Vonn Bell wants to help deliver another football championship to the state of Ohio.
The Chattanooga native who intercepted six passes and totaled 91 tackles during Ohio State's 2014 season to help propel the Buckeyes to a national title — the first under the College Football Playoff — is excited about his next stop in the NFL.
After starting 50 of 66 games (including playoffs) he played in four seasons with the New Orleans Saints, who traded up before selecting him in the second round of the 2016 draft, the 5-foot-11, 217-pound safety signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals on March 25.
"It was a great stretch we had going in New Orleans," said the 25-year-old Bell, who has 348 tackles (14 for loss), eight sacks, seven forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and one interception in 61 regular-season games as a professional. "All the people around me were high-character guys — the people in that building and the city.
"Now I am ready to lead and take all the knowledge I have learned from my mentors and peers. That's what makes me so excited and eager to get there, because a leader is what Cincinnati needs. That's what makes me excited to get up at 4 in the morning every day and work out — just wanting to get back to the game and what I love."
Bell, a high school standout at Central and Ridgeland before signing with the Buckeyes, has not let the coronavirus pandemic slow him as he pushes to reach his goals. He has been training in Miami, where he makes his home in the offseason and has spent the past several months working with Duke Johnson, Alvin Kamara and Olivier Vernon, among other NFL players.
With the direction of strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey, a Florida International University staff member who also works privately with NFL players, Bell feels like he is in the best shape of his life, considering himself to be more "explosive" and "agile" than ever.
Eyes on the ball
Bell, though versatile as a safety, has built a reputation for being one of the league's best at his position when it comes to stuffing the run. He also has a knack for getting to quarterbacks; his seven sacks the past three seasons put him second among NFL safeties during that period, behind only New York Jets star Jamal Adams.
Though his ability to bring down ball carriers is established — he has averaged 87 tackles per season in the NFL — Bell has even bigger goals for himself as he makes a new home on the banks of the Ohio River.
"I want the ball," said Bell, who forced two fumbles and recovered five last season, one of which he returned for a 38-yard touchdown. "I want to make plays and have a lot of interceptions like I did at Ohio State. I got my first one (in the NFL) late last season, and as one coach told me, once you catch your first one, the others will come. But to me it's still all about what can I do to help our team win. I want us to succeed more than I want (personal) accolades."
The Bengals are excited for the future after revamping this offseason. With Bell and the arrival of 2019 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall draft pick who led LSU to a national championship in January, the franchise has high hopes to be a contender in the AFC North and add a better chapter to a history dominated by postseason struggles for decades. Cincinnati has not made it past the wild-card round of the playoffs since the 1990 season and is winless in the only two Super Bowl appearances in the history of a franchise that played its first season in 1968.
Bell has been studying his new playbook continually and has talked to coaches and teammates via Zoom and FaceTime during the pandemic, which forced all NFL teams to conduct their official offseason programs virtually this year.
There have been personal challenges as well. In February, his older brother Volonte, a Chattanooga State men's basketball assistant coach, was killed in an automobile crash.
"My brother Volonte taught me almost everything I know," Bell said. "He always encouraged me to push harder. He told me that I had something special when we were young and I would play up against kids who were four years older than me. He was my biggest supporter besides my mom and dad."
Whether by reading the quarterback's eyes to make a play on the ball or shutting down the opposition's running game, Bell is ready to go all out on the field. It's the only way Volonte would want him to play.
"He always wanted me to push forward and never be down on myself. That's something I will always carry with me," Bell said. "It's all for him in whatever I do. I can't wait to be back out there so he can really see me play the game we both love. I know he is going to be out there with me. He is my shield. He would tell me I could do better and go make a bigger play. I have to keep going and pushing to be great for him and my family."
He'll try to do so in a division that includes the Pittsburgh Steelers, who with six Super Bowl titles are one of the most successful franchises in NFL history; the Baltimore Ravens, who are two-time reigning division champs and won a league-leading 14 games last season with Lamar Jackson, who broke the NFL's single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,206 on his way to being named MVP; and the Cleveland Browns, the in-state rivals who have rebuilt their roster in recent years in hopes of their own breakthrough.
And while he might one day help the Bengals raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champs, Bell's off-field community contributions — including through youth football camps — are another reason his addition should be good for Cincinnati.
Instead of saying "Who Dat?" Bell will make a slight change to "Who Dey?" — a popular chant picked up by Bengals fans during the team's journey to the Super Bowl to cap the 1981 season. They haven't made a run like that since the 1988 season, which kicked off more than six years before Bell was born.
It's safe to say Bell believes the Bengals and their fans are long overdue for a celebration. He wants to help make it happen.
"This state is special," said Bell, who will turn 26 on Dec. 12. "The people have always been loving and caring. I can't wait to continue this journey with them and hopefully bring another championship back to Ohio. I am going to take it game by game, and we are ready to get to work."