Bell chimes in for Grandma
No-nonsense upbringing set Wallkill grad on path to Giants
By Justin Rodriguez
Grandma said no staying at friends' houses. Grandma said no wearing pants below his waist like the other kids. Grandma said be respectful to authority ? always!
Alex Bell did not defy Grandma. Grandma rescued Bell from Harlem's mean streets, gave him a good, safe life in the country. Grandma made sure Bell grew up right, grew up strong, grew up a good man.
Bell, a 2001 Wallkill grad, is now a 325-pound offensive lineman with an NFL dream. He hopes to make the Giants out of training camp next month.
Grandma ? Willie Johnson ? is now 81 years old. She's a slight woman but still possesses the fierce eyes and the "Don't-talk-back-to-me" demeanor.
And if Alex Bell can defy the odds and make the NFL, work for the Giants and their tough head coach Tom Coughlin, he can start to thank a lot of people.
But first and foremost, he can thank Willie Johnson.
Who would accept nothing less than the best from her giant boy.
"Now that I'm older, I understand what she was doing," Bell, 22, says. "I love her a ton, more than words can say."
COUGHLIN IS TOUGH and disciplined. He hates everyone ? at least it seems that way. When people want to say something nice about him, they call him a drill sergeant. All-Pro free agents avoid signing with and playing for Coughlin. Rookies fear him because he is intimidating ? all tough talk and the scowl.
Here comes Bell, who didn't play at a college football factory. He played at Division III Hobart and signed as a non-guaranteed free agent with the Giants last month. Players with that pedigree are eaten up by Coughlin and NFL veterans reluctant to yield their roster spots.
But Bell has these words running through his head always:
"Take pride in what you do. Work hard. You are representing the family."
Those are the words Willie Johnson gave him. Grandma taught Bell not to fail. Surely, Tom Coughlin can respect that.
Bell's grandmother prepared him for this with lectures at her dining-room table and in church.
She is polite, humble and friendly, offering a reporter a cold drink on his way in. Johnson bypasses a handshake, making him hug her on his way out. But Johnson is stern. That comes from raising 14 children of her own (four are deceased). She looks you in the eye when she talks.
"Whatever rules I had, I stuck with them," says Johnson, wearing glasses, a green and white dress and yellow slippers in her living room. "That's right. If I needed to punish him, I did."
BELL WAS SKEPTICAL when his mother, Annie, suggested he move up to his grandmother's house in Plattekill.
The country wasn't for him. But the streets weren't leading him anywhere. Bell knew that.
It really hit him one morning in 1997 when he was 14 years old.
Bell had spent the entire night before with friends in Central Park. He didn't come home until 5 a.m. and passed his mother on her way out the door to work. She just shook her head in disappointment.
Shortly after, Bell packed his bags for the sticks.
Life on Freetown Road was quiet, too quiet. There was nothing to do, Bell had no friends. Even worse, there were rules.
He couldn't go out whenever he wanted. Grandma had to know where he was going and when he would be back. When Bell made friends, he wasn't allowed to stay overnight to watch movies and play video games.
"Not sleeping at the house was unheard of," Bell says now. "I couldn't watch TV whenever I wanted. I thought she was mean."
The family's ties to Ulster County go back to 1975. That's when Johnson and her husband, James, moved the family to Plattekill from the Steven Foster Projects in Harlem.
One of their sons, Jeff, was on Jeff Hartman's Wallkill basketball team. Hartman would serve as a mentor and second father to Johnson and later Bell and his older brother, Eric.
Eric Bell moved to Grandma's from Harlem in 1989. He went on to star in basketball at Wallkill High, SUNY New Paltz and has played professionally in Denmark for seven years.
The bond between Hartman and the family began in the fall of '76 when James Johnson summoned Hartman to his home. He was too weak to make it to the school because his kidneys were failing as a result of complications from diabetes. With his wife looking on, Johnson told Hartman he wanted him to mold his son into more than a basketball player. He wanted young Jeff to get an education and be a good person.
"He told me to do whatever I needed to do," says Hartman, now Wallkill's athletic director, sitting in the same spot on the same white vinyl-covered couch where he listened to James Johnson 30 years ago.
In three years, Jeff Johnson helped transform Wallkill into a power. Wallkill won the Ulster County Athletic League title in '79 and Johnson was named the Sunday Record Player of the Year that season. He went on to play at SUNY Plattsburgh and now works for FedEx in Richmond, Va.
The Rev. James Johnson died in 1981 at age 57.
ALEX BELL ARRIVED AT Hobart overweight and more interested in basketball than football.
Hobart football coach Michael Cragg saw potential in him. So he pushed Bell, just like Grandma did. That's when some of her words began sinking in: "Take pride in what you do. Work hard. You are representing the family."
Bell began lifting weights and running. Soon enough the pudgy kid's body developed into a chiseled mass. Bell started four seasons and he didn't give up a sack his final two. Any time Hobart needed a big yard, Cragg ran a play behind Bell.
"I truly believe Alex's (grandmother) is what shaped him," says Cragg, Hobart's coach for the last 10 years. "Alex was a big fish in a little pond here, but that wasn't good enough for him. He was always the first in sprints, he never let up."
Bell is gentle off the field, outgoing, blessed with a sense of humor. It's been a month since Bell graduated, but Cragg misses him. People around campus ? from strangers, to professors, to Cragg's 10-year-old son ? tell Cragg all the time "wouldn't it be nice if Alex Bell makes it."
Bell first began talking about the NFL with Cragg as a sophomore. Cragg was surprised. Only 13 former Division III players ended last season on NFL rosters.
All Alex Bell wants is a chance.
"If the Giants give him a real look, Alex will make the team," Cragg says. "If he's just there as a token guy he could have a problem. I just hope they give him a chance."
That's all Alex Bell wants ? a chance.
"I'm proud of Alex no matter what he does," Johnson says. "No matter what happens. I just tried to take care of him at home."