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Le'Veon Bell: "I Want to Change the Game"

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 8 World Football Issue. Subscribe today!

LE'VEON BELL'S 1,361 rushing yards were second most in the NFL last year, but the season did not end as planned: After hyperextending his knee in the Steelers' regular-season finale, Bell missed the playoffs. Then in April, he was hit with a three-game suspension stemming from an August arrest for driving under the influence of and possessing marijuana. Set to begin his third season, the Pittsburgh star back says he's ready to play -- as soon as the league will let him.

The Mag: What was your mindset when you got behind the wheel that day?
BELL:
Well, I wasn't thinking much at all. Obviously, I made a mistake. I apologized to my teammates, my coaches, the Steelers organization, the fans. That's not me. I'm not a guy who gets in trouble, especially with the law. It's something that I took the heat for, the punishment. Now I'm just ready to put it all behind me. I'm a better man for it, and I'm going to be a better football player for it.

You're currently appealing your suspension. What's your view of its length?
I don't really want to fight the length. At the end of the day, I made a mistake. I'm just going to have to do my time, whatever the final decision may be.

If you feel that way, then why are you appealing?
I want to play as many games as possible and be out there with my teammates as soon as possible. Me and Ben [Roethlisberger] have a connection. We're both on the same page all the time. When somebody else is in there, like in the playoff game I missed, you can tell it's a little off. If [as part of a plea deal] they look into all of the community service that I did, the classes I had to take and eventually getting the charges off my record, I feel like it should be something that they consider.

If the suspension stands, how do you feel about missing that season opener against the Patriots?
It's going to be terrible. It's going to suck having to watch the first three games, to watch my team go out there and battle without me. But I feel like when I'm able to get back, we'll just be stronger. We'll be a stronger team because they're used to playing without me.

How should the league view marijuana suspensions, or marijuana use period?

That's not for me to say. I'm just a player; I've got to abide by the rules. I feel like, in about 10 years, it's going to be kind of legal everywhere. But if you're playing in the NFL and they say you can't do it, just like steroids or any PED, you're not going to be able to do it.

What do you feel you've learned having gone through this whole ordeal?
One, weed is not important. It's something that I can easily say bye to. If I want to do it later on in my life, then I'll enjoy it later on. I love the game of football. I don't want anything, whatever it is -- performance-enhancing drugs, marijuana, alcohol, women -- that could get me in trouble and make me miss football. I've been playing for 19 years. I started at 4½. It's not something I want to give up any time soon.

So what do you think about players who talk about the pain- or stress-relief benefits of marijuana?
The benefits? I don't think it's a benefit. If you do it, it's because you enjoy it.

Let's go back to the regular-season finale against the Bengals and the hit you took from Reggie Nelson. What do you think about that moment now, in hindsight?
The injury wasn't as bad as it might have looked. But it was pretty scary, don't get me wrong. I was laying on the ground just thinking, "I hope it's not something serious where I can't play anymore or I'm out for a long time." A lot of people think he did it on purpose. I don't really feel he did it on purpose, I just feel like I'm a bigger guy and I kind of got the best of him earlier in the game, so he went low on me. But I'm glad everything worked out and my knee is close to 100 percent again. I wouldn't say it's there yet -- when I'm getting warmed up, that's when I feel it the most. But once I get warmed up, I don't feel anything.

Maybe try some ballet?
I know! My mom tried to get me on ballet. "Walter Payton did it! Walter Payton did it!" I'm just not messing with ballet. But I started with yoga, so that's something.

Will there be any impact to your mindset when you're attacking the open field against live defenses?
Hopefully I won't be thinking about it. The suspension is kind of a good thing -- I can sit and heal and make sure I'm at 100 percent. I kind of look at it as a blessing in disguise. And I don't think that it will affect me in the open field as much. Linebackers don't really go for your legs -- they go up top because they think they're all big and bad and tough. The only way that it can possibly affect me is if I'm catching a ball and I'm not looking, because that's how it happened. DBs kind of want to chop you down. It will be kind of nerve-wracking trying to get over that.

Deflategate has been in the news, obviously. Do you think deflating footballs constitutes cheating?
Yes. I think if you deflate a football, then you're definitely cheating. Just like anybody who takes steroids or performance-enhancing drugs. I'm sure Andrew Luck would like to have thrown with a deflated ball. I'd say the suspension is fair.

So there's Tom Brady's legacy and then there's Tom Brady's image. Do you think Deflategate has affected his image?
It definitely has. But his legacy, I don't think that's going to change. He's still one of the greatest quarterbacks of our era.

You had 290 carries last year, the third most in the NFL. How do you balance performing now with concerns about all the tread you'll have put on your legs when you approach free agency?
A lot of people talk about tread and tires -- I don't really look at it as that. When you get carries, people will say you're taking a pounding. But at the same time, you've got to pass-block. When I carry the ball, I don't just take a direct hit. I get out of bounds when 
I can, get to the ground, try to avoid taking a pounding on my shoulders and legs. If I do that, I think I'll be fine.

Do you think the running back position has been devalued in the NFL?
Two years ago, my draft class didn't have anybody in the first round. A lot of teams were trying to use two or three backs, one just to run or catch or block -- three backs for one job. Now you're starting to see backs that can do all three and play every down. And value is starting to go up. We got two first-rounders this year, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. Giovani Bernard and Eddie Lacy -- we always joke about how they owe us money because we didn't go first round. We always carry that chip on our shoulder.

What's your ultimate individual goal as a running back?
I want to be remembered. I want to change the game. People look at my running style and say, "You run different." I love to hear that. You know, "He was such a patient runner, he changed the game." That's what Barry Sanders did. I want to be mentioned with those types of guys.

How far will the Steelers go next season?
The goal is the Super Bowl. We obviously know we have the team to do it. Hopefully everybody will stay healthy, no off-field incidents, and I think we'll be on our way to the Super Bowl.