Former NFL running back Mike Bell coming to Cobras’ backfield
Bell, the third all-time rushing leader for the Wildcats, went through three different head coaches and four different position coaches while he was at the school in Tucson, Ariz.
"It was crazy," said Bell, an NFL-type talent who signed last week with the Seattle-Tacoma Cobras. "There was so much change over time, such a different environment. When coaches leave, some coaches come in with different personalities."
Different offensive systems, different playbooks, different philosophies.
The one constant was Bell's on-field production. He rushed for more than 900 yards in three straight seasons and totaled 3,157 yards and 17 touchdowns during his four-year Arizona career.
Statistically speaking, the 952 yards during Bell's senior year in 2005 was his best, although he was so sick before the start of the season that he was forced to stay in a hospital for a week, and doctors initially didn't know what was wrong.
"I had pneumonia in the summer time, in Tucson, in the heat of the summer," Bell said. "I couldn't regulate my temperature for four days, and they almost put me in the ICU."
A range of potential diagnoses included tuberculosis. Despite losing a lot of weight, Bell pulled through and got back on the football field.
"You have to fight through those dark times," he said. "That's a testament in my life I'm pretty much going through now."
Bell went undrafted but signed with the Denver Broncos in 2006. He had a breakout game that October when he rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries in a 34-31 loss to the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts.
Despite being Tatum Bell's backup, Mike Bell finished second on the team with eight touchdowns and compiled 677 rushing yards.
Bell appeared in just five games with Denver the following year and went to New Orleans in 2008, when he played four games and scored a touchdown for the Saints.
But he filled in nicely and complemented Pierre Thomas perfectly during the Saints' run to the Super Bowl XLIV championship in 2009. Bell led the team in carries and finished with 654 yards and five TDs.
"New Orleans was a great opportunity because I was surrounded by a bunch of great guys, not only in the running back room but as a team," he said. "There were all kinds of Pro Bowlers, and coach (Sean) Peyton is one of the best coaches I've ever been around."
Bell wasn't bothered by the Saints' pass-first offense that was spearheaded by Drew Brees.
"Drew is great," Bell said. "I know he has a military background, and he really takes control. You're lucky to play with guys like that."
Bell got a Super Bowl ring, but it's been a rough road since. He started the 2010 season behind LeSean McCoy on the Philadelphia Eagles' depth chart, and when he was traded to Cleveland five games into the year, he found himself behind the bruising Peyton Hillis in the Browns' backfield.
"I was behind Pro Bowlers," Bell said. "It kind of made me look like I wasn't very good. Truth be told, just getting an opportunity, I'll show what I can do."
After the NFL lockout, Bell signed with Detroit for training camp in 2011, but a strange illness kept him from making the team.
"I got sick on the day of one of the games," he said. "I was throwing up blood, and doctors didn't know what was wrong with me."
"It happened over a period of time that year," Bell said of vomiting blood. "It stopped a couple weeks after I was released, and it hasn't happened since."
Neither has any football-related activities.
Bell, now 29, has kept himself in top physical condition in the past 20 months, and he's even picked up rugby. He's been playing for a top-notch team in the greater Phoenix area that won its division championship and might play in a national tournament.
"You have to be mentally tough," Bell said. "You can run 80 yards and have to keep going. It's non-stop, 40-minute halves. No TV timeouts, no going back to the huddle."
He was in contact with an NFL team as recently as last August, and he hasn't ruled out a possible return.
"I'm definitely going to give it another chance," he said.
The former high school Player of the Year in Arizona downplays his age and points to his background. At 6 feet and 224 pounds, he knows he can still play.
"Why not? Age is nothing but a number unless you allow it to be more."
Bell expects to be in camp with the Cobras later this month. For now, he's working on an online course through a community college that will transfer to finish his bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona.
"I've gone through a lot of change, a lot of hardships, a lot of ups and downs," Bell said, "and not playing these last two years when I thought I should be.
"My heart is telling me this, and my heart is usually right."
By Brian McLean