Mike Bell plays angry. On the field he is a running back — but he might as well be a bull in the red-light district. When he runs, he radiates wrath. It hasn't always been that way. He's had the fury for years, but only recently started to put it to good use.
"You can go back to the tape and watch me run and I never used to run like that. But now I feel like that's the only way to run," Bell says.
About a year ago, Bell was unemployed and unsure of his professional prospects. He was, by his admission, a victim of his own hubris. Today Bell is the New Orleans Saints' most punishing running back, a key facet of a resurgent ground attack and a prominent member of the team off to the best start in its history. During the Nov. 22 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the game that put the Saints at 10-0, their longest single-season streak in franchise history — Bell scored the final two touchdowns, leaving the Bucs thoroughly routed with a final tally of 38-7.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," Bell says. "I'm on a high-powered offense that's setting records, and I'm contributing. It's almost unexplainable. Last year I had no job. I'm in awe. It just makes you so thankful and appreciative."
His running style may be the most visible change but it's merely a by-product of his emotional metamorphosis. Playing for his suburban Phoenix high school, Bell was one of the most prolific running backs in Arizona history. During his career at the University of Arizona, he amassed more than 3,000 rushing yards and ranks among the Wildcats' all-time leading rushers.
Though Bell was not picked in the 2006 NFL draft, he was hardly perturbed. He signed as a rookie free agent with his favorite team, the Denver Broncos. He was so impressive during training camp, that he became the starting running back for the Broncos' preseason opener. Bell went on to accumulate 677 yards on the ground and lead the Broncos with eight rushing touchdowns, turning in one of finest seasons for an undrafted rookie in NFL history.
Then the honeymoon ended. In an effort to sort out a crowded backfield, Denver coach Mike Shanahan moved Bell from tailback to fullback. But Bell wanted to be the star, not the chauffeur.
"When [Shanahan] told me that I had to play fullback, I got so angry I just rebelled," Bell says. "And I should have just embraced it. What I should have done is said 'He's the coach,' and I should have just did it. Instead I got angry and I felt like I was owed something."
His second year in Denver was essentially a lost season. Frustrated and disillusioned, he lost focus and gained weight, ballooning to 235 pounds from his ideal weight of 220.
"I had an attitude where I didn't care," Bell says. "If the meeting was at 8 o'clock, I would show up at the facility at 7:55, rushing to get in there. I would be the last person to get on the bus. My non-verbals were like, 'He doesn't care.'"
His 2007 statistics depict both Bell's refusal to accept his new role and the Broncos' declining faith in him: five games, six carries and three yards. In Bell's words, the Broncos were "probably fed up with me," and they dropped him, ending a two-year stint in Denver that started with such promise.
In 2008 Bell got his chance to start over. He went to training camp with the Houston Texans, but he still seethed with resentment. "I was so angry," Bell says. "After I got cut by Denver, I was angry. Then I got to the Texans, and I was still angry. I could not get over the fact that I got cut in Denver. It didn't make any sense to me. So part of me couldn't even focus."
The Texans cut him after a week.
Bell had no other options. He moved in with his parents in Arizona, but that was short-lived. Having been on his own since he went away to college, Bell says the arrangement was awkward. He also says he was inundated with advice from his friends and family, and he needed to clear his head. He went back to suburban Denver, where he owns a home, and engaged in some long-overdue introspection.
"When you don't have anything, it drops you down to rock bottom," Bell says. "When you drop down to below zero, you start evaluating from the inside out. And that's what I needed to do. I was always so quick to point a finger at this guy and that guy that I wasn't even looking at myself. What was I doing wrong? When I started looking at myself and what I was doing wrong and what I needed to change, that's what it was."
With the help of his family, Bell says, he finally concluded that his former NFL employers weren't the problem — he was.
"It was my selfishness and my pride that got me out of the NFL," he says.
While in Denver, Bell began volunteering with a local high school football team, the Grandview Wolves. He says it kept him sane in a time of emotional turmoil. "They reminded me how much fun football was. Being around people that are playing for just pure joy — there's no politics, there's no money involved. It really makes you appreciate the game."
During this unexpected lull in his career, Bell made a deal with himself: When he got his next opportunity, he would not lose it to the toxic temperament that plagued him with the Broncos. That opportunity came 10 games into the 2008 season when Bell fielded a phone call from the Saints.
"Deep down inside, I was like, 'This is my chance. This is it. This is it,'" Bell says.
The Saints signed Bell to replace veteran running back Aaron Stecker, who had suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. During the end of the season, Bell only saw spot duty, playing in four games and carrying the ball just 13 times. But his aggressive running impressed the coaches enough to include him in their plans for 2009.
Their faith in him has been rewarded.
Most running backs absorb contact — Bell initiates it. In the season opener, he ripped off 143 rushing yards against the Lions. In the Saints' wild comeback victory against the Dolphins, he was the team's late-game catalyst, running for 80 yards, all in the second half. In a play that typified his hard-charging approach, he plowed over Miami linebacker Channing Crowder on a 5-yard gain. He says his time away from the game gave him newfound perspective.
"Every time I run it, I really feel like it might be the last time I run the ball. So I'm either trying to score a touchdown or I'm trying to run somebody over."
Bell is on pace to set new career bests in rushing attempts and yards. But more importantly, his play is contributing to team success. Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush form a dynamic group of running backs that has helped give the Saints the offensive balance the team has coveted for years.
Since the beginning of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, the Saints have boasted a top-flight passing attack. Now they're also one of NFL's leading rushing offenses. "It keeps teams from thinking that we're just one-dimensional and that we're a finesse team," Bell says.
Bell sees his career trajectory as a cautionary tale. The lesson he tries to impart to younger players is that attitude is often more important than aptitude.
"When I see other people falling into the same patterns, like they deserve this or that — ultimately you don't deserve anything," Bell says. "This is an opportunity, a privilege to play in the NFL. Nobody is owed anything. I try to tell them, 'Don't do that, man. Don't make the same mistake I did.'"
In a matter of months, the 26-year-old Bell has evolved into a more mature, team-oriented player. But he's also aware of his own frailties.
"I feel that I'm still a work in progress because I'm still not where I need to be," Bell says. "Sometimes I feel myself sliding back into my old ways of selfishness. But I think that's everybody. I think it shows maturity that you can put yourself in your place."
Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26.