Bell turned 26, and a cake and balloons were delivered to him at his locker at the Lions’ headquarters in Allen Park. It made for a nice break in the training-camp routine for a player who’s trying to catch a break to land a full-time job in the NFL.
What Bell already has learned from his many stops in a short career is that nothing can be taken for granted. There are no guarantees.
“When I first came out, I had to learn the game,” Bell said. “It’s a patient game, as opposed to college. You have to be really patient.”
On the surface, Bell’s college production at Wayne State, even though it was at the Division II level, would warrant him being drafted. But college performance is only part of the equation for what pro teams look for in draft prospects.
“When you’re coming out, they take your weaknesses and magnify them to be big things,” Bell said. “Once you’re out there on the field, it doesn’t matter if you’re from LSU or an NAIA school.
“Everybody has different situations.”
Bell’s college resume is another exhibit in a mountain of evidence that a player’s statistics – good and bad – don’t automatically translate into success or failure at the pro level.
The Lions are Bell’s fifth team in a winding journey through the NFL that started in Buffalo, where he signed as a free agent in 2010 as a rookie after no team drafted him. He made stops with three other teams – Saints, Colts and Eagles twice – before landing in Detroit late last season to add depth to a running-back position depleted by injuries.
It is a short ride from Wayne State’s campus in midtown Detroit, where Bell starred for four years, to the Lions’ home field at Ford Field in downtown Detroit. Whatever odds or obstacles he faces, Bell wants to work downtown.
“To be able to come back home where it all started, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Bell said.
There has been some benefits to being a travelling man. Bell has probably practiced with more great quarterbacks than any player in the NFL. In 2010, he was with Michael Vick of the Eagles, Peyton Manning of the Colts and Drew Brees of the Saints. He also spent part of 2011 with the Saints and finished the year in Detroit with
“I played with a lot of different quarterbacks,” Bell said. “I learned a lot from those guys.”
Bell has bounced between practice squads and active rosters and has yet to have a carry from scrimmage.
It was quite a different story at Wayne State, where he was a workhorse running back. Only the Budweiser Clydesdales pulled more weight. Bell is WSU’s all-time rushing leader and one of the most productive running backs in NCAA Division II history.
In four seasons at WSU (2006-09), his rushing totals could have been measured in miles, not yards. He rushed for 6,728 career yards and hit the 2,000-yard mark twice – 2,065 as a freshman in 2006 and 2,084 in ’09.
Bell scored 96 career touchdowns, 88 of them on the ground. He was such a prolific scoring machine that WSU’s groundskeepers should have repainted the yard lines and end zones at halftime.
Bell’s performance in 2009 earned him the Harlon Hill Award as the NCAA’s top player in Division II. All of that made Bell a spectator on draft day of 2010. He was not one of the 253 players drafted, 12 of whom were running backs.
It underscored how college stats don’t guarantee being drafted. Two other rookies in camp with the Lions shared Bell’s predicament.
“There are so many players, it’s about finding a scheme that fits their talents,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. “It doesn’t matter how good a player is, if you’re running a different scheme.
“I think we’ve seen that a lot of times with these quarterbacks in college who’ve run the spread and don’t have futures. Some guys do. Some guys don’t.”
Bell’s biggest drawback has been a lack of explosive speed.
His resilience has not been an issue. At 5-11 and 220 pounds, he has the strength and endurance to take a pounding in the NFL, and he has continued to work toward winning a job with a pro team.
“Joigue’s a power runner,” Schwartz said. “He just needs to know what he does well and do it and hope it’s a fit for a team.
“He’s lasted this long, even though it’s been up from the practice squad, down from the practice squad.
“Even that is a tremendous accomplishment.”