There are many ways a rookie can make a name for himself in the NFL. Kendrell Bell chose the only option he knows - head first into a Bus.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen Bell play football from his days at Laney High School on up. Bell busted through the middle, as usual, to become an instant hit on the top-ranked defense of the AFC Central champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
"That's just the way I play," said Bell.
That way has helped Bell star at every level he's played, from Laney to Middle Georgia junior college to the University of Georgia. When the Steelers selected him 34th overall in the second round of the NFL Draft, Bell believed it was only a matter of time before he made an impact in the NFL.
In fact, it was just a matter of days.
"I didn't anticipate it being so good to me so soon," Bell said of his rookie season that includes a starting job since opening day, two defensive player of the month awards, first-alternate status for the Pro Bowl and a solid candidacy to become the NFL defensive rookie of the year.
"It's given me comfort to let me know I can play on this level and play well," he said. "I've used the abilities that I knew I had fairly well."
Bell fit nicely into the Steelers' 3-4 defense as an inside linebacker, easing the departure of longtime Pittsburgh favorite Levon Kirkland. Though he'd prefer to be an every-down player, he's been used primarily on first and second downs while yielding to veteran Mike Jones in third-down coverage situations.
"This is absolutely the perfect place for me to be," he said.
Bell made his first strong impression in the preseason opener at Atlanta, when he registered two sacks and six tackles with the second unit. The next week at training camp, coach Bill Cowher inserted him with the first team to see how he would respond.
Bell responded by stuffing all-pro running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis in a teeth-rattling goal-line collision that left everyone aghast. Ten days later, Cowher announced that Bell would be the first rookie linebacker to start for the Steelers since Hall of Famer Jack Lambert.
"After that (hit on Bettis) things really opened up for me and have been going well since," Bell said. "It didn't blow my head up. I know I can light people up or get lit up. Jerome came through and I did my job, what I had to do."
The Bus stop became an instant piece of training-camp lore. Teammates talked on and on about it, and Cowher had his eyes quickly opened to Bell's potential.
"Teammates make things bigger than they are," Bell said. "I enjoyed it and it heightened my day, but I wasn't bragging that I lit up this all-pro. That's not how I handle stuff, because you've got to be consistent. If I blast him every day, that's something else."
Bell said Bettis "was in denial" at first, but the Bus was immediately on board the Bell bandwagon after that. "No one stops me like that," Bettis told local reporters after the collision. "I knew right then we (had) ourselves a player. Kendrell is the hardest-hitting rookie I've seen in a long, long time."
His coaches rave as well.
"He'll do something and I'll say, 'My god, I don't think I've ever seen that before,"' defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said. "He's just so athletic, so powerful, so explosive."
These comments are nothing new regarding Bell. His toughness has never been questioned since he suffered serious burn injuries to his arm at age 5 and required five people to hold him down to be treated.
"He had all this strength even back then," said Barbara Booker, Bell's grandmother in Augusta who adopted Kendrell and his older brother Varcellus when they were younger.
At Georgia, Bell's ferocious play earned him nicknames such as "Terminator" and "Wild Man." In Pittsburgh, he's teammates have labeled him "Contact." He's unquestionably the team's fiercest hitter.
"It's scary to me," said Booker of watching her adopted son play. "He's a daredevil. I just hope he doesn't get hurt."
Bell once said that his leadership is displayed by his willingness "to break an arm or a leg." The 16-game pro schedule against the strongest and fastest players in the world has tempered his reckless style a wee bit.
"In college I'd win the battle but afterward it sometimes wears on you," he said. "At this level you have to use your brain more and think about longevity. I try to measure my hits and not try to knock everybody out every play."
Cowher gushes about what Bell means to the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL. Bell has 83 tackles, two forced fumbles and seven sacks that are the most by any rookie linebacker in Steelers history.
"He has had a great impact starting from day one," Cowher said. "There's no question in my mind that he's the defensive rookie of the year."
In a football town that has always worshiped fierce hitters on turf or ice, Bell keeps getting mentioned in context with Lambert and other greats in the Steelers' linebacker lineage. He also draws comparisons to Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse, the only other rookie to earn monthly defensive honors twice in a season.
"It's great to be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys, but I don't think I should be compared with them yet," Bell said. "When I've played five or six years and I am consistent, then there's a time I hope you could put me in their category."
With the work ethic he has displayed since days at Laney, Bell should continue to grow into a superstar. He can't talk about his future without bringing up his past.
"The reason I came out the way I did is because I had people behind me and coaches supporting me and helping me believe in myself," he said.
Two he credits most are former Laney coach Otis Smart and Middle Georgia coach Jim Marcellus.
"Otis Smart always said I had a lot of potential and was one of the first coaches that gave me confidence in my abilities and always pushed me to do things I didn't want to do," he said.
When Bell wasn't academically ready for college, Smart convinced him to attend junior college at Middle Georgia, where Marcellus kept the heat on.
"With those two guys behind me, they pushed me to excellence," he said.
Bell hated Middle Georgia at first before blossoming into the best defensive player in junior college.
"We didn't have anything there," he said. "The town had one stop light and nothing around for miles. What you had you had to keep good. You had one pair of cleats and had to keep those bad boys clean because you knew they were the only ones you were going to get."
When he got to Georgia, where 10 pairs of cleats filled his locker, he was already matured as a person and a player. "That made me more prepared," he said.
With unlimited resources in the NFL and a budding legend in "a linebacker town," Bell's only immediate concern is helping the Steelers (12-3) complete a storied season. Pittsburgh shocked everyone by earning home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
"The most positive thing is we're winning and it's going to become a traditional thing for us to do," he said. "Through the whole season people have been looking at us an underdog. I prefer that any day. We've got too many things in front of us to worry about the Super Bowl. If we end up in New Orleans that would be great."
Bell is certain to take the only route he knows - full speed ahead.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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