forget.” So when he misses a cut, she types, “You should have gone left.” She floods his inbox.

“He goes, ‘Mom, stop!’ ” Lisa says. “So I just now stopped doing that.”

A second later, she cracks.

“Well, I didn’t do it last season. Can’t say I won’t do it this season.”

Stickers are ready to be applied to football helmets at Groveport Madison High School on Aug. 17. Bell wore No. 1 in high school. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

The tour is almost over. Lisa needs to pack for a trip to Miami, a last visit before her son returns to Pittsburgh. The Steelers schedule is on her mind. Her parents have never been to a game at Heinz Field, and she’s determined to get them there while her son is still a Steeler. Outside the Groveport Madison locker room, Lisa sees something is missing. She points to a page of red helmet stickers. One sticker, her son’s No. 1, is gone. “Where did it go,” she asks.

“It’s at my house,” Schoonover says. “I made a helmet for you — if you want it.”

“You know I do,” she says.

''He wanted to give back to the community.'' (Video by Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

She’s royalty around this school. Earlier, the athletic director swept past and said, “I attended my first ever fantasy football draft last weekend. I can tell you, your son is causing more fights nationwide than anybody in the country.” In the locker room, Schoonover shows Lisa where he’ll put photos of the school’s NFL alums — Bell, Eric Smith and Dawuane Smoot — beside the door leading out to the football field. “This is part of your legacy,” he’ll tell his players.

Le’Veon Bell’s mother likes the idea. She smiles, and soon she starts for the exit. “I know he’ll always have a place here and at Michigan State,” she says. “I’m just unsure about Pittsburgh.”

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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