PITTSBURGH – At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Le’Veon Bell’s locker was a perfect time capsule of what could have been. Neatly stacked with shoes, cleats and practice apparel, it was a picture of hopefulness, just waiting for the All-Pro running back to stroll through that door and suit up.
But he never did. And by 3:30 p.m. – roughly 24 hours after Bell declined his final opportunity to report to the team – his remaining possessions were being plundered like a scene from “Lord of the Flies.”
“Awww, they’re ransacking his locker,” guard Ramon Foster said from across the room.
This was what the last moments of the Le’Veon Bell divorce looked like inside the Steelers’ locker room. Months of frustrated half-civility ended in a free-for-all, with Bell’s pristine locker becoming the target. First, the nameplate vanished. Soon, boxes full of Jordan brand cleats came and went, some players walking away with single pairs, others with an armful. Sneakers? Gone. A few mix tape CDs were appropriated. Shirts and other articles of clothing were picked over. At one point, a player held a hanger out toward the middle of the locker room like an auctioneer presenting an item in a fire sale.
“Anyone want a suit?”
Some visitors nearby laughed and looked at each other, as if to say, “He’s joking … right?”
Steelers players went into Le’Veon Bell’s locker, removing his nameplate and rummaging through items. Bud Dupree says thanks for the Jordan brand cleats. pic.twitter.com/gQaAu9hUPd
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) November 14, 2018
It wasn’t restricted to the locker room. With Bell refusing to report, $14.5 million in salary-cap space became available on Tuesday. Space that can be used on contract extensions immediately or rolled into free agency next offseason. So maybe it was no surprise to walk out of the facility Wednesday afternoon and see agent Drew Rosenhaus, who said he was there to “visit with the team.” Rosenhaus has multiple Steelers players on his client roster – some of whom will be open to talking extensions this offseason. So surely “visiting the team” is another way to say “take a stab at some of that newly available money.”
Simply put, Bell’s cleats weren’t the only thing up for grabs Wednesday. His money was, too.
This was NFL Darwinism. Not only survival of the fittest, but also survival of the present and accounted for. Bell wasn’t present. And by the sounds of how Tuesday went down at his deadline to report, he really wasn’t accounted for, either. Teammates reached out and got no reply. When the reporting time expired and Bell was officially done for 2018, teammates weren’t even sure why he had returned to Pittsburgh from Miami, where he spent most of his holdout. In a way, it felt like one final half-in-and-half-out tease.
“I texted him [Tuesday] before the deadline, telling him I was hoping he was going to show up, and if he decided not to, I wished him nothing but the best,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “He was a great teammate and a great football player. To each their own on what they want to walk away from.”
Did Bell text back?
“Nope,” Roethlisberger said.
That lack of communication has been a big part of the subtext in Bell’s divorce from this Steelers franchise. He didn’t just skip a season – he skipped out on speaking with a majority of the roster, and basically the entire front office and coaching staff. And it would be wrong to assume there isn’t a residue of hurt feelings over how this has all went down. After all, Bell and the Steelers did some great things together. And they still might have gotten to the mountaintop together in 2018. Instead, the only mountain they shared was the stack of items from his locker that ended up getting dispersed among his former teammates.
It’s that kind of disappointment that lends itself to some nuanced shade. Like when Steelers players are asked if they could skip an entire season in their prime – for any reason – and they turned that question into a lesson on battle-tested camaraderie.
“[Skipping a season] would be tough,” Roethlisberger said. “Part of the great thing about this sport is this band of brothers and this group of guys in here. Being with them is kind of what keeps me coming back after so many years, too. But like I said, to each their own. Each guy has their own motives and motivations. I can’t comment on [Le’Veon]. I am glad that we won’t have to talk about this anymore, though.”
Not talking about it “anymore” is a stretch, largely because there are still hurt feelings here. Some anger and disappointment. Some sense of abandonment. And more than anything, unanswered questions. The kind of questions and unknowns that ended up sprouting theories in the hallways of the franchise. There’s no shortage of those inside the Steelers, by the way.
Musings such as: Maybe Bell didn’t show up at the deadline because he was too out of shape to contribute anytime soon. Maybe he knew Pittsburgh was going to apply for an exemption allowing the franchise to withhold two additional weeks of salary even if he rejoined the team this week. Maybe he took time off and realized that he was enjoying not playing football. Maybe he was listening to the wrong people. Or maybe he fashioned himself as the martyr who could forever represent NFL players revolting against a franchise tag they so clearly hate.
Whatever his reasons, Steelers players haven’t been left with answers. To the point that even Wednesday, some of Bell’s longtime teammates still had no clue why he had chosen to tweet a “fairwell” to Miami and then return to Pittsburgh this week – only to skip Tuesday’s reporting deadline.
“It was a little bit of trolling, it seemed, by saying farewell and stuff, but it didn’t matter,” Foster said. “Because as you can tell, we’ve been on a little bit of a roll. We’ve played ball. James [Conner] has done his job so far. … I guess [Bell] just had his own thing going on. No communication. No, nobody has [spoken with him].”
Time will tell if that changes. Or if some questions get answered and fences get mended. There’s every chance that this divorce will get worse before it gets better, particularly if the Steelers win another Super Bowl this season without Bell on the roster. Which they could, given how well the franchise is humming along at the moment.
But at least three things are clear this week: the divorce papers have been filed and Bell isn’t coming back into this franchise again; it’s unlikely he’ll ever see a lot of that sneaker swag that was claimed by teammates; and everyone inside this franchise is ready to move on, even if some lingering questions about Bell’s decision haven’t been adequately answered.
“Talk about the 53 [players] in here,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said Wednesday. “The guys that are coming in [every day]. That’s all we can control. It sucks when a guy doesn’t have to answer his own questions. But if they’re not on the team, I’m not worried about it. … I’m not going to cry over spilled milk. We’ve got capable guys. If one guy’s not here, that’s doesn’t stop the goal. The team moves on.”
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