It appears that 2003 may very well go down as the ?Year of the Running Back? in North Carolina. Several of the state's prospects have already etched their mark on the national recruiting landscape ? and one of the most promising from that bunch is George Bell of Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, N.C.
Checking in at 5-11, 225 pounds, and boasting 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Bell possesses a combination of size and speed that is rarely found on the prep level, and schools from North Carolina to California have taken notice.
On film, Bell?s style is eerily reminiscent of current Pack sophomore tailback T.A. McLendon. Bell's stride appears effortless, although much-smaller defensive backs are unable to catch him from behind. He is very effective at reading the holes and making good use of his blockers. His calling card, however, is his toughness and ability to break tackles. More than a few defenders have attempted to arm-tackle Bell, only to come up clutching at air and nursing bruises.
Those attributes led Britt coach Richard Bailey to name Bell ? who was a fourteen year-old freshman at the time -- the team?s starting tailback in 2000. That kind of decision is almost unheard of in a conference as competitive as the Mid-Southeastern, and incredibly rare in Class 4-A, the largest and toughest classification in North Carolina. However, Bell was extremely developed for his age, already boasting a 315-pound bench press. So Bell made Bailey's decision appear to be a smart one after he finished his inaugural season with 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns on 238 carries, earning all-conference honors.
Ironically, while Bell's freshman season was a coming-out party of sorts, it also signaled the beginning of a tumultuous and trying stretch that he still finds himself trying to overcome.
The first obstacle to face Bell was a broken wrist that occurred early in his sophomore season. There were those who felt he would miss the rest of the year -- but Bell had other plans.
"I broke my wrist [as a sophomore] and was supposed to be out for the whole season,? he told The Wolfpacker. ?The doctor?s wanted me to stay out for safety reasons, but I was feeling good, so I went to see a doctor in Chapel Hill. [He] said I was good to go, so ? I ended up playing in eight games."
In those eight games, Bell tallied 864 yards on 162 carries, averaging more than five yards every time he touched the ball. He also scored 10 touchdowns and, once again, came away with all-conference accolades, despite playing an abbreviated schedule.
After finishing his sophomore year and completely recovering from his arm injury, Bell attended NC State's football camp in June 2002. Those in attendance reported that Bell was one of the most impressive prospects on hand, displaying the same rushing talents that many were used to seeing on Friday nights. However, he also displayed tremendous hands out of the backfield, a staple for any running back in the NC State offensive scheme. The Pack coaches were impressed enough that they offered up a scholarship in September of that year.
With the scholarship offer under his belt, Bell saw his junior campaign as an opportunity to prove to coaches across the country that he was one of the nation's elite RBs. The season began just that way, with Bell steamrolling his way to nearly 500 yards in his first three games. His fourth game of the season was momentous for Jack Britt.
The Buccaneers had never scored a touchdown against rival South View in the history of the school; in two years, they had been defeated by a combined 73-0. The table seemed set for another defeat, especially since South View entered the contest having not allowed a single TD all year. Bell would have none of that, however; he ripped off the first of four Buccaneer touchdowns on a seven-yard scoring jaunt early in the first quarter. By the second play of the third quarter, Bell had racked up 127 yards against the vaunted Tigers defense.
However, the third play of the second half would send Bell's career into chaos and raise serious questions about his future in football. He was finishing off a run with several defenders hanging on when a player crashed into his left knee from the side. The pain was immense, but Bell never imagined it to be anything serious.
"I thought it was a dislocated knee at first," said Bell. "I thought they'd be able to just pop it back in place and I'd be OK.
"When they took me in the training room, they wouldn't tell me what happened; they didn't tell me ?til the next day. If they had told me in there, I probably would've broke down."
What Bell found out was that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and detached his lateral collateral ligament (LCL). Of the two, the LCL was the most damaging, so Bell began an exhaustive and grueling rehabilitation process.
Six weeks after the injury, Bell began what was to become a daily ritual of stretching and exercising. Eight months later, he has made a tremendous recovery, and finds himself well on his way to reaching his goal of playing as a senior.
"Right now, I'm able to do karaoke exercises where you turn your hips and cross your legs,? he said. ?I've been running backwards, doing sprints and figure-eight drills. I haven't been cutting, but I've been, like, curving around things. I feel like I'm 75- to 80-percent healed.
"In my mind, I think I'll be back by the first game. That's what I see. The doctors want to go by a timetable, so they're saying September. I guess I'll have to wait for that."