CINCINNATI – On this electric night, if Marvel had been looking for a new rendition of one of its old superheroes, it had one.
Vonn Bell was the White Tiger.
In front of a crowd of 67,260 – a record for an NFL game in Cincinnati – and on a night when everything from the home team and its fans to the midfield B logo and end zones were decked out in white and trimmed with black stripes, Bell had two interceptions to seal the Bengals 27-15 victory over the previously unbeaten Miami Dolphins at Paycor Stadium.
Long after he game, the veteran strong safety stood at his dressing stall in the home locker room, still dressed in the new white uniform the Bengals had unveiled for primetime Thursday Night Football.
“I like these new uniforms,” Bell said. “I got two interceptions in them. I might sleep in mine tonight.”
And why not? These new threads had gone from a marketing gimmick to superhero garb thanks in a big way to him.
No Bengal – not even quarterback Joe Burrow – is more responsible for helping this team reverse its disconcerting 0-2 start on the season to become 2-2 and once again, thanks especially to the defense, feel like a team on the rise.
The defense has not given up a second-half touchdown in the team’s four games this season and has given up just one TD in the last 11 quarters. It has six takeaways in the last two games: four against the New York Jets on Sept. 25 and Bell’s two on Thursday.
While the interceptions – a pick of a Tua Tagovailoa deep ball to speedster Tyreek Hill at the end of the first quarter and then stealing Teddy Bridgewater’s late-game throw deep in Cincinnati territory with the Bengals clinging to a five-point lead – were key, they are not the only reason Bell was being warmly saluted by several of his teammates in the postgame dressing room.
When the Bengals – after making it to the Super Bowl last season – stumbled out of the gate this year and began drawing questions and some criticism, it was Bell, especially, who kept his hand on the rudder in the dressing room and on the practice field.
He’s a guy with a strong work ethic he learned from his dad, Vencent, who became a high school All American linebacker in West Point, Miss., while also tending daily to the hogs, chicken and cattle on his family’s hardscrabble farm.
Bell brought his dad’s lessons into the Bengals locker room and especially the weight room.
He’s there at 6 a.m. or earlier, four to five days a week – in season and out, even on off days – and he encourages others to join in. He has a Breakfast Club for the defensive secondary that meets each off day morning just to bond and talk about the week ahead
Geoff Hobson, the accomplished senior writer of Bengals.com, followed Bell early one morning and wrote a revealing account of just what the 27-year-old defender out of Ohio State means to his teammates.
Bell has picked up several nicknames from the team, including 5-Star General and Pied Piper.
Rookie safety Tycen Anderson referred to him as “Sensei.”
Cornerback Eli Apple told Hobson that Bell “brings the Kobe Bryant mentality. He gives us the Mamba mentality.”
Sack master Trey Hendrickson reiterated again Thursday night what he told Hobson. He said he joined the team before last season as a free agent signee from New Orleans because of Bell.
He and Bell, who sent his first four NFL seasons there, had been teammates.
“I knew the kind of captain he was in New Orleans and that told me the kind of guys they wanted here,” the defensive end said.
When the season got off to a rocky start, defenders took their cue from Bell.
“We never batted an eye,” he said Thursday night. “We stayed in our routines. We kept playing cards in here. We played ping pong. We just kept connected.
“We have full belief in the guys in this room. We believe in our talent and skill set. You’re here for a reason. Less than 1 percent of the world plays at this level, so you’ve got to have confidence in yourself that you’ll make big plays.”
Bell’s first interception came against Tagovailoa on the last play of the first quarter.
Two Miami possessions later – with 5:50 left before the half – the Miami quarterback was flung down on a sack by Bengal Josh Tupou and ended up lying motionless on his back near midfield.
The Miami team gathered near him as medical staffers worked on him and the muted crowd watched, as did Bengals players, some on their knees.
A week earlier Tagovailoa had violently hit his helmet on the turf in a game against Buffalo. He was thought to have a concussion, but the Dolphins said he passed protocol tests.
Thursday night a back brace was put under him before he was taken off the field on a stretcher and rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center with head and neck injuries. He eventually was released so he could make the charter flight home with the team.
“That was a scary sight to see,” Bell said. “My prayers went out to him and his family.
“Each team is trying to win, but you never want to see that. We’re people first and you’ve got to realize how precious our health and our lives are.”
He knows that first hand. His older brother Volonte – Bell called him his “guardian angel” – was an assistant basketball coach at Chattanooga State Community College when he was killed in an auto accident in February, just before Vonn joined the Bengals.
“That made me more appreciative of family, of life, of everything,” he said.
Players appreciate Bell for that side of him as much as they do his skills on the field.
Thursday night was his 94th NFL game – his 78th start – and that followed an All-American career at Ohio State.
Someone noted in his entire pro career – prior to Thursday – he’d had just two interceptions.
“If you go back to Ohio State you’ll see a lot of interceptions,” he said. “I’m getting back to my roots.”
In 2014, he led the Big Ten with six interceptions. And he had a game-preserving pick in the end zone of an Alabama pass in the national semifinal that helped propel the Bucks to the 2014 college football crown.
In last year’s AFC Championship victory over Kansas City, he had the most famous interception in Bengals history when he picked off a Patrick Mahomes pass intended for Hill in overtime.
Hill is now with the Dolphins and Bell’s first interception Thursday was against him, as well.
Before Bell saved the day, Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie found himself alone on the Dolphins’ speedster as they barreled down field both anticipating the Tagovailoa’s long ball..
“I had the fastest man in the game and I was like ‘OK, I feel kind of naked here with no help,” Awuzie said. “And then I saw Vonn just flash across my eyes and make a great play.
“It was a big momentum shift in the game.”
The Bengals then turned the pick into a final scoring drive and put the game away.
Some 45 minutes afterward, many of the players already had left the dressing room. The few who were remained were in street clothes or were finishing getting dressed.
Only one still remained in his white uniform.
Vonn Bell sat on a stool at his locker. He was looking at his phone and smiling.
He looked content.
The White Tiger looked as if he just might sleep in that uniform after this electric night.