A telling sketch: Joel Bell spent much of his childhood in Egypt and Croatia as a son to Southern Baptist missionaries, where his father worked as a veterinarian to farmers and spread his message when birthing cows that were funded by churches back home in South Carolina.
Bell didn’t play organized sports as a kid, and his only knowledge of football until the 10th grade was gleaned from videotapes of Dallas Cowboys games shipped overseas. He first put on pads as a high school sophomore and didn’t play much until he was a senior.
He then attended Furman, a Football Championship Subdivision college in Greenville, S.C., known more for producing CEOs of Pepsi and Delta Airlines than professional athletes.
He once spent a few weeks in camp with the Buffalo Bills and last year had a tryout with the Cowboys. He played the past two seasons in Canada, when he helped Saskatchewan to consecutive berths in the Grey Cup.
He didn’t pull a Tim Tebow and perform any vasectomies as part of his mission work, but did live a mile from the Pyramids and was able to enjoy the delicacies of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.
He helped with cows.
He is 26 and still defines every snap by his dream of making the NFL.
“He is,” Locomotives coach Jim Fassel said, “what our team and league are all about. We work hard at finding guys — really hard.”
Bell is a left tackle who was always too skinny and not always so technically sound at playing his position, but time passed and his experience and body grew and the Locos had enough faith to make him the team’s No. 1 draft pick in May.
“That’s the joke around here,” Bell said.
The United Football League continues living for now, and its two-time and only champion opened practice Friday, when the Locos began preparing for a six-game regular-season schedule that starts Sept. 17 at Sacramento.
Fassel is a former quarterback who knows well the importance of whoever is assigned to protect the blind side of the guy throwing passes. He once coached Gary Zimmerman, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who personified the balance, athleticism and steady demeanor needed to succeed at one of football’s most significant jobs.
Fassel doesn’t think the Locos have missed on identifying Bell (6 feet 7 inches, 310 pounds) as a starter, and if they have, there won’t be an entire scouting department to question and scold.
There is Randy Ball (director of player personnel), a position coach and the head coach/general manager/president/guy who offers you a cold Gatorade on a sweltering summer day.
“We are the scouting department,” Fassel said. “If we miss on a guy, it’s our fault and I have an argument with myself. We have to do a good job projecting potential. If Randy Ball and the position coach agree on a guy, I’m usually good with it. If they don’t, I need to step in and take a little closer look and side with one of them.
“On some guys, we’re taking a chance. But (Bell) isn’t a roll-the-dice kind of guy. He’s young, athletic, has a good attitude and a lot of room to improve. He could become a very good player.”
UFL players are big on work ethic, because regardless of whether they’ve tasted the NFL life or are still trying to earn a seat at the table, they’re always trying to prove their worth.
That goes double for a guy who didn’t play much in high school because, “I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” then played college ball against the likes of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern at a small private liberal arts school nestled around a beautiful lake and oak trees.
“I’m just enjoying being able to play American football again after being in Canada,” Bell said. “Being from a small college, we weren’t as gifted as (major college) players, so there was a lot more smashmouth and hard work involved.
“Growing up (a missionary) taught me how to view life, that there is suffering all over the world, that I can’t be perfect, but I can love others and help the poor and needy. My parents showed me all those things.
“I don’t have any regrets at all. It was a great experience. When you live away from America and then come home, you realize how great a place this is and how fortunate we are to live in it.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.