About three times every week, Larry Caper sees the text from his former Michigan State teammate. “Wanna play?” Le’Veon Bell will ask. They both open the SocialChess app on their phones. They have played 48 games since October, so Caper knows what to expect. Bell holds back his queen, rooks and bishops, exercising restraint with action pieces until he senses an opening. He anticipates and waits, strategy he has honed since the third grade. He will grow aggressive, on his terms only.
“Once you make a dumb move, he’ll make you look stupid,” Caper said. “He’s an opportunist.”
Caper understands the peril that NFL defenders confront against Bell. On a Pittsburgh Steelers offense with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, Bell might be the most dangerous and distinctive weapon, perhaps the best running back in football. He gouged the Miami Dolphins for 167 yards and two touchdowns Sunday in his first career playoff game, relying on a deliberate running style.
Bell does not run so much as he seeps, like water through a crack. He skips, pauses and looks beyond the first layer of the defense, lurking behind his linemen until he sees an unsuspecting defender commit. And then, as if grabbing an opponent’s queen brought out too early, he pounces. He wields uncommon quickness with vision and intelligence. He sees the field like he sees the chess board, his mind churning one step ahead.
“You see him do that to defenders all the time,” said Caper, a running back at Michigan State from 2009 to 2012. “There’s definitely a parallel there. He’s not the fastest guy, not the biggest guy, but he’s probably the smartest runner in the NFL. He’s the guy who sees the second level while he’s making a move on a guy in the first level. He’s a confident chess player. He’s calculating. He’s not as aggressive as I am. He tries to lure me into traps.”
Bell, 24, will pose a unique challenge to the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC semifinal game. He arrived this season after a winding road. In 12 games, Bell rushed for 1,268 yards and also caught 75 passes for 616 yards, occasionally lining up as a wide receiver. College recruiters overlooked him in high school, and suspensions and a devastating knee injury last year delayed his ascent in the NFL.
He found, with time, a way through. From a long enough lens, his path can be seen as lesson in the value of patience.
In the hospital after she delivered her oldest son, Lisa Bell knew she wanted her children’s names to begin with an L and she wanted them to stand out. “I was just playing letters, and I came up with Le’Veon,” Bell said. “I knew for sure I didn’t want anything that was common.”
Bell’s father was never part of his life. Lisa Bell raised three biological sons, two step-sons and two adopted daughters while she worked two jobs, as a secretary in the Columbus, Ohio, school district and a security guard at a mall. Bell would tell his mother he didn’t like to see her working so hard. She would tell him that’s what she had to do to survive.
“His determination was to make sure I didn’t have to struggle for anything,” Lisa Bell said.
Bell honed his football intellect and instincts from an early age. His uncle, Clarence Bell, introduced him to the sport at 4 and signed him up for his first team at 5. Clarence Bell broke down film of games with Le’Veon by the time he turned 7.
During film sessions, Clarence would point out to his nephew that sometimes, he could gain more yards by counterattacking, rather than attacking, a defense.
“We had a conversation,” Clarence Bell said. “Where the play is going, that hole might not be there. You can’t just take the ball and blast up in there. You may want to wait.”
As Bell’s athletic potential became clear, Lisa Bell moved her family from the city to the northern suburb of Groveport in hopes he would gain exposure, even if it a meant a longer commute to her jobs. At Groveport Madison High, he met Principal Donis Toler Jr., who had walked on as a running back at Ohio State in the mid-1980s.
When Toler first watched Bell run, he exclaimed, “Dude, you got to hit the hole!” The more he watched, the more he realized there was a method to Bell’s style. Groveport had a slow offensive line, and Bell recognized that he needed to delay so blocks could set up.
“He just knew he had to be patient,” Toler said, “because he knew the other way wasn’t going to work.”
Their relationship grew into mentor-mentee. They shared constant conversation about life. “He wouldn’t say a whole lot,” Toler said. “He would digest and reflect.”
Toler describes Bell’s work ethic in high school as “horrible.” It may have contributed to Bell’s lack of attention from major college programs. Late in Bell’s senior year, he had received scholarship offers from only Marshall, Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green, to which he had committed. One recruiting service rated him as the 211th running back in the country.
Mike Tressel recruited the Columbus area for Michigan State. In December, the Spartans had a handful of scholarships open up. Tressel asked Columbus contacts about running backs and learned about Bell. On video, Bell could seem underwhelming. Coaches who played against Bell told Tressel, “I don’t care what you see on film. In real life, you can’t stop this guy.”
Spartans Coach Mark Dantonio had coached Toler as an assistant when Toler played at Ohio State. When Dantonio called, Toler assured him, “He could play for you right now. There is no doubt.” Toler vouched for Bell’s character, while admitting that his work ethic needed improvement.
Dantonio dispatched assistant Dan Enos to watch Bell, who played on the same AAU team as future pros Trey Burke and Jared Sullinger, at a high school basketball game.
“I just remember he came out and started warming up,” Enos said. “I was like, ‘Damn, look at his legs.’ I don’t even think I made it through warmups. I walked out, called Coach Dantonio and told him, ‘Man, he’s athletic.’ ”
Bell scored 30 points, and shortly thereafter he accepted the Spartans’ offer, graduating high school midway through his senior year so that he could enroll early.
Having recommended Bell, Tressel watched Bell with nerves as Michigan State’s coaches ran baseline agility tests and performed physical measurements. And then practices began, and Bell showed his instincts and feel for the game. He could read defenses and understand coverages, and his deliberate approach belied rare burst.
“From the day pads went on, you knew,” Tressel said. “I don’t know if you knew he’d be the best player in the NFL. But you knew he would be a next-level guy.”
The hard practices, the lessons from Toler and the motivation derived from Lisa’s circumstances began to seep in for Bell. He became a workout fiend, and by the fall, he had barged into the Spartans’ lineup.
After three seasons, Bell entered the 2013 NFL draft, in which the Steelers took him with the 48th pick. During training camp in 2014, his second season, a police officer pulled over Bell, who was driving with fellow Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount. A search turned up 20 grams of marijuana, and Bell would be charged with DUI and possession of marijuana. He lost his license for 60 days and was sentenced to 15 months’ probation.
The hardest part came when he had to tell his mother. Bell called Lisa before the news could break publicly.
“He was ashamed. He was embarrassed,” Lisa Bell said. “I was hurt and disappointed.”
The arrest led to a three-game suspension at the start of the 2015 season, which ended for Bell after six games when his knee shredded during a tackle. Bell ran afoul of league rules again last summer, as the NFL suspended him for four games, later reduced to three, for violation of its drug abuse policy. Bell later posted an explanation on Twitter that he had missed a drug test.
“I keep telling him, he was never born to follow,” Lisa Bell said. “He was born to lead. Everything God has given put him in a leadership position, and he needed to stop downplaying that. Now he has that understanding. To me, it was one of those days he decided he wanted to follow, which is not him. I told him that.”
She and Toler believe Bell has left trouble behind, and his results this season support that notion. He has become of the NFL’s biggest stars, and Lisa Bell implores her son to show himself, and not just “No. 26 for the Steelers,” to the world. He has a burgeoning rap career, under the persona “Juice.”
And he plays chess. Lisa does not play herself, but Bell has laid out pieces on a board and showed her how he relates the game to football. “He’s trying to explain it to me, how he sets up the defense,” Lisa Bell said. “He thinks like he’s playing chess.” Usually, Bell will tell her, the opening moves matter far less than the endgame.