It isn’t often that a professional football player circles a training-camp practice day on his calendar. That’s an act reserved for revenge rematches and natural rivals.
But Bell did that, and no one could blame him for marking off Wednesday, July 30 on his calendar because of what it represents on a personal level.
Wednesday evening’s practice at Wayne State University’s Adams Field is where Bell had one of the greatest careers by a running back in the history of NCAA Division II football.
Bell’s career with the Warriors did not lead immediately to the success he has achieved as a key component of the Lions’ rotation of running backs. That came after doors closed behind him with four other NFL teams.
“My road wasn’t paved out,” Bell said after Tuesday’s practice. “I had to pave it myself.”
As an undrafted rookie in 2010, Bell spent time with four teams – Bills, Eagles, Saints and Colts – without being active for a regular-season game.
Bell was signed by the Lions late in the 2011 season, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he carried the ball in a regular-season game.
Once he started running, he produced: 414 yards rushing and 485 receiving in 2011; 650 rushing and 547 receiving in 2012.
As a receiver out of the backfield, Bell’s average gains of 9.3 and 10.3 yards per catch ranked among the best for running backs in each of the last two seasons. He has been more than a dump-off option.
In the offseason, he cashed in as a restricted free agent, signing a three-year contract to remain in Detroit. The deal is worth $9.3 million, with $4.3 million guaranteed.
The Lions are counting on heavily on the running backs to carry a heavier load this year, with
Bell created his niche through sheer perseverance to reach a point where he could return to his college campus as an established NFL player.
Bell has remained close to his alma mater since his last season in 2009, but he never thought he’d go back to practice as a pro.
“Never,” he said. “Not for a practice. No. I thought about it earlier this year, but I didn’t think it would become a reality. But it has.”
Bell was quick to add that the Lions’ practice at Wayne State is not just about him or any other player getting a rare opportunity to practice at his college.
“It’s not even just good publicity for us and Wayne State, but it’s more-so reaching out to the community -- the people who might not have transportation to come to practice here (in Allen Park),” Bell said. “It shows we’re here for the right reason.”
Previously, the Lions practiced at Wayne State in 2002 before the stadium had been upgraded to include artificial turf. Because of the fear of injury, then head coach Marty Mornhinweg limited the practice to an exhibition workout at less than full speed.
Bell set every significant school record for a running back in his four seasons at Wayne State (2006-09), including rushing yards in a season (2,084 in 2009) and career (6,728).
In 2009 he won the Harlon Hill Award, given to the best Division II player and often called the small college Heisman Trophy.
Despite the big numbers he compiled, Bell was passed over by all 32 teams in the NFL’s 2010 draft. The knock on Bell was a lack of speed. His times in the 40-yard dash were in the range of mid-4.6 seconds.
However, his production and work ethic stood out, as did his willingness to accept any role given to him by head coach Paul Winters and his staff.
Terry Heffernan, an offensive assistant with the Lions, had a close-up look at Bell as offensive line coach for Bell’s last three seasons at Wayne State.
“We asked him to play tailback; we asked him to play receiver on throwing downs; we put him at wild cat and ran the wild cat his last two years,” Heffernan said, ticking off Bell’s workload.
“Sometimes we’d block them right, and he’d get yards. And sometimes we wouldn’t block anybody, and he’d make them miss or run them over and get yards for us.
“He was great to be around. He was a two-time captain. He was a great leader. He was first in every conditioning drill. Every sprint in the summer, he won. Every lift, he was there.”