DETROIT — Joique Bell's winding path to the NFL began at Wayne State, where he starred on a small stage in the shadow of Detroit's skyline.
Bell won the Harlon Hill Trophy as the NCAA Division II Player of the Year in 2009 after rushing for 2,084 yards and 29 touchdowns.
No one, though, in the league was impressed enough to draft him.
"Coming out undrafted from a small school, a lot of people counted me out," Bell recalled.
Four years later, he has established himself as player valued enough to get a $9.3 million, three-year contract from the Detroit Lions.
Bell was back on his college field Wednesday night with his NFL teammates for a public practice.
"It definitely started here," he said. "I'm definitely home. ... This is a day I'll never forget."
The beginning of Bell's career in the league was forgettable, bouncing around with Buffalo, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and New Orleans over his first two years. He was signed by the Eagles off the Bills' practice squad in 2010, where he understandably struggled to make a roster that included running backs Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Lions running backs coach Curtis Modkins, who was an assistant in Buffalo when Bell was trying to break in the league, said that Lynch, Jackson and Spiller were part of the NFL's most talented back field the last 10 years.
When Modkins was in personnel meetings, however, he praised Bell for his intangibles.
"I would say, 'There's this kid from Wayne State, he has something. I don't know what it is,'" Modkins recalled saying back then. "I had a coach that used to tell me, 'It's not about where you're from, it's where you're going and what you do when you get there.'"
The 5-foot-11, 229-pound Bell, who is from Benton Harbor, Michigan, played in every game the previous two seasons for the Lions. He combined for nearly 900 yards of offense in 2012 and almost 1,200 yards on the ground and through the air last year
Lions coach Jim Caldwell was with the Colts when Bell played five games for the franchise in 2010, and has witnessed him add new dimensions to his frame and game.
"Joique can dish it out a little bit, too," Caldwell said. "He's big and strong. He's a bit bigger than he was when we had him in terms of weight and power and size. He's really matured."
Bell can break tackles between the tackles, complimenting Reggie Bush's speed. Bell also was reliable enough to catch 52 and 53 passes the past two years, proving an overlooked player from a small college can make it big.
"I think he's a great inspiration," Caldwell said.
The Lions drew 8,935 people to watch them practice under the lights after a rain storm rolled through the area.
Bell was pretty popular presence at Wayne State — drawing cheers before practice and signing autographs after it — and walked away from the field holding hands with perhaps his biggest fan, Althea Gaddy.
"It means everything to me to see what my son has done from where he comes from," Gaddy said. "When he's happy, I'm happy."
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