December 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

For Lions' Joique Bell, long journey back to Detroit was worth it

Allen Park — It’s easy to get lost in the fine print.

Lions running back Joique Bell understands that as well as anyone in the NFL, where the daily transaction reports manage to turn life-altering — and often career-ending — decisions into a tidy list of agate type.

Some players avoid it for most of their careers. But for those who don’t — on the first day of this NFL work week, there were 35 roster moves listed — living life in those black-and-white margins provides a far different perspective.

“Humbling?” said Bell, the Michigan native and former Wayne State star who finally has found a home back here in Detroit after enduring a dozen transactions in his first two seasons in the NFL. “Yeah, it’s humbling. But it’s humbling just to even get in the NFL — that’s humbling.”

And then Bell proceeds to explain just how so, starting somewhere in the middle of it all — after he’d been forced to take the long road at Division II Wayne State, but long before he’d find a home with the Lions as part of what is now arguably the league’s best backfield tandem.

Winding road

He starts at the 2010 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where Bell played for the North team coached by the Lions’ staff, where he met with scouts and coaches from several teams, where he was weighed and measured — 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds — and where he even frowned his way through some of those bizarre psychological tests along with the rest of the top senior draft prospects.

But then a few weeks later he showed up in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine “and they’d lost all my paperwork, so I had to do it all again — everything,” Bell said, shaking his head at the memory. “I was so mad.”

And disheartened, too, that only one team — the New England Patriots — asked him for a 15-minute interview in Indianapolis.

“At that point,” he adds, jokingly, “I’m thinking, ‘Man, is it worth it?’ ”

It’s a question he’d ask himself more than once his first two years in the NFL, and not always with a sense of humor.

Consider his introduction to the league. After going undrafted, Bell, the Division II player of the year, fielded calls from several teams wanting to sign him as a rookie free agent. The Patriots were among them, with Bill Belichick phoning an offer.

“I said ‘That sounds great, I’ll talk to my agent — give me five minutes,’ ” Bell recalls. “He told me ‘Hurry up.’ I called him back in 2-3 minutes — he wasn’t answering the phone.”

By the time he finally got through, the Patriots already had signed another running back (North Dakota State’s Pat Paschall) and Bell, who was admittedly “hot” about it, went off to Buffalo instead to start his NFL career.

Over the next 20 months, he’d encounter several more twists and turns like that. The Philadelphia Eagles gave him his first big break, signing him off the Bills’ practice squad two weeks into his rookie season. (And two days after he’d nearly boarded a flight for Boston to sign with the Patriots, who then went and signed Danny Woodhead.)

Two months later, though, Bell was waived by the Eagles and claimed by Indianapolis. A month after that, he was released by the Colts and found himself back in Philadelphia on the Eagles’ practice squad. Two weeks later — dizzy yet? — the New Orleans Saints signed him to their active roster. Which was only fitting, because the first time he’d gone to Philadelphia, he’d gotten a call from the Saints, too.

“They asked, ‘Where are you at?’ ” Bell said. “And I said ‘I’m in Philly about to sign my contract.’ And they were, like, ‘Oh, never mind.’ ”

Mind you, this is how it is for so many players in the NFL, where injuries, roster limits and the salary cap all conspire to make life uncomfortable, at best.

That last pit stop on the journey home to Detroit lasted a bit longer than the others. Bell spent nearly an entire calendar year in New Orleans, including the first two weeks of 2011 on the active roster before getting released — to make room for defensive end Will Smith coming off a suspension — and re-signed to the Saints’ practice squad.

Late that December, Detroit finally came calling, and last fall he emerged as a valuable role player in his first real NFL opportunity, albeit with a 4-12 team. Now, though, he’s the “Thunder” to Reggie Bush’s “Lightning” in the Lions’ backfield, coming off its season-best performance on Thanksgiving against Green Bay.

The two combined for 211 rushing yards against the Packers, and for the season, they’ve racked up more than 2,100 yards from scrimmage — the Lions rank No. 1 in yardage from the running back position — and 11 touchdowns.

“It’s a nice balance,” said Bush, who was a teammate of Bell’s with the Saints in 2011. “Joique’s a great player. And what he brings to this offense is something that is very special. … It’s a definitely a good combination, and I think this last game you really saw what we are capable of.”

Jack of all trades

Curtis Modkins, the Lions’ running backs coach, says he saw it a few years ago. Modkins was in Buffalo when the Bills signed Bell initially, and told me this week, “I knew down the road he was gonna be a good player.” He just needed to find the right opportunity, and a little seasoning.

“When you go through those couple years of bouncing around it probably matures you as a man and as a professional in this business,” Modkins said. “But we always thought he had a lot of ability as a runner.”

And a blocker, and a receiver — “He’s kind of a jack of all trades,” quarterback Matthew Stafford says — and a thinker. Modkins talks about Bell’s vision and his balance, sure, but it’s his understanding of Scott Linehan’s offense that makes him an ideal fit.

As Stafford says, “He’s got great feel for the game of football — something that can’t really be taught.”

Which isn’t to say he hasn’t learned plenty in his short, itinerant pro career.

“You learn the business side of it really quick,” he said. “But when I was a rookie, I didn’t mind it. I was traveling the world, seeing new teams, I was playing with great players.”

And as he starts rattling off the names — Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Reggie Wayne and so on — you start to understand what he’s talking about. Likewise, he’s starting to understand what they were talking about.

There was that time with the Eagles in 2010 — it might’ve been before a Sunday night game against the 49ers — when he found LeSean McCoy in a funk, probably because he was playing despite a cracked rib.

“I was like, ‘Shady, what’s wrong?’ ” Bell said. “He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re a good back. You’ll find out one day.’ … I didn’t know how to take that, but I’m kind of picking up on it now.”

Bell’s playing through some injuries of his own this fall (knee, Achilles), and some days feel better than others as the workload has increased. But, he says, “You just gotta play through it.” That’s the opportunity cost of playing in the NFL, as every vet will tell you, and if anyone understands how to take an opportunity and run with it, it’s Bell.

“I was blessed,” he said. “I was blessed, really. I was cut, but I was never in the streets. That’s one thing I can say. … It was a long road for me, but I wouldn’t change my story — I wouldn’t change my path— for anything. It taught me a lot.”

Lions running back Joique Bell bounced between four organizations before the former Wayne State star landed in Detroit in 2011. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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