For whom Bell toils

CHARLOTTE - Byron Bell is floored by what's happened to him over the last two months, yet he's remained grounded because of what happened to him and his family nearly four years ago.

An undrafted rookie out of the University of New Mexico, Bell likely will start at right tackle in place of Jeff Otah, who has a concussion, when the Panthers host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

Bell's mother and his adopted brother, Elijah, already were planning to visit from Texas this weekend, so they'll be on hand for the momentous occasion.

Bell can only wish that Elijah's twin brother could share in the moment. Isaiah Bell died in a fire at the family home on the night of Dec. 21, 2007. He was 8 years old.

"I'm definitely not going to let them down or let him down," Bell said. "Throughout the years, I have kept him in my head to keep me going. I think that's the reason why I'm still living strong. I'm never down anymore. He's pulling me along."

At first, the tragedy pulled Bell down, filling him with thoughts of giving up football or even worse.

The fire, caused by an electrical problem, occurred on the eve of New Mexico's first bowl victory in nearly a half-century. Bell's mother, Sandra, decided to keep the news from him until the after the game.

Bell's initial shock and sadness gave way to even harder feelings.

"I was thinking about being done. I was hurting so bad at that time," he said. "I was just tired of life, because my brother was so young and innocent. Christmas at my house really hasn't been the same since.

"I really didn't want to go back to Albuquerque. I had opportunities to transfer but I didn't because the letter of intent says that I made a commitment to that university."

Once Bell, a freshman on the Lobos' bowl team, decided to see his commitment through, his brother's death began to strengthen him as a person and player.

Bell had dealt with tragedy before. When he was 5, his father died from an undiagnosed heart condition. When he was in middle school, his family grew when his mother, a jailer, took in Isaiah and Elijah after family members of one of her inmates literally left the boys at her door.

His senior year at New Mexico, Byron Bell got permission to wear "I. Bell" on his jersey.

"I didn't give up a single sack my senior year. I feel like my brother is the quarterback, and I am my brother's keeper," Bell said. "I'll never forget Isaiah. He was a real smart kid, started reading at the age of five. He always told me he was going to play football one day. He never got to play."

Bell was honored as the team's outstanding offensive lineman last season, but most NFL teams didn't take notice. Prior to the 2011 NFL Draft, just one team offered the 6-5, 339-pounder so much as a workout.

"(College scout) Khary Darlington told us about the kid, and we were intrigued, so I went out and worked him out," Panthers assistant offensive line coach Ray Brown said. "I was like, 'This kid can play.' He's very athletic, and he's a great big man who is light on his feet. With that combination, along with long arms, he can play in this league."

Even so, Carolina nor anyone else used a draft pick on Bell. When the NFL lockout ended in July, however, the Panthers were in position to lead a long list of suitors.

"Right after free agency opened, Coach Brown called me and told me, 'Come to Carolina. I've got you. Let's work so I can teach you to play this game,' " Bell said. "I kept faith in him. I had thousands of teams calling me, but I said, 'I'm going to Carolina because of Coach Brown. He looked out for me, so I'm going to look out for him.'"

Brown said he has encouraged Bell to take his personal struggles and "Use it as gas, put it in the tank," while being careful to not let it overwhelm him. Bell appears to have channeled it the right way, letting it drive him to work relentlessly on the practice field and in the weight room.

His drive doesn't stop there.

"I don't really need money. I didn't have any before, and now just because I've got some, I'm not going to change who I am," Bell said. "I don't need a house or a car. I don't even have a car now; I walk up here every morning and walk back home. But I'm not stopping until my mom's not working and she can sit in her own house.

"I want to talk to my agent about starting a foundation involving smoke alarms and maybe a Christmas giveaway for young kids who don't have anything. I'd rather just do something for kids and for my younger brother, because these past Christmases have been rough for him. I want to get his spirits back up.

"That's why I'm working hard. I haven't let anything stop me yet, and I won't let anything stop me."

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