In the Zone

Three feet, one yard, literally a half step was all that separated Joique Bell from realizing a dream willed into reality.

Then it happened; Sept 9, 2012 against the St. Louis Rams.

The television play-by-play man said it all, calling the play as it unfolded.

"That's Joique Bell who just checked into the game with the touch down."

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Suddenly in an instant, by crossing the goal line in an NFL game, a goal became an accomplishment, and Detroit Lions running back Bell lay in the North end zone of Ford Field under a pile of defenders preparing for a celebration he had planned just for that moment-his first play in the NFL despite being on practice teams for two years. His first touch down.

"It was a long time coming, and the first thing I thought about was jumping into the crowd," Bell says, sitting in front of his locker at the Lions Allen Park practice facility.  "Yeah, it was planned, they tried to take the ball from me, and I kind of pushed them off and I ran straight to the back of the end zone and jumped in the crowd. And I enjoyed it.

"It will be a moment I'll always cherish."

BORN A CONQUEROR

Bell's unique name, Joique (pronounced "JOY'K ) in French is defined as: "Conqueror." The 26-year-old wears his moniker well.

Seemingly born to succeed, the Benton Harbor native has made a name for himself befitting his French monogram. The ups and downs, trials and triumphs of his professional football journey read like a gridiron odyssey. Like the Detroit Lions’ long road to respectability, Bell's path to pay dirt is similarly rich with adversity and determination.

A superstar running back at Benton Harbor High School, Bell shocked many recruiters by deciding to attend Division II Wayne State University in the heart of Detroit. The Warriors hadn't had a winning season in 13 years, that is, until Bell took the ball and turned the program around, running for a record the first year he took the field.

Wayne State head football coach, Paul Winters, was an early witness to the talent and fortitude Bell displayed the moment he set foot on campus.

"The light came on when he walked in the door," Winters says without the slightest hesitation. "He was the hardest worker and most talented guy the day he got here. He rushed for 2,000 yards as a redshirt freshman and nobody does that"

Winters, now in his ninth season as Wayne State's head football coach isn't the least bit surprised about Bell’s success. The head Warrior is in regular contact with his star alumni. He says Bell is pleased, but not content with his professional debut in Detroit.

"He's excited," Winters explains. "He felt like he would get an opportunity and felt the coaches liked him and appreciate his talent and effort and felt it would work out."

The irony of things working out with the Detroit Lions almost belies belief.

DREAMS COME TRUE

As an 18-year-old freshman, Bell worked as a security guard at the Lions Allen Park practice facility and one day asked a scout if he thought he could ever make the NFL.

"It's surreal," says Bell, looking around the Lions locker room as though he was still on the outside looking in. "It's something you see on TV or a movie, I was working here and I pulled a scout to the side and I looked at him in the eye and said man-to-man, "Do you think I could go to the league from Division II from Wayne State?’ And he said, "Hey, if you have talent, they will find you."

And find him, they did.

This follows a record-setting career at Wayne State, where he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and won the Harlon Hill Trophy, the award for the Division II Player of the Year following a 2084-yard, 29 touchdown season.

Bell went undrafted, but remained undaunted.

He signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills in 2010 and made the practice squad that season. Since then, his career was an array of ups and downs, making practice squads and being cut over and over again by the Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints-giving him official NFL experience without ever actually playing in a regular season game.

That was until he lined-up behind Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, poised and ready to take a hand-off on a play called "20-belly," that he and his family will remember for the rest of their lives.

But the play they all had been waiting for happened so fast his mom, Althea "Candy" Gaddy, almost missed it.

"It's so funny because the NFL game moves so quickly, and I saw him go into the game and by the time your realize what had happened and its already past," the proud football mom said recapping Bell's scoring play. "And I saw number 35 get up.

"I just started screaming, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God, that's my son,’ it was a dream come true for him.

"When you see your son do something he's always wanted to do, that's exciting."

PRAYERS AND PIGSKIN PASSION

Bell's family has always been there. His mom chartered buses from Benton Harbor to his Wayne State games, making nearly 400-mile weekend round trips to support her son. Bell and his family are extremely close.

"Everything he's ever had, he fought for," Gaddy says about her son's never-say-die attitude. "We are Christian believers. When God opens the door, just lunge straight through. We pray before every game."

Bell describes himself as a God-fearing family man.  Besides his mother, he credits his godfather, Maurice Burton, as the biggest influences in his life. Burton was Bell's first football coach and called a play that ignited Bell's pigskin passion.

"My first carry ever was a touch down," Bell says, smiling at the memory. "My Godfather was the coach I remember the name of the play was called the Joique Bell special. "

Team Bell is comprise of his mom, stepfather Willie Gaddy, older sister, Ambie, younger brother, Willie Jr., godparents Maurice and Jolita Burton and high school coach Willie Wilson.

Coach Wilson, now the athletic director at Benton Harbor High School remembers his first encounter with a precocious elementary school kid who predicted his own success.

When I first met him, I was the head coach at Benton Harbor and he was about 8-years-0ld," Wilson says, remembering the incredible impression Bell made on him from the very beginning. "And he said, ‘Coach, I'm going to play for you when I'm a freshman,’ so he was very specific and we developed a very special relationship."

Wilson says he always knew Bell would make it big.

"I told the other coaches, "that he's (Bell) going to play on Sundays one day," Wilson says. "Words can't describe how I feel about him, remembering him as an 8 year-old coming up to me.  As coaches, we always say hard work pays off and to see him be successful, words just can't describe it."

Bell, the adopted Detroiter, is making a name for himself with his Lions teammates, as well.  His easy-going personality has made him a hit with guys who hit for a living.

Lions linebackers Ashlee Palmer and Doug Hogue say everybody is taking notice of the hard-working running back.

"He got his first touchdown, and he's been around the league for a while. It's been tough for him, Palmer says. "It's good that he got his first one, and hopefully it will lead to more,"

"Just seeing his work ethic and the amount of time he puts on the field says it all," Hogue says. "He's a good dude, just a great person and I'm proud of him I hope he keeps it up."

Fellow running back, Kevin Smith, put it in perfect perspective. "He's taken advantage of the opportunity he's been given and doing a good job," Smith says. "We're a family we're teammates. I'm happy for him."

Bell sat in front of his locker talking about his life and career. "I'm a worker, a hard worker," he says, trying to describe himself in one word.

Bell's homegrown football success sits well with Motor City football fans who understand what it means to hang in and persevere against all odds. Bell says he just wants to focus on winning each week, letting his work ethic lead the way.

"Take it day-by-day," Bell says of his newly developed goals. "Long-term goal is the Super Bowl and if a Pro Bowl comes with that, I wouldn't mind it. But we're a long way from that."

With his future developing before his very eyes, Bell looks like a man who belongs. 

And one day, after he scores his final touchdown and looks back at his accomplishments, despite the eventual statistics, his career will not be measured in yards but rather by the way he relentlessly pursued his dream one step at a time, ultimately conquering the longest yard.

NATIVE DETROITER ROD COFFEE IS A PRINT AND BROADCAST JOURNALIST WHO SPECIALIZES IN NEWS, SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT

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