Let's get this out of the way first. Before August 20th, 2014, a day which lives in a certain amount of infamy in Pittsburgh, Le'Veon Bell had given Steeler Nation no cause to worry about character concerns.
As reports of his arrest on marijuana possession and DUI leaked out, some of us began to have more concerns about his intelligence, since it's difficult to imagine a really smart person would: a) not know that driving high was considered "Driving Under the Influence," and: b) would think it was a good idea to be smoking dope on your way to the airport for a game, whether driving or not. Perhaps we can add to this: c) would think it was a good idea to hang-out with LeGarrette Blount.
Whatever the case, I believe we can all put this behind us, as Bell has entered a program for first-time offenders which will, when completed, expunge his record. And I think there's good reason to be confident. Last summer, two months before the arrest, I spoke with a person who was on the Michigan State committee in charge of drug-related matters for athletes, and this person told me Bell's name had never, during his time at Michigan State, come across said faculty member's desk.
I'm quite sure the majority of those who are considered high-character individuals could tell a story of something stupid they did in their early 20s. The trick is to learn from your mistakes before they completely derail your life.
Bell's story, like a great many of the young men who make up the NFL teams, is one of being raised by a single mother and being fortunate enough to have encountered someone as a teenager who helped to keep them on the path to achievement and success. Thus, the two people Bell credits with his success are his mother and his high school principal, Donis Toler Jr.
In an NFL network video, "A Running Backstory," Toler, a former running back himself who had a cup of coffee or so in the NFL, introduced himself to Bell on his first day of high school:
Bell: He said "You're not the man here. I'm the man here." My mom would always come at me, but I didn't really have like a father figure to say "don't do this, don't do that." He kind of took that over.
The host, Steve Cyphers, recounts Toler's receipt of a hand-written letter from Bell during his final year at Michigan State. The part which touched Toler the most?
"I truly appreciate everything you have done for me these past six years—for being a father figure and really keeping me focused on school and football."
For his mother, he chose a different route. This Thanksgiving he posted a letter to her on Cauldron titled "My Vote for MVP:" I hope he (and you all) will forgive me for extensive quotes from this letter, as it reveals his heart in such a beautiful way. [All bolded text represents italicized text in the original.]
As a running back in the National Football League, my instinct is to always be moving forward. No matter what the defense throws at me, no matter how successful our offensive game plan is, it's always full steam ahead. In some ways, that's why Thanksgiving is my favorite time of year—it gives me the chance to look back, to consider not just where I am going, but where I've been.
Now in my second year in the league, I'm building something wonderful in Pittsburgh, but I know that nothing can be built without a solid foundation; without the right materials. For me, that all starts with my mother —and her unwavering belief that despite life's twists and turns, its highs and lows, it's important to maintain balance and perspective. Get stuffed at the line for no gain? Get right back up. Break off a 70-yard TD run? Get ready for the next series.
My mother was my first and strongest offensive line. Raising my two brothers and me as a single, working mom, her résumé is far more remarkable than any 200-yard game on mine. She was our family's great protector. Looking back on things now, we never knew struggle, even though we struggled. There were countless times when we didn't have, I just didn't know we didn't have. It wasn't just things and stuff, either; we never lived in the best neighborhoods, but she made sure we weren't in the worst ones, either. I was always in the right schools, with the right resources at my disposal. She saw to it that I had the sports equipment I needed, and even now, I have no idea how she came up with the money for it. The irony is, when people now compliment my ability to make something out of nothing on the football field, my mom is the one who's been doing so in real life all along.
Of all the lessons my mom taught me, though, the one that still resonates the most was to treat every loss as a learning experience. I didn't always win at everything —Lord knows I tried! —but that wasn't the point. The point was to be the best I could possibly be...It wasn't about how bad I had played earlier, it was about how good I aspired to be going forward. I wish all children could grasp how important it is to strive to improve themselves. Especially the ones who grow up in difficult circumstances...
...My mom likes to think I learned my moves from dodging our German Shepherd Z in our backyard. That’s partly true, but I also honed my juking skills from watching how she handled her business — if there was an obstacle in our way, she was going to find a way over, around, and past it...
...When I was at Michigan State, she traveled to our bowl game against TCU and cooked in the hotel's kitchen; she actually brought her own roasters and crockpots because the hotel didn't have an oven. She's always had everything covered, which is funny, because as amazing as it's been learning from Coach Tomlin the last two seasons, my mother was the first one to show me how valuable a tight game plan really is.
But there's lots more, and this is for us:
As a Pittsburgh Steeler, I'm thankful for the unconditional love this city has shown me. My entire family were Steelers fans long before I was drafted by the franchise, so when people around here say that they live and die with this team, I know they aren't kidding. That's part of the reason why Pittsburgh is the perfect fit for me, as a player and as a person...
...Like the other 65,000+ members of Steeler Nation who attend home games, my mom sits in the stands, too, living and dying during each and every play. She also comes to road games within a reasonable drive of our family home in Ohio —and she never misses our games in Baltimore or Cleveland. That kind of support is invaluable. It makes me want to do better as an athlete and a person.
The support his mom gives has a cost:
One year ago today, on national television, while trying to dive across the goal line for a game-tying touchdown against our rival Baltimore Ravens, I took a helmet-to-helmet hit, and my helmet came flying off. Thankfully, the concussion I suffered on the play was mild, and not career-threatening, and I continue to run now as aggressively and powerfully as I always have. A running back can't be effective if he lets fear creep into his mind.
I know moments like those are not easy for my mom. Sure, she always puts on a brave face for me, but she can't completely hide her worry from me...
...All kidding aside, when I step time out on that field, I pray. Every single time. Yes, I pray because I know exactly how dangerous my line of work can be, but I also pray because I am so truly thankful to be doing what I do. I have scripture tattooed on my left arm: John, 3:15. It reads, "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." I recite it before I play. It's important to believe in something bigger than yourself. And not only in terms of your God, but in life in general. There's strength in humility. Just like your glory is just a small part of God's glory, your individual success is just a small part of your team's success.
Along the same lines, my success is just a small part of my family's success. I'm thankful my hard work has earned me a job that allows me to help my mother finally retire. Even though I have my dream job, I haven't forgotten the pinky-promise I made to go back and get my degree from Michigan State. In our family, a pinky-promise is a big deal— you're only as good as your word. And I'll have my degree soon enough, because my mother taught me the importance of finishing strong—on and off the field.
Believe it or not, there's a lot more in the letter. But I think this gives a good portrait of the very special running back the Steelers drafted a year and a half ago. It's such a joy to know he isn't just special on the field but off of it as well. Stay humble, Le'Veon, just like Principal Toler told you, and you'll be able to handle not only opposing defenses but what life throws at you as well.