Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bell becoming household name

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) carries the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. (Tom Puskar, AP / FR60050)

PITTSBURGH -- Undoubtedly, it's a scene that will play out across many western Pennsylvania homes this morning. From Aspinwall to Zelienople and beyond, children -- and, yes, probably more than a few adults -- will unwrap a black-and-gold, No. 26 Steelers jersey for Christmas.

With all due respect to Elsa or the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, 'tis the season for Le'Veon Bell.
On Tuesday, the 22-year-old was voted by his teammates as the Steelers' most valuable player and to his first Pro Bowl. Not a bad day for the 48th overall pick and second running back chosen in last year's draft.
Not a bad season for a player, who, in just Year 2 in the NFL, has emerged as the best, if not one of the best, players at his position and the biggest breakout star in the NFL.

STEELERS INSIDER: Timmons basks in the Pro Bowl spotlight

Bell says he's taking his new-found celebrity in stride. On a trip to Best Buy to finish his shopping on Tuesday, he says was a little overwhelmed by fans asking for autographs and selfies but says he's gotten used to it.
"If I go to the store or Dick's or the movies, people notice me," Bell said. "They see my face, they know who I am. It's a blessing for people to know who you are and congratulate you. It's really a blessing."
Even if those people don't always pronounce his name correctly. It's Lay-Vee-On, not Levon (as in Kirkland), not Lay-Vee-In or Lah-Vee-On. Bell estimates that 70 percent of fans get it right now, a sharp increase over this time last year. Not that he cares.
"It's not the most common name," he says. "I'm just glad they know it. Then they're paying attention."
Bell's popularity with fans extends far beyond western Pennsylvania. With his playmaking ability as a rushing and receiving dual threat, Bell has become extremely popular with fantasy football geeks everywhere, his Twitter feed often filled with questions about fantasy leagues.
"The craziest thing is I have no idea how to play," he says. "I'm just playing football, but glad to help."
In Week 14 at Cincinnati, when he rushed for 185 yards and added another in 50 in receiving, he helped himself, the fantasy geeks and, most importantly, the Steelers' then-dwindling playoff hopes. Bell joined Walter Payton as the only other player in history to account for 200 yards from scrimmage in three straight games. It also earned him a nickname from center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster: Little Walter Jr.
"Even with things like that, those guys are silly," Bell said. "But they really mean that. They really think of me as a player like that, a running back of that caliber. When your offensive linemen believe in you like that, as a runner, it makes your job that much easier because you know those guys are going to put it all on the line for you."
With his size, speed and upward running style, comparisons abound: Marcus Allen and Eddie George, most commonly. Ladainian Tomlinson, Bell's childhood hero, declared Bell the most complete back in the game months ago. But to be even mentioned in the same sentence with the great Walter Payton, well, Bell has to admit that's pretty flattering.
"I would have never thought it in a million years, never would have thought that," he says. "It's a humbling experience.
"When that third game happened when they were talking about me and Walter Payton being the only guys having that (record), it kind of hit me a little bit. Like, OK, all the hard work I've been putting in for 17 years playing football and all the hard work I've been putting in is paying off."
Bell's football "career" began at age 5 in Groveport, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, where he played for his uncle, Clarence Bell. He ascended through the sport from Madison High School, where, until next weekend, he played his last playoff football game and through to Michigan State and the Steelers. But it hasn't always been that easy.
Last August he was twice injured during training camp, the latter, a mid-foot sprain, forced him to miss the first three games of his rookie year as the Steelers started out 0-4 for the first time since 1968 and missed the playoffs for the second straight year with an 8-8 record.
"All that happened for a reason," said Bell, who finished last season with 860 rushing yards, 399 receiving and eight touchdowns, while surpassing Franco Harris for the most yards from a scrimmage by a Steelers rookie with 1,259. "I can't tell you why it happened, but I'm glad it did because it made me hungry. It motivated me. I remember all I used to think was when I get back I'm going to show everybody. Because I just remember a lot of people, when I was hurt, they just called me a bust or injury-prone and things like that.
"I'll never say those words get to me because they really don’t. I kind of use them for motivation. I kind of use those (and say) 'OK, you said I couldn't do this? Well, I'm going to show you I can do this.' That's the kind of person I am. I've always been a competitor. I'll always compete. I'll always try to prove people wrong. I've been doing that my whole life and I'm going to try and continue to do that."
No one can question Bell this season.
He is second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,341) and yards from scrimmage (2,115), and third in rushing yards per game (89.3). Most importantly to him, he says, is that the Steelers are 10-5, back in the playoffs for the first time since he was sophomore in East Lansing and have a chance to win the AFC North with a win over Cincinnati on Sunday night.
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, that, after dropping 20 pounds last summer, Bell is physically mature for his age. He's polite and affable but, as last August's arrest for marijuana possession showed, he's also just 22-years-old.
On a football field, though, Bell hasn't made many mistakes.
In 671 rushing attempts at MSU, Bell never fumbled once. His lone NFL fumble, in 526 attempts, came last Thanksgiving night in Baltimore when he was literally knocked unconscious before crossing the goal line.
The toughness that Bell displayed that night won over teammates and any fans who had any lingering doubts about his durability. During practice, Bell can be see regularly running sprints off to the side between drills with star wide receiver Antonio Brown, who takes his conditioning to maniacal proportions.
"We respect him, we respect the process," says left tackle Kelvin Beachum. "He works hard. He does the things that are necessary. He comes in day and day out. I don’t think he’s going to get big-headed. Works hard. I'm happy to be blocking for him. He’s going to continue to get better and better."
Although the Steelers have been winning (seven of their last nine), Bell has been limited to just 191 yards from scrimmage the last two weeks. Bell insists his personal stats don't matter -- as long as his team wins -- but, realistically, he'll need to pick up the pace if the Steelers are to have any success in the postseason.
"I am not a player who needs 25 touches or needs 150 yards to be happy," Bell says. "I will be happy with a win. I don't care if I have nine carries for 19 yards or whatever it may be. I am always happy when we win."
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