Joel Bell had no idea that he was doing anything wrong.
After a starting offensive tackle on Spartanburg High School (S.C.) suffered a last-second injury, the junior Bell was prematurely thrown into the fire. It was his first sniff of game action. Ever.
Bell broke the huddle, trotted up to the line and immediately crouched into a three-point stance. He peered down the line and noticed that the other linemen were in a two-point stance. Whoops. As if no one was watching, Bell lifted his right hand off the ground and onto his right knee.
“He had no idea that he was costing us a penalty,” said Doc Davis, Bell’s high school coach. “He didn’t even know the flag was called on him.”
So Bell kept doing it. For three straight plays, Bell innocently hunkered into a three-point stance, jolted up into a two-point and cost Spartanburg five yards. The snickers got louder. Finally, Davis called a timeout before the National Lampoon cameras strolled in. He jogged onto the field, pulled Bell aside and explained that he couldn’t jerk out of a three-point stance before the snap.
Football 101 drilled in Pop Warner was being taught to Bell as an 11th grader.
“He literally did not understand the rules of the game,” Davis said. “You just kind of take for granted that kids know. He didn’t know any of it.”
And now Bell is a darkhorse candidate to fill the Buffalo Bills’ massive vacancy at offensive tackle. He’s built like Paul Bunyan. At 6-foot-8, 315 pounds, Bell was a man amongst boys at tiny Furman College. At times, he dominated. Other times, he was passive. All in all, Bell is an ongoing project. The expiration date on Bell’s football career passed a while back, but here he is. Nobody knows how high his ceiling is, only that he’s come light years from where he was just a few years ago.
Davis never envisioned Bell playing collegiately when the tall, skinny import struggled to simply put his pads on correctly. Both his high school and college coaches laugh at how far he has come in such a short amount of time.
No, this isn’t a stereotypical signed-on-a-whim, practice-dummy street pickup.
The son of missionary parents, Joel Bell moved to Egypt when he was five. Two years later, his family was booted out of the country for teaching Christianity. After a couple years back in the states, they moved to Croatia where Bell lived until he was 16. He played soccer and basketball and hockey as a kid. Everything but football.
The only exposure he got to the sport was from VHS tapes that were flown overseas. Bell had a fellow missionary friend whose father airmailed tapes of the Dallas Cowboys. Bell occasionally borrowed the film to watch the dominant Dallas teams of the early 90s. Guys like Aikman, Emmitt, Irvin and (particularly) Deion piqued his interest.
And Bell had an epiphany. He needed to play football. When Bell’s family moved back to the United States, Bell enrolled as a sophomore at Spartanburg in South Carolina and lived with a foster family. He practiced with the JV team at tight end during the week and served as the manager on Friday nights.
When his parents flew back to Croatia, Bell stayed.
“I liked it so much even though I wasn’t playing,” Bell said. “I liked hitting and doing that kind of stuff. And I liked all of my friends in the states. So my parents let me stay for 11th and 12th grade.”
Bell’s attention span flickered involuntarily at practice. La-la land was never too far away. Davis remembers Bell stopping everything to gaze at planes flying overhead. At which point, he’d lasso Bell back to reality. “Joel, come back to earth with us man!” Davis recalled saying.
“He was just having fun playing football, which is what you should have,” Davis said. “But he wasn’t always as serious as we’d want him to be. Obviously that’s changed now.”
Admitted Bell, “I didn’t know everything that was going on and was just trying to have fun.”
But he learned the game and grew into his frame. One person Bell was living with asked Davis if he had any books — oh so bluntly — about the rules of football. Bell studied a sport that was far more complex than he ever imagined, warped a decade’s worth of football into a couple years. He learned that linemen aren’t allowed to freelance downfield on pass plays and that you can’t flinch before the snap — lapses that dogged him.
Gradually, Bell caught up to his peers mentally while towering over them physically. He played some varsity as a junior and then had his eureka moment that following spring in the weight room. Like football, pumping iron was something new. Something worth diving into head-first.
A burden became a blessing. This insurmountable project bestowed upon Davis from another country was molding into a weapon.
“We started to think, ‘God, this guy is more than just a big, tall drink of water,” said Davis in his southern twang. “He got hooked on lifting. The hormones kind of kicked in and he just blossomed into the big, tall, strong guy he is now.”
Bell “dominated in spurts” as a senior, Davis said. Nothing phenomenal. But his emerging physique had left tackle written all over it. The long arms, strong base and acute ability to bend down and block smaller defensive ends all caught Bobby Lamb’s eye. The Furman head coach said he did plenty of investigate work on Bell. He attended practices, watched games and his close relationship with Davis eliminated any fluff or bull that tends to sugarcoat recruits.
The battle at tackle is wide open after Jason Peters was traded. Bell has a chance to compete for action immediately.
Both parties knew this was a project and the glimpses of greatness were enough to warrant a scholarship.
“He had no idea what he was doing, but once he did something, he did it very, very well,” Lamb said.
As a redshirt freshman, Bell spent one year getting "beat up" at practice as he said. Bell put on weight, 65 more pounds in all during his four years at Furman. Like his rude introduction to football in high school, Bell’s collegiate career started with an unexpected bang. On the eve of Furman’s showdown against Marques Colston-led Hofstra, Furman’s starting tackle woke up in the middle of the night with an allergic reaction.
The freshman Bell needed to start. Déjà vu. But unlike his forgetful initiation to high school football, college orientation went well.
Furman ousted Hofstra, 44-41 in a double overtime thriller as Bell helped the Paladins (a “champion that fights for a cause,” in case you’re wondering) roll up nearly 500 total yards, while allowing only one sack as a team. At that moment, Lamb knew that this raw creature he inherited was dripping with potential.
“Joel Bell was thrust into a starting role that day and did a doggone good job,” Lamb said. “That was part of the growing process. You could see as a freshman getting to start in that football game against a high-level opponent that he really grew as a player.”
When pro scouts drooled over him early on during his career at Furman, Lamb had to temper their enthusiasm. “You may come back here one day, but he has a long way to go,” he’d say. But each year, Bell got a little bit bigger, a little bit wiser and a little bit closer to the NFL. He winded up starting three years for the Paladins. By his senior year, he was named the best blocker in the Southern Conference.
Since graduating, he has Rocky-ized his training regiment. Minus the whole egg-drinking thing.
“And that’s because he’s obviously playing for dollars,” Lamb said. “He’s playing for a job and that’s the way he’s looking at it. You have a small window of opportunity to get that job and he sees that.”
At the NFL Combine, Bell finished 7th among linemen in the 40-yard dash (5.12), 6th in the broad jump (9-1) and 7th in the not-so-lineman-friendly three-cone drill (7.55). Not too shabby for a naïve daydreamer.
Now the inner-fire that coaches once questioned is at full blast on the Bunsen burner. Bell expected to get drafted. But that small-school stigma held him back.
“Nothing against big schools but sometimes when you’re at a small school, everybody under-appreciates you,” Bell said. “So you work harder and sometimes have to be tougher.”
Maybe Joel Bell doesn’t instantly stitch up that ugly gash at left tackle left by Jason Peters’ exit. Joey Porter is a tad faster and a tad meaner than pass rushers from Western Carolina. But it doesn’t hurt to stash away projects. The Bills aren’t investing in Fannie Mae here. Bell is a smart, long-term investment to hang onto. With more seasoning from a great duo in Sean Kugler and Ray Brown, maybe Bell morphs into a Cinderella-story anchor on the blind side.
Because Bell is still corralling as much information as possible. During the Bills’ rookie minicamps, he studied the playbook two hours a night. It got stressful at times with coaches quizzing him about what he learned the day prior. But there’s no other option. Bell must be in memorization mode.
“You kind of have to (study for hours) if you want to keep it all in your head because at the meetings, coach call everybody out,” Bell said.
Back in South Carolina, a blown-up team photo graces the Spartanburg hallway in honor of the team’s state championship. Bell is in the picture, albeit in a golf shirt. He was the skinny sophomore serving as the team’s manager then.
Davis can’t help but laugh whenever he sees that picture.
“If you looked at that picture with someone and said, ‘Tell me which one of them is playing professional football,’ they’d never pick him.”
My, how things have changed.