Bell was lightly recruited coming out of Benton Harbor High School in Michigan and went nearly three hours away to play college football at Division II Wayne State University. Then, after going undrafted and bouncing around the NFL with four other teams, he finally found a home, back in his home state with the Detroit Lions.
While that already makes for a great story, going from Division II and undrafted to carving out a role on one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, it doesn’t even begin to round out Bell’s narrative.
As a player who would go on to to prove his NFL ability, it's surprising Bell had to get his start at Wayne State. Going into his senior season at Benton Harbor, Bell was the star running back. However, right when the summer began, Benton Harbor’s quarterback transferred to another school. Bell had played quarterback during his JV days, leading his team to an undefeated season, so the coaches decided to put him under center.
While Bell was still able to produce decent stats, rushing for 1,171 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, the position switch prevented him from putting up the gaudy stats that recruiters wanted.
Luckily for Bell, he made an introduction during that summer that would allow him a place to play college football.
While at a summer camp with a few of his teammates, Bell and a few others noticed Wayne State walk by. While Bell had heard of them, none knew anything about them. So, Bell decided to go and talk with them. They took his information down and later that year, were the first ones on his doorstep.
Bell was unsure about the Warriors, but the coaches sold his mother, Althea Gaddy, who turned out to be the only person they needed to sell on their program.
Two days after signing day, Bell was awoken by his mother. She had a paper she needed him to sign, so he obliged and went off to school.
“While I’m in my class, she calls my cell phone,” Bell says, recalling this day. “She asked me why I didn’t go to Wayne State.”
Bell told his mother about how he was still unsure about it, but after the two conversed, he decided to attend. He said how he had to sign his letter of intent, but that was already taken care of.
“She said ‘you signed it this morning’ and that she already had faxed it,” said Bell, as she referred to the piece of paper she asked him to sign earlier that day. “I always say it was the best decision I never made.”
In high school, Bell was a multi-sport athlete. He was a member of the basketball team, that also consisted of NBA player Wilson Chandler, and reached a ranking of No. 11 in the nation, played baseball and also ran the hurdles for the track team. If that wasn’t enough, Bell was a part of the marching band. During the spring, he had to balance baseball, track and marching band, which he said was “hard to juggle.” This was just his first taste of having to handle multiple responsibilities at once.
Football wasn’t the most demanding thing for Bell while at Wayne State; he was also a father. In addition to the practices, workouts, meetings and games, Bell had to raise his son, Jordan, who is now 7 years old.
“It was financially stressful,” Bell said, citing how there was baby formula, new clothes and food that he needed money for.
Bell has always wanted to be a role model to his son on and off the field. His father was a policeman, his grandfather a state trooper and his uncle worked for the secret service. He grew up around criminal justice and wanted to be involved in it, so that was his major in college. In order to pay the bills, Bell put his education to use and worked security on campus.
“It was hard,” Bell said about having to balance his time. “The thing college teaches you is how to budget time and be responsible.”
Having to provide for young Jordan only helped to drive Bell.
“It gave me more motivation to try and make it,” said Bell with fervor. “He was my inspiration.”
Bell remembered something his high school coach would tell him, about how if “you quit one time, you will quit another time.” That is something Bell has carried with him to this day.
“It made me stronger, not want to quit this round, and not leave the field until I get it right,” Bell said.
Growing up to be an NFL player is something nearly every child aspires to. For most, their dream will never be attainable. There is just a small percentage of those who do get to call football a profession. For Bell, he realized he had a chance before he ever took a snap in college.
Bell was working security during training camp for the Detroit Lions during his freshman year in college, which, again, was another way for him to pursue criminal justice while also making some money. While there, he saw a scout walking around the building and decided to pull him aside and ask him a few questions. The main thing Bell asked was whether a Division II player could make it in the NFL.
“If you have talent, they will find you,” Bell said the scout told him. “I never forgot it.”
Before his freshman season, Wayne State’s offensive line coach left for another program, but before he left, Bell said he asked him how many yards did he think he would have the next year. Bell’s response was 2,000 yards.
“He told me ‘1,500 or 1,600 would be a good season for you,’” said Bell. “He said 2,000 wasn’t obtainable.”
After the 11-game season, Bell had rushed for 2,065 yards.
“He called me back and said I proved him wrong,” Bell said with a chuckle. “I knew I had the talent and playmaking ability but knew I had a lot of work to do.”
In his first three seasons combined, Bell ran for 4,644 yards and accounted for 67 total touchdowns. His best days were still ahead of him, though, but it wouldn’t come without sacrifice and hard work.
The summer before his senior season, Bell was having a difficult time finding a place to stay on campus. He was finally able to get an apartment, but it was short on amenities.
“I found a place that was like $100 a month,” said Bell. “It was like a dungeon, it was terrible.”
Bell despised the place, but it was what he had to do. He said he would generally work out in the morning, work all day and then just go to a friend’s house until it was time for bed.
“I would go to sleep and get out of there,” said Bell on how often he would stay at the so called "dungeon."
His mother—who was taking care of Jordan for the summer—came to visit one time and felt so bad about his living arrangement that she offered to give him some money to get a better place, an offer Bell rejected.
“I literally started from the bottom,” said Bell referring to the rap artist Drake’s hit song “Started from the Bottom.” “I look backed on everything I had to go through just to get there and I just wanted to leave it all out there.”
Bell did exactly that his senior season. After rushing for a staggering 2,084 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground, he was awarded with the Harlon Hill Trophy, the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy at the Division II level.
“It was indescribable,” Bell said. “Being able to achieve that showed it was all worth it.”
Following that, Bell went undrafted in 2010, despite the flashy stats and invitations to both the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine. He was able to sign with the Buffalo Bills, but didn’t last long. In fact, Bell didn’t last long with any of the first four teams: the Bills, Philadelphia Eagles (twice), Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. Bell took it all as a learning experience.
“The first year taught me a lot,” said Bell. “Luckily I went to teams with great players that I could learn a lot from. They taught me how to read defense and each team taught it a lot about the game. Piggyback off the things they know.”
Bell was able to team up with surefire Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, as well as the likes of C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Mike Vick and LeSean McCoy. All of that helped him get to where he is today—better yet, where he started.
“I don’t know what would’ve happened if I stayed in Buffalo,” Bell said. “I had to make all those moves just to come back to where I started.”
Now with the opportunity to play in front of his fans and family for the Detroit Lions, Bell is making the most of it. This past season, Bell was tied for fifth in the NFL in receptions amongst running backs and third in receiving yards.
“I like to work on my pass pro', and get a chip on the end,” Bell said on his versatility, something he takes pride in. “Small things not big in the stat book, but they help teammates and help get the ball down the field. It’s something I’ve always been good at and worked at.”
While last year can be described as disappointing for a Lions team that had bigger aspirations, there is still more football to be played for what was a young offense.
“We could’ve done more,” said Bell. “It’s in the past. Take the bad, make the corrections, and I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Reggie Bush has been added to the crowded Lions backfield, joining Bell, former second rounder Mikel LeShoure, and the oft-injured former first-round pick, Jahvid Best (on PUP list for 2013). Despite that, Bell is just focused on playing football.
“One thing our team is this year is we need whatever is best for the team,” said Bell. “I haven’t been concerned about playing time. I know what my role is on this team.”
Bell’s passion for the game is quite evident. This is a dream he has chased down for a long time. Despite plenty of chances to throw in the towel, it’s never happened.
“I go out there and play ball,” said Bell. “I just think about playing football in the front yard as a kid. Not for the money or glory, just for fun. It’s electric hearing the fans screaming and cheering you on. Game day gets my blood boiling. You have to be passionate about it to get to [the NFL]. The effort, coming in every day, and the offseason workouts with your teammates—your brothers you consider your family—all pushing for one game.”
Bell is still striving to do more with his life than just on the field. He has been accepted into a master’s program and will be starting that next January. He also will be hosting a summer camp on June 8, 2013 in Benton Harbor for the entire Berrien County.
“I didn’t really have too much growing up,” Bell said, regarding any type of event like this. “I didn’t have football camps in the area and didn’t have anything to look up to. Only could look up to people on television. I want to be able to bring players and people of that caliber down that they see on television to give them some type of vision. Let kids know there is more to life than (Benton) Harbor.”
Bell said a number of kids finish high school in Benton Harbor and stay there, getting involved in criminal activities.
“[I want to] interact with kids and let [them know] there is more to life than what you see here, more than drug dealing, shootings, gangbanging,” commented Bell. “Get them on the right path and those that are on the right path, help keep them on the right path.”
This is something Bell has been doing since his rookie season. They held a celebrity basketball game then and a football camp this past year. This year, there will be a football camp, celebrity basketball game, as well as a cheer camp. The Detroit Lions cheerleaders, the Detroit Pride, have already agreed to attend, and Bell is hoping to bring a few of his teammates to the camp as well.
“I’m excited about it,” said Bell with enthusiasm. “We’re going to make it a big deal.”
Bell has endured a long journey to get where he is now. Fittingly, his name in French means “conqueror.” Bell has battled being underrated throughout his entire football career while having to raise and support a child. Yet, he has always overcome—or conquered—it all to get to where he is today; a professional football player, father and role model to his son.
“I went to school and got my degree,” Bell said. “I didn’t want to be the person who told my son to do something I never did before. No matter how hard it was, I stuck with it.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Joshua Gleason on Twitter (@JGleas) for more regarding Joique Bell and other football content.