Away from Steelers, Le'Veon Bell turns to boxing, hometown

PITTSBURGH -- Le'Veon Bell paints himself a villain, but he's the protagonist in the football story of Groveport Madison High School outside Columbus, Ohio, where hundreds of coaches and athletes gathered on a soaked Friday night in June hoping to take Le'Veon Bell Field.

The $750,000 turf Bell donated to his alma mater last summer can disperse rain in less than 10 minutes with a state-of-the-art trenching system. It can't stop lightning, which bagged the first night of the camp and solved at least one problem: keeping the unsigned running back off his $14.5 million knees.

"[Bell] will try to run out there and do drills with the kids," Groveport head football coach Bryan Schoonover said.

In this slice of central Ohio, Bell's not the subject of a contract dispute, but rather a guy who wants to chop it up with locals, maybe shoot a few hoops and play Fortnite.

"I'm still the same person," Bell told ESPN from his mother's home in a suburb of Columbus. "Things around me have changed and my life has changed, but I'm the same."

Save a few rap bars, Bell has stayed relatively quiet since the Steelers put the franchise tag on him in late April, setting the stage for a second offseason of rocky negotiations.

Bell stayed away from the team during offseason workouts and could miss training camp once again unless both sides reach a long-term agreement before the July 16 franchise deadline.

But Bell has been intentional with his time by finding inspiration from several outlets -- all of which point to a lengthy NFL career.

"I want to see a better me," said Bell, who was not addressing his contract situation. "That's why I've been training for, the way I'm carrying myself on and off the field. I think it will be a good year for me."

Currently, Bell's football training is nonexistent, and that's by design. He'll gradually work back into running and cutting on the field, but for now he's found boxing as an ideal source of cardio without the bodily stress.

Sure, Bell isn't exactly taking punches, but he's been training at Title Boxing Club in Hallandale, Florida, to add strength -- and a noticeably expansive back.

"I try to find ways to be healthier," Bell said. "I want my body to be in great shape so as the season comes closer you'll start seeing that form to take shape. [Boxing] is just to help with my cardio and my stamina. It's a little different than football, and I try to stay off my joints in the offseason as much as possible, still get cardio. Instead of cutting and doing a lot of drills, I've been doing a lot of boxing training."

Watching LeBron James dominate the NBA playoffs only fueled Bell's desire to maximize his prime, then prolong it. Bell turned 26 this offseason and could reach 30 in a black-and-gold uniform if the Steelers sign him to a long-term deal, which is hardly a guarantee because of Bell's large tag number.

As an Ohio native, Bell always has admired James' relentless attitude and vision on the court, which Bell is now translating to the field.

"The fact he's 33, playing his best basketball, it shows you if you take care of your body, your body won't fail you," Bell said. "As long as I take care of my body and stay physically fit and I'm able to run and cut, make sure my joints are intact and I'm not always sore, my mental's only going to get better and I'll grow as a football player, whether I'm 30, 32, whatever it is. I feel I'm one of those guys that doesn't necessarily depend on athletic ability. I use my mind, I set up blocks, I wait for things to open, I time up things, I use a lot of skill catching the ball. I think that stuff is my mind. It's not me outrunning somebody. That may happen or I may run somebody over but that's not what I depend on. I depend on my mind. All the other stuff comes after that."

James doesn't take the same pounding as Bell, who led the NFL last season in rushes (321) and receptions by a running back (85). But Bell isn't at all worried about his game wearing down.

He's always been too confident for that.

"I don't really compare myself to a lot of other running backs -- that's no offense to any other running back, but just the fact that I can see and avoid hits," Bell said. "It's not like when I get the ball 30 times or 35 times and I'm really taking 30 car crashes. Either I'm delivering the blow or I'm getting to the ground. I'm sore after games, but it's not like I'm aching. I don't have to miss practices. I can go full speed and be good."

Bell isn't completely staying away from the football field. Running a football camp on the turf he donated is Bell's way of thanking the place that helped shape him.

Bell thought of his mom, Lisa, when he made the financial commitment last summer. Consider this him fulfilling a lesson.

"She always taught me to be humble, not feel you're too big for somebody, and obviously don't feel like you're too small," Bell said. "Growing up, I've always kept that in my head. I like to keep the balance. If I ever see someone from high school I haven't seen since then, the relationship may not be exactly the same today but I treat it as such. I don't want them to feel I've gotten too big."

Except when it comes to the Steelers, who need him to be at his biggest on the field in 2018.

Whenever he gets there.