Vonn Bell gets ready for another big game.
After coming down with the most famous interception in Bengals history during that electric overtime of last Sunday’s AFC championship game in Kansas City, Vonn Bell got into Paul Brown Stadium a little late Monday morning.
Call it 6:30 a.m. Still the crack of dawn for the rest of us. But for Bell, whose brutal work ethic has been bequeathed to him by Dr. Kills, that’s sleeping in.
“First one in, though,” Bell says with a Bunsen burner smile that has helped ignite head coach Zac Taylor’s locker room special chemistry. “It’s a win. After a win. Everything is good after a win. I was feeling better.”
Bell has paired the most famous interception in Bengals history with the play that put teeth in the Zac Attack and spawned this next eight days of history that ends in Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI against the Rams.
It was at the end of the worst year of his life last year and the Bengals were grinding into a late December Monday night game at PBS with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow just out of knee surgery, Taylor’s two-year regime at 4-24-1 with seven losses in the last eight games and they were down to their No. 3 quarterback.
Bell, as every Cincy school kid knows, made The Play in the second quarter when he blew up mouthy Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with a blast that was as symbolic as it was significant. It turned into an interception to set them up for a 17-0 lead in a 27-17 win and they’ve been 15-8 since.
“Let me take you back to a couple of other plays,” says Dr. Killls, otherwise known as Vencent Bell, Vonn’s father who told his wife in K.C. he wasn’t surprised it was their son who came up with This Play. “If you go back to Ohio State-Alabama and the Saints and Panthers in a playoff game, Vonn makes big plays. He’s one of those guys that just has a knack for it.”
All Buckeyes fans know in 2014 he paved the way for Ohio State winning the first ever national playoff with his end-zone pick in the fourth quarter that preserved a six-point lead in the semifinal win over Alabama. And, he ended his first NFL playoff game in 2017 with the Saints on a 17-yard fourth-down sack of Cam Newton in a 31-26 win.
“He’s a winner,” says Vencent Bell, executive director of a Montgomery, Ala., YMCA. “He gets up at 4:30 every day. He puts in the work.”
That’s what time Vencent Bell used to start his chores on the farm when he was becoming one of the most heavily recruited players in Mississippi. It’s the only way his father would let him play at West Point High School, just across from the Alabama line. And when he practiced and played games in an All-American linebacker career, he had to find somebody to feed the chickens, hogs and cattle.
“I did more between 4:30 and 7 than most people did all day,” Vencent Bell told Bengals.com the week before the hit on Smith-Schuster. “Then I would go to school.
“A man that’s in the bed can do nothing, but a man out of bed has a chance to get ahead.”
Vonn Bell called his grandfather “Big Dad,” and he lost him in the middle of this playoff run at age 84. On top of that is the loss of Vonn’s brother Volonte in a car accident in Chattanooga, Tenn., where was an assistant basketball coach at Chattanooga State Community College.
It came just a few weeks before Vonn signed with the Bengals in the spring of 2020. A few years older, Volonte was more like Vonn’s safety-point guard twin. So close and so tight that Vonn has been calling him his “guardian angel,” this year and you’ll see how much he means to him if there’s a national anthem closeup Super Bowl Sunday. He’ll spread his arms, look to the sky and say, “Let’s go, Vee.”
“This last year has been a tough year,” Vencent Bell says. “That’s why what’s going on now is double nice. It’s almost like the Super Bowl is a double reward. It makes you shift into a different way to see things and you have a reason to celebrate.”
The last week has been one long celebration of the Bengals camaraderie on both sides of the ball, but particularly on defense. In each of the three postseason games, their last snap has ended in an interception. One preserved a win and two led to the winning points scored at the gun. They have been defined by their work in the red zone, where they have denied touchdowns on eight of 13 trips.
“Going this deep at this level the teams are getting better and better each week. Guys are going to make plays,” Vonn Bell says. “You’ve got to think about that. They get paid, they are going to go out there and make plays for their team. And they are good. They are in the one percent of the world. The collective effort of the defense we always say they cannot score a touchdown, hold them to three. And we could get a block and block the field goal. We always remind people of that. Next play mentality. Things happen, but they don’t have to score, though.”
The emergence of the Bengals began the night Vonn rang the Bell on Pittsburgh. But it has evolved with the free-agent signings of sack ace Trey Hendrickson and the trio of lead cornerbacks Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple, Bell’s Buckeye buddy, as well as the drafting of Cam Sample on the edge and Logan Wilson and Markus Bailey at linebacker. The proverbial nice mix of youth and experience.
All those defenders, including nose tackle D.J. Reader and his massive postseason, showed up with playoff experience. And the more pieces he’s had, the more defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has concocted. Bell calls him “a mad scientist,” and moments after the three-man rush had solved Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and put them in the Super Bowl, he asked Anarumo, “What are you going to cook us up?”
“That’s the (biggest) thing that’s been talked about inside this locker room. It’s not about I. It’s about we,” Bell says. “How we get along so well is because we hold everybody accountable. There are no egos in the locker room. It’s family. That’s the biggest thing. And guys want everybody to eat. Everybody can be successful and we breed off that. When one guy is getting the shine, everybody will get the shine. Especially when you’re winning. There’s a lot of cameras that are going to be out there. They’re coming out to see us, just not one person. They’re coming to see us.”
The way Vencent Bell sees it, when they come and get a look at this defense, they’re going to see how it was built from the back to the front with Vonn and safetymate Jessie Bates III. Vencent calls it the B &Bs.
“When you have guys who are two driven guys, they’re alphas and guys just going out there, just want to make plays for the team and make plays for one another, it’s going to be something special,” Vonn Bell says. “He’s a smart guy, man. He knows football. He knows splits. He knows concepts. He knows what the quarterback is going to give to him. And that’s why you see him making so many plays out there in the middle of the field. He’s very detailed throughout his work. That’s the biggest thing. I’m a very detailed and through person, too. That’s the moment we clicked.”
It was Bates who tipped the ball from Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill and it was Bell who caught it at his ankles just before it touched the ground. But that won’t be the only play he’ll break down. He’ll find things he didn’t do correctly, a relentlessness he says he gets from his parents.
That was on display walking to the bus in Tennessee after he had been all over Nissan Stadium with a sack and six tackles and he called his dad, knowing he was there in the crowd.
“I told him there were things he could work on. Things that need to get done if we want to get to the next level,” Vencent Bell says. “I knew what his numbers were. Sometimes numbers don’t measure how you played. I tell him, I want you playing really well and then have the numbers.
“The league is getting better. He’s going to have to get better next year.”
That’s a tough room. Vencent says even his wife objects, at times, about how tough he can be. But these are easy, natural conversations between father and son. Vencent got the nickname “Dr. Kills,” from his 153 tackles his senior year at West Point, before head coach Frank Beamer whisked him away to Murray State when he promised “Big Dad,” that his son would be the first in the family to get a college degree.
“Vonn is creeping up past me now. Vonn is going to a whole other level,” Vencent says. “I don’t mind telling him he’s better than me. I want him to be. He’s passed me on forced fumbles and interceptions … It will be a little while before he goes past my tackling.”
But his father also knows his son has the mark on the big stages.
“When ever there’s a big game,” says Vencent Bell, getting ready to attend the biggest game of all, “you better find him.”