Vonn Bell's Chase For Legacy And Leaving Something Behind

Vonn Bell plays for a lot.
Vonn Bell plays for a lot.

Vonn Bell, who has already worked out, is fixing breakfast like he watched his dad do all those years ago in Chattanooga. Eggs. Chicken sausage. Oatmeal. Protein shake.

There is a 9 a.m. Zoom meeting and because this is 2020 you can only have a quick coffee over the phone with the man who along with fellow safety Jessie Bates III has instantly become the glue of the Bengals defensive future with a charismatic brew of passion and performance.

"My mom and granny could throw it down," Bell is saying over the scraping of the pan and it was one of those dinners long before Vonn was born that has a big chapter in family lore.

Bell's crack-of-dawn wake-up calls to his teammates have become PBS legend since he came over from the Saints in free agency back in March. He says his entire family, both sides, are early risers.

The only way his dad, Vencent Bell, could begin his All-American high school football career in West Point, Miss., is to find people to take over his chores of feeding the chickens, hogs and cattle on his family's farm during practice and games.

"I did more between 4:30 and 7 than most people did all day," Vencent Bell says. "Then I would go to school.

"A man that's in the bed can do nothing, but a man out of bed has a chance to get ahead."

Vonn and his older brother Volonte grew up with that beat-the-rooster mantra. He'll tell you that even though Volonte was four years older, they were twins. Both safeties in football. Both point guards in basketball. Sounding boards for each other's growing pains. Same Friday Night Lights smile.

He never let Vonn play against kids his age, only with Volonte's older crowd. The competition sizzled after church in those day-long pick-up games at the YMCA.

"We'd go at it. Fight. Play. But at the end of the day it was all love," Vonn Bell says. "He told me by the time I was playing with my age group, I'd (dominate) them.

"You think I'm crazy? He was times ten. In everybody's face. Talking. So competitive. He loved basketball."

For most of us, it's been only a bad year. For Bell, "It's been a nightmare." They lost Volonte on a stretch of I-24 in Chattanooga back in late February in a car accident that left not only the Bells but the city heartbroken. An assistant basketball coach at Chattanooga State Community College, Volonte was almost certainly headed to a Division I staff maybe as soon as this season.

"This was probably his last year to coach with us because he was too good at such a young age not to be moving up," Jay Price, his head coach, told a local newspaper. "His personality made him a perfect fit for the coaching world because he never met a stranger, he could talk to anybody and didn't mind working hard. He had such a bright future ahead of him. It's just hard to believe."

Vonn Bell, who turns 26 the day before the Bengals play the Cowboys Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) at Paul Brown Stadium, has been able to cope, really, only one way. In the month after Volonte would have turned 30, Vonn set his NFL tackling highs and he's come up with their lone turnovers of the past two games while helping Bates set a tone on a defense decimated this season by change and injury.

"We talked about everything," Vonn Bell says of his brother. "I don't really have anybody to relate to and you keep everything bottled up when you're so frustrated or when you're going through tough times. You almost lost your backbone. But you have to keep on going."

He works out. He cooks. He reads. Tony Dungy's book Uncommon. The Energy Bus: 10 rules to fuel your life, work and team. Kobe Bryant's The Mamba Mentality.

Vonn knew what he was going to hear from his dad. His parents always stopped in Cincinnati on the way to watch him play at Ohio State, but they have yet to be here in 2020.

"We've talked about what a tough year it's been," Vencent Bell says. "Losing his brother. Changing teams. Not seeing his parents the entire year. He knew what I was going to say. 'Dad, you're going to say they're excuses.'

"I told him he was right. You can't let these things get in the way. The bottom line is you have to work hard, get in the weight room, learn the plays and what they want you to do. If you want to make excuses, you've got them. But I know that's not what he wants."

Vonn Bell says his leadership runs deep in the blood. Vencent has been an executive director for the YMCA for several years and at age 55 he's still looking for bigger facilities and bigger staffs to run, which is why he's transferring to the Wilson Family YMCA in Montgomery, Ala. "A middle linebacker," Vonn says and when Vencent ran off the farm with a 4.5-second 40-yard dash (the dad wonders if he got the speed needing to run ahead of the cattle at times to steer them in the right direction), he became one of the more highly-recruited players in Mississippi.

While helping lead 13-0 West Point to the first of its 10 state titles, Vencent earned the nickname "Dr. Kills," but the killing fields wouldn't be in Mississippi. Murray State head coach Frank Beamer made sure of that when he got him to go to Kentucky after a home visit.

The Bells didn't go out to eat much and Beamer thought he would take them to a restaurant until he smelled the chicken dumplings and cornbread being stirred by Vencent's mother. Beamer said, "Let's stay in."

But that age-old recruiting tool isn't what won the day. It was Beamer's promise to Vonn's grandfather that Vencent would be the first in the family to graduate from college.

"I told Vonn, back then the Daddys made the college decisions," Vencent says. "When I was a senior, Coach Beamer called me into his office and said, 'It looks like you're going to graduate. I called you down here so we could call your dad.' He didn't know what to say. He was ripped up. That was a proud moment."

Beamer threw in a little extra with that education degree when he told Vencent's dad: "I also think he met his (future) wife. So you got 2-for-1."

Indeed, Vencent met Vanessa when she was assigned to tutor him at the stadium and she used her business management/education degree to work in schools and is now the dean of students at a Chattanooga middle school.

Times change, of course. A generation later, Vonn Bell made the call between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer. But like a generation before, it was a war of turf. Vencent was recruited for a patch of Mississippi while his son's decision was celebrated as Meyer's first shot across Saban's bow in the south.

So, no question about it. Leadership and football runs through Vonn Bell's veins. But Bell loves to listen to leaders of his own. Maybe the most influential is his fellow Saints safety back in his first NFL days in veteran Roman Harper. Bell believes it was in his rookie year when he was struck by Harper during those Saturday night position meetings. Harper would be mesmerizing for Bell as he spoke to the DBs from prepared notes.

"He always said, 'What would your odometer tell you?' What do you leave as a legacy? Do it for your family, do it for the guy next you. What is your why?" Bell says. "He would let us dwell on it all night and leave us thinking right up until the game. That was five years ago and that has always stuck with me. I don't take that for granted.

"Those things stimulate your mind. If you stay stagnant, you're dying," Bell says. "If you're not growing, what are you doing? That's in every field of life. Family. Marriage. Business. What are you doing for a career? That's the stuff I'll be thinking about."

He wants his legacy to be a tapestry. Chasing championships. Being the best safety, being the best leader, being the best teammate. He already knows who he's playing for.

"He's still with me," says Vonn Bell of his twin, scraping the pan with breakfast. "He would never want to see me down."