Kendrell Bell doesn't remember a day when he wasn't working to keep his job on the football field.
There are no days off, not when the goal is to reach the National Football League, a place where many dreams become unreality for most.
Millions of kids begin playing peewee football at an early age. The list decreases as they reach junior high school and dwindles even more at the high school ranks before drastically declining at the collegiate level.
The final stop, the NFL, is where 1,696 players are touted to be the best in the world.
"It's been really intense," Bell said recently on the Pittsburgh Steelers web site. The former all-state player at Laney High School who went on to earn All-Southeastern Conference honors at Georgia after picking up All-America honors at Middle Georgia Junior College, was taken by Pittsburgh with the 39th pick in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft.
"It's a lot more physical than it was in college or at any other level I've ever played at," Bell said on the web.
Eight local players made it through the trenches to be currently placed among that elite group, most recently Bell and Aiken's Jamal Reynolds, a first-round pick by Green Bay - the 10th overall pick.
After a strong preseason performance with the Steelers, the 6-foot-1, 246-pounder is listed as a starter at right inside linebacker, accepting a coveted role in the Steelers franchise history. He'll have that role today when the Steelers play the Jaguars in Jacksonville.
Bell isn't content with just making it to the NFL. He has his sights set on the league's defensive rookie of the year award.
"I think if I put my heart and soul into it, it's a very attainable goal," he was quoted as saying "I just have to focus on playing well for the team, and if I do, it will turn into that goal right there. Starting is also one of my many goals."
Bell attributed most of his success to his days at Georgia, where he started 16 games and posted 153 tackles and seven quarterback sacks.
"I got a lot out of Georgia," he said. "Because at Georgia, there was a surplus of players at every position. Basically, if you wanted to start or wanted that position, you had to work a lot harder."
Reynolds was deemed an All-American heading into his senior year at Florida State last season, much like his senior season at Aiken High School when he garnered USA Today All-American honors.
The 6-foot-3, 266-pound defensive end lived up to the lofty expectations, helping the Seminoles return to the national championship game. A year earlier, in the same setting, Reynolds sacked future No. 1 draft pick Michael Vick (Atlanta) three times in the Sugar Bowl.
Recognized as the nation's top lineman after receiving the Lombardi Award, Reynolds didn't surprise many when he was taken so early by the Packers.
Bell and Reynolds don't have to look far outside their hometowns to see the ups-and-downs of the NFL.
Second year safety Deon Grant (Josey) missed his entire rookie season with a hip injury, but after strong rehab, he is expected to be a starter in the Carolina Panthers secondary today (1 p.m., FOX 54) against the Minnesota Vikings.
Grant, who led Josey to the 1995 Class AAA state title, was an All-American at Tennessee, opting to enter the draft after a sophomore season in which he led the nation with seven interceptions.
Corey Chavous (Silver Bluff) has four interceptions and 10 starts in three seasons with Arizona. Chavous heads into his fourth season as a starter at right cornerback for the Cardinals.The former Silver Bluff all-state sprinter is fourth on Vanderbilt's all-time interception list at Vanderbilt. Starting all four seasons for the Commodores, Chavous picked off 12 passes.
The 6-foot, 204-pounder was tabbed to start in his second season, but struggled with a knee injury and made only four starts.
Garrison Hearst (Lincoln County) gets a start today against the Atlanta Falcons, the team he was running against nearly 31 months ago when he suffered a broken left leg that jeopardized his career.
Hearst, a former Pro Bowl performer, has rushed for 4,509 yards with three teams from 1995-98.
Troy Brown (Blackville-Hilda) had a breakout year in his nine-year pro career with the New England Patriots last season, grabbing 83 receptions for 944 yards in 15 starts.
After spending his first six seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Matt Campbell (North Augusta) is suiting up this season with the Washington Redskins, who open at San Diego today. The former South Carolina Gamecock was moved from tight end to offensive tackle and guard in his days with the Panthers.
D'Wayne Bates (Silver Bluff) heads into his third season with the Chicago Bears.
Bates set Northwestern records in receptions (222), yards (3,370) and touchdowns (26). The 6-2, 215-pounder led the Wildcats to two Big Ten titles and a Rose Bowl appearance.
Desmond Kitchings (Wagener-Salley) is in his second season with the New York Jets after a stellar career with Furman.
Reach Patrick Green at (706) 823-3221.