Our Ron Lippock caught up with former Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell, who played for the Steelers from 2001 to 2004.
They talked about Bell’s fast start in the NFL, his injury history and what he’s done with his life after football.
First, let us know what you’ve been up to since your time in the NFL?
Well, I had no plan really coming out of the NFL. I have four boys and am still married. I had a football camp but when all the kids started adding up it kind of fell through the cracks. I’m trying to repurpose it now. I couldn’t really focus a lot on it with so much going on.
Now, my dad-to-day is taking the kids to soccer, Boy Scouts, and that stuff. They go to private school, so it’s pretty hands-on. I’m a bus driver essentially!
And the Bellievers program work?
That has transformed really into my wife’s program. She’s a life coach for girls. She helps those that are troubled.S
Was that post-NFL adjustment for you difficult?
I mean, yeah, it was. Different guys handle it differently. Depending on their fields of study, whether they are using it or not. Some have different angles. But most don’t prepare so much and when that time ends it’s a subtle shock. You try to navigate to a place to re-develop yourself. And as you get older your perspective changes. If you had the presence of mind to retain most of your capital you can figure it out easier. But in some cases the medical issues make it harder to figure things out. A lot of things come in to play.
And for you specifically?
I didn’t adjust well no. My shoulder injury ended my career. I didn’t have the rehab I should have had and needed. Being released affects you. I was fortunate to have saved money and figure things out, but it was a journey. Medical issues – as a football player you get used to pain. At some point you normalize it. Football players just deal with it when the average person would go to the hospital. For us, two hours of no pain is great. It’s crazy how it is. That’s just the life of a football player. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and some people don’t even have the funds to take care of their issues.
There’s a grieving time after you retire. I wanted to put off talking to reporters for a while. I needed to make sure my mind was right. There’s no question football affects you that way. There was a point in time that I would look at pictures and couldn’t remember who they were or where it was. I was in denial about it. Some of those have come back – I’ve tried to eat right and read to strengthen my memory. I’m not sure if that’s why – I’m not a neurosurgeon!
I’d like to talk to you about the start of that football career. Were you surprised to get drafted by Pittsburgh?
Bill Cowher called me and told me the next pick was going to be me. I was actually sleeping in my room when he called. We had a lot of people over and it got to be so much stress and anticipation of getting drafted that I told my mother to come get me when they called.
I really had no expectations though. I knew I’d get drafted but where? I didn’t know.
Did anyone help mentor you as a rookie?
No one really took me under their wing. My roommate was Rodney Bailey and we got along well. We were from similar cities. Pittsburgh was a simple city really, and I was a homebody. I didn’t try to go out much.
Pittsburgh was a unique place. I have to say I didn’t realize it until I left. It was a unique team. It was a family-type environment for everyone from day one. That is rare. You can’t even do that in normal life! It was easy to roll up in there and play. Guys that didn’t fit weeded themselves out. That’s why they have had the success they’ve had. I was in the right place when I got drafted. I wonder sometimes if I was drafted somewhere else if I would have had that same success so early. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have. I just don’t know.
You had such great success out of the gate in Pittsburgh. What do you attribute that to?
I talked a lot with Tim Lewis, who was the defensive coordinator then. I was open with him. He wanted me to be in a certain spot at a certain time and I told him I wasn’t ready for all of that yet. I was still learning – so I asked him to just tell me what I need to know. He was a literal guy. He and [linebackers] coach [Mike] Archer did a good job correcting me.
Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, James Farrior and Earl Holmes – they made it easy. The family dynamic made it easy. The coaches didn’t have to criticize me because the players did it first, and you never took offense to it. It was a unique culture.
I think my natural ability to anticipate things really helped me. I have four buys now and I run them a lot. I had a mentor who told me that I could lift weights but I needed to run track. I needed to be able to recover physically and mentally. I over-ran plays, but I was fast enough because of that to recover. Mentally, I didn’t get tired as much because of that either. I’ve seen plenty of smart guys get tired and become the dumbest players on the field!
Do you have some fun stories or memories of your time there you can share?
When you’re playing and winning it’s fun. It’s entertaining. On the field, we were all in sync. We knew who would do what. Me and Farrior would blitz and be in perfect rhythm. I could feel the flow of the offensive linemen when we did firezone blitzes and time it perfectly. If I saw a lineman leaning hard I’d let Farrior go first – stuff like that.
You left the Steelers in free agency in 2005. How hard was that for you – and what brought on that decision?
It was hard. I really didn’t want to go. Murphy’s law kicked in. After my shoulder surgery I finally got to the point where I could put weight on it. But then against the Raiders I hurt my groin. It was a sports hernia. Imagine, struggling with a shoulder injury than a groin injury all in your last year of your contract. I was like, are you kidding me? It’s scary as a player in that final contract year. That opportunity to make large money all fell apart.
I didn’t help myself either. It was mentally challenging. Everyone is pulling at you to make decisions. As a young guy, I didn’t have the perspective I have now. I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh but I was so out of it mentally. I checked out. It wasn’t a money thing. I was just overwhelmed. Whatever my agent said, I just said whatever.
I finally got back on the field after groin surgery. We were playing Cincinnati and I blitzed and an offensive lineman tripped and fell on my back and my groin popped again. I jogged off the field and sat down on the sideline. I almost fainted. Ben came up and asked if I was alright and I said I was straight, but that wrapped up the season after that.
How did the Steelers handle the injuries?
Well of course after the surgery the Steelers initially pulled the contract offer they gave me in camp. But at the end of the season Cowher called me in to his office and said he’s honor their initial offer. I told him thanks, but I needed to get out of there.
Why did you say that when you had wanted to stay?
I have no idea why I said it. I was just numb. I didn’t know the extent of the damage from my injuries, and I was just like that for a while. It was like depression. I was disappointed and sat home for a while. I was rehabbing in Pittsburgh with Tom McConnell and that really helped me. It’s hard to find a really good physical therapist and he was great. I think that if I stayed with him I may have been in a better place physically.
I remember my agent calling me and told me to go to New York for a tryout with the Giants. Tim Lewis was there and my agent thought they’d offer me a contract. I said sure, whatever.
A lot of people don’t realize how short of a window you have for rehab. I had gone to Arizona to rehab there. You don’t get much time before the season starts and you end up playing at 70% and get hurt again. In Arizona, they broke down my shoulder to build it back up. The doctor said I had the shoulder of a 70 year-old. I only had three months for that rehab. When I played again my first year in Kansas City I couldn’t raise my left arm that first year.
What happened with the Giants?
Well, I sat down with the Giants GM and it was very uncomfortable. The trainer was there and they told me they couldn’t sign me because I failed the physical. I almost threw up on the GM. Seriously – I could feel it in my throat. It was an awful feeling. Like a death in the family. I thought I couldn’t play football again.
I checked into a hotel room and just sat there in the dark. I was numb. My agent called and told me not to worry – that he got me a workout in Kansas City. I guess Kansas City was so desperate for help that they were willing to sign me despite the injures. They signed a few injured guys.
Had I been wiser I would have stayed with Tom and could have been better. Not being healthy tears away at you. The money was good but I woke up some mornings and called my agent telling him to give the money back. I couldn’t be the person I was, and to continue like that was difficult for me. And, the culture there was so different. It was so much more individualized. Nothing like Pittsburgh.
What advice would you give to younger guys now trying to follow your path?
I’d say to have perspective. I look at Le’Veon Bell and his situation. Young guys don’t think about it. They think you can go somewhere else and always be happy. But most guys that leave learn that Pittsburgh is the best place to be in for success and happiness. You have to factor in team culture and get involved. Don’t talk through agents. You can talk to Kevin Colbert – he’s a reasonable guy. You need to factor in the legacy and the culture when you make a decision. And it’s like texting – you lose context when you work through an agent. You need to go get involved in your own negotiations.