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A Dawn With Vonn Bell And How The Bengals Culture Never Sleeps

Vonn Bell, the Bengals' five star general.
Vonn Bell, the Bengals' five star general.

The clock in the big room at Paycor Stadium where they jack weights and coax character blinks 5:57 in the morning. An ungodly hour for everyone but owls, greens keepers and Vonn Bell, the Bengals' 24-hour-seven strong safety and even stronger "Sensei."

That's what rookie safety Tycen Anderson, at times, calls Bell, using the reverent martial arts term for teacher. As in, "What's good, Sensei? Tell us something." What can be told is that Bell's idea of a sunrise service is daily worship in the weight room. They also call him a "five star general," and "Coach Vonn."

"This is who he is. It's a lifestyle. His lifestyle," says Joey Boese, the club's head strength conditioning coach and keeper of the karma. "He's going on season three here and since day one he's trained four to five days a week at 6 in the morning. Offseason. In season. That's who he is. Every day. Every day."

This could be every day and any day. 6 A.M. start. About an hour ahead of the earliest. With Boese and assistants Todd Hunt and Garrett Swanson manning their stations. Always. It's the waning days of preseason, but Bell's football-centric life is one, long joyous training camp as he heads over to the bar bells and lifts a 75-pounder over his head a few times.

And yet, it could also be this Tuesday, an off day as the Bengals and the NFL cuts rosters to 53 players. Same regimen for Bell, but it's also the unofficial start of his "Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club," where he convenes the secondary in an informal 9 a.m. off-day gathering to talk about what and who is next. 

"This is the process," says Bell, "and I love it."

It's the process that has made the Bengals AFC champions with a unique, java-like brew of chemistry that seems even tangier than last year's Super Bowl run.

Yes, there is the 2019 hiring of head coach Zac Taylor and the earthquake 2020 draft of Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins and the magical 2021 Harry Potter Seeker rookie seasons of Ja'Marr Chase and Evan McPherson.

But there is the also the process. A very instrumental process. It came in free agency via young defensive veterans who had been on winners and mixed their own Hogwarts potion to make what Taylor called, "a Bengal."

Six weeks before Burrow became a Bengal, the signing of Bell, who had started five playoff games by the time he was a month past his 25th birthday, represented the beginning of the locker room shift.

"He brings that Kobe Bryant mentality. He gives us that Mamba mentality," says cornerback Eli Apple.

Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader had agreed to terms a day before Bell. Then the next spring it was Saints edge Trey Hendrickson and Steelers nickel Mike Hilton and NFC East cornerbacks Apple and Chidobe Awuzie. Bell, called the Pied Piper by Bengals safeties coach Robert Livingston, was leading the culture wars like he had at Ohio State and with the Saints.

"He's a reason I came here," says Hendrickson, who brought those 14 season-changing sacks from New Orleans.

Hendrickson is in Boese's office one late morning this week pouring himself a cup of joe from the coffee maker Bell gave to the strength staff about halfway through camp, a $1,200 beauty someone had given him.

"Coffee is something that brings people together and Vonn's all about bringing people together," says Boese, whose staff touches each player and coach. "We've wanted to make the weight room like an extension of the locker room, a place where players are comfortable with each other. There are times we'll have seven, eight players in my office just talking.

"Usually, Vonn is in a middle of a lot of stuff."

Bell: "I know those guys like coffee and it's something everybody can use."

The gift has spawned a smattering of mugs and bags of coffee beans players have brought into The Office.

The Dunder Mifflin cup belongs to defensive tackle Josh Tupou. Middle linebacker Logan Wilson's mug has the drawing of a cowboy, signifying his University of Wyoming. Linebacker Joe Bachie's Michigan State mug is there and so is quarterback Jake Browning's University of Washington cup. Bell's Buckeye Nation mug is there, too, even though he admits, "I'm not much of a coffee guy."

"I knew what kind of captain he was in New Orleans," says Hendrickson, steering his Florida Atlantic mug into the machine. "That told me the kind of guy they wanted. Joe Burrow was a big thing, too. And I called and talked to Vonn and he told me about what they had going on defense and he knew (fellow edge) Sam (Hubbard). Yeah, he's a reason I came here."

Along about 6:19 a.m., some of the assistant coaches are now working the weights and Bell shakes his head at tight ends coach James Casey, the former Texan and Bronco.

"He still thinks he's playing," Bell says.

Boese guides Bell through what seems to be the most demanding part of the workout, a grueling form of the bench press involving five sets of two reps at 225 pounds, then 245, 255, 265 and 275. He's going up 50 pounds and pausing with the bar on the chest in between lifts.

"(His regimen) changes all the time. That's just what he happens to be doing today," Boese says. "He lifts every day. Two upper body lifts, two lower body lifts. He can do more. Not every day is heavy as he can go … This guy is all ball. He's a big part of what we do."

He wrestles with bands, putting them over his head pulling them apart. He takes a 45-pound plate and throws it over his head. He smashes a 10-pound medicine ball three times into the turf and catches as it bounces back as high as his head. He grabs a 90-pound barbell and alternates a series of tricep pushdowns.

"Got to get the lats ready for those offensive linemen and tight ends," Bell says.

It is about 6:45 and Bell is heading back to his locker. A couple of teammates have trickled in, such as rehabbing safety Brandon Wilson. But it is pretty much still just staff and coaches as he pulls his "The Remarkable," iPad out of his backpack and tries to tell you why he loves it so much.

"I love the process," he says, going back to the word like the Chiefs kept going back to Tyreek Hill in the AFC title game and Bell and Jessie Bates III made them pay in overtime. "I like having guys coming from different backgrounds and coming together for one common goal.

"Then when you see yourself get older, you become a mentor and you see a young guy, it's like a reflection of you coming up. It's just a maturation process of him growing up before your eyes. That's why I enjoy it. That really fuels my fire. It's being there for the guys and doing things at a high level. And getting paid? Why not?"

When Bates returned last week to play on the franchise tag, he didn't forget Bell's role in his rise to the top when he arrived before Bates' third season.

"You have to be around Vonn to know Vonn. He's a smooth dude," Bates says. "He taught me a lot as far as how he goes about his business. Always wants to watch film. It seems like enough is never enough. He's one of my best friends on the team."

When the Bengals drafted Michigan safety Dax Hill in the first round, he couldn't have picked a better spot to break in with the 27-year-old Bell and his nine postseason starts waiting.

But Bell has to laugh.

"I think he thinks I'm picking on him. Tough love," Bell says, recalling what he told Hill after he got his first interception in New York last week. "You should have intercepted it. That's the standard. Do it again."

But it's just not the kids. When Michael Thomas the safety walks in two minutes past seven, Bell smiles at Mike T., at 32 the oldest player the Bengals have on offense and defense. The man who calls Bell "A five-star general."

"I thought I was a leader with those young dudes based on the guys I was with when I entered the league,' says Thomas, a long-time Dolphin who went to the Pro Bowl as a special teamer for the Giants. "But then when I see what type of leader that Vonn is, I follow him. He's a special guy. A lot of players, they see young guys as threats. I've seen sabotage. But he cares about this team. He cares about making the team better."

Bell is a noted notetaker and his iPad is a myriad of sections divided up in chunks of his written takes. He punches up his notes from a couple of days ago when first-year linebackers coach James Bettcher, a two-time coordinator in the league, spoke to the defense.

"Perceptions vs. circumstances … Perceptions will never define you … So what now? Go work … Be present in the moment … The past has no control over your future … Be where your feet are … "

"It resonated with me. A great message," Bell says. "Your most honest players are your best players. The most honest teams are the ones that win the most."

There's no more honest player than Vonn Christian Bell.

He's talking about his interception that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl off the tip from Bates when Patrick Mahomes went deep to No. 10. "The Cheetah." Tyreek Hill.

The play meant it all and not just because it gave the ball back to Seamless Joe's deadly offense. But because Bell and Bates and everyone else in the secondary had been talking all game all playoffs all season. It was the ultimate team play on the ultimate team defense on, in this postseason, the ultimate team.

"Jessie and I had seen patterns developing with their route concepts the whole game," Bell says. "Mahomes had been trying to go to him. We had seen it. Why not? We figured he was going to "10,' for the game. The guy's got that nickname for a reason. Fast. Lou dialed it up."

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo sent the call in and without giving it away, it was all about leverage and timing and anticipating and recognizing Hill's over route to the post. Some defenders had to be called off Hill and others had to react to him and it was all happening in freeze frames.

And then Bell did the most honest thing in the sport and ran to the ball and there was Bates tangling with The Cheetah and ...

"I'm reading Will Smith's book now,' says Bell, punching more buttons so he can find the first page of "Will."

"This is Coach Lou's theme, too. Brick-by-brick. It's how Will Smith's father wanted him and his brother to build a wall. Man, they said. That will take years. His dad said, quit complaining about it and just work. Lay one brick at a time. Day by day and that's what we're doing."

It's getting toward 7:30 (new athletic trainer Matt Summer walks by and says hello) and this could be a moment where Bell goes into the players' lounge and watches film and maybe nod off for about five or ten minutes.

But not today. It's a time he also uses to catch up with his teammates before the special teams meeting at 9:15 (like check in on linebacker Germaine Pratt and make sure he woke up thinking about the ball) and he's got to get his car serviced at some point. That's big because, as Bates says, Bell likes the good things in life.

"Nice cars. Nice house with a great view of the river," Bates says. "The man's a professional in everything."

Bell is currently driving a Mercedes and he's getting a Range Rover built. But football and his teammates are never far away. "Home is my re-set, but this is my happy place."

He has them over often to the house with that big-time view of the river and the city, mainly the DBs, where they like to play cards. Which spawned another coffee maker-like idea from Bell. If coffee brings people together, so do cards.

About halfway through this camp he went into the training room and asked for a table. It's now sitting in front of his row of lockers and there always seems to be four to five to six defensive vets playing for tricks in Booray or trying to string together suits in Tunk.

Logan Wilson hasn't sat there yet. But one day this week as he turned around at his locker to glance at the card playing, he said he likes it.

"We're so close and that was a big part of our success last year,' says Wilson, who agrees. "Yeah. I think we are closer (this year)."

It's the kind of table where the massive Reader can be reduced to card-slamming frustration. Or Thomas can cackle in surprise or the usually impassive Bell breaking into a wide smile.

"That can happen in cards," Bell says of Reader's angst. "You can win a hand and then go cold and lose three in a row. You can compete at that table, too. It's a community thing. Yeah, a bonding thing. Always."

Running back Trayveon Williams says it reminds him of the uncles playing at a picnic. Bell says, sure, offensive players are invited.

"Stanley Morgan wants to play. Joe Mix looks like he's intrigued by it," Bell says.

About 8 a.m. on this day, Bell heads into the cafeteria for breakfast and sits with Thomas, Pratt and wide receiver Trenton Irwin. Thomas and Bell are talking about some past Dave Chappelle sketches and what the comedian is doing now. Thomas says he and Bell talk about life, movies, books and they joke about secret societies.

But he has no doubt that in this life Bell is cut out to be a NFL head coach.

"Or a defensive coordinator. Or in the front office. A smooth transition," Thomas says. "You see it when he's leading that meeting on the off day. That's Coach Vonn to the fullest. Coaches lead men. You look at how coaches carry themselves. He carries himself to the highest standard and they'll follow. Top to bottom. It's true. You take on the personality of your coach. That energy. He'd have his men ready to go every single day, I'll say that."

Bell shrugs about a coaching future. He's thinking ahead to tonight when he gets home and "I have to go to bed about nine to start it all over again." Thomas laughs and says, "Yeah after he's watched his third game and practice for the fifth time."

It's 8:16 in the morning and Bell is pushing away from the table, about 90 minutes ahead of everybody else. He doesn't even have to be in the teams meetings, but sometimes he goes in to check on the guys or just hear coach Darrin Simmons talk about the rules.

Later, he'll tell you just how important time is.

He collects watches. He likes all kinds. Hands. Digital. His favorite is a Rolex he bought his rookie year with his first money. He's been collecting time, too, since his older brother really a twin safety-point-guard died in a car accident two years ago. A few weeks before he signed with the Bengals.

"I've become more appreciative of things," Bell says. "More aware."

There's still a precious hour before special teams.

"Five star general," says Thomas as gets up from breakfast.