By DAVID CLAYBOURN
Most National Football League starters mention their name and what college they attended when they’re shown in a video clip introducing themselves before a game on national television.
Byron Bell mentioned his hometown of Greenville, Texas, when the starting right tackle for the Carolina Panthers introduced himself before a recent Sunday night game on NBC against the New Orleans Saints.
Bell should get noticed again by his many fans from Greenville when the 12-4 Panthers entertain the 13-4 San Francisco 49ers at 12:05 p.m. today in a divisional playoff game that will be televised live on Fox. The 6-5, 340-pound Bell, who wears jersey No. 77, is listed as a starter for the game, which is nothing new. He started 14 of the Panthers’ 16 games in the regular season.
The former Greenville Lion has been a mainstay on the Panthers’ offensive line since joining the team in 2011 as an undrafted free agent from the University of New Mexico. He started 12 games at right tackle during his rookie year. He started his first game on Oct. 16, 2011 against Atlanta in place of an injured Jeff Otah and became a full-time starter by week seven when Otah was placed on injured reserve.
Bell started 15 games last season, with 14 at right tackle and one at right guard when the Panthers had to shuffle around their offensive line due to an injury.
Bell’s blocking has helped Carolina quarterback Cam Newton throw for 3,379 yards and 24 touchdowns this season, plus rush for another 585 yards and six touchdowns.
The Panthers, who started the season 1-3, finished the regular season on a hot streak with victories in 11 of their last 12 games. They clinched the home-field advantage for the divisional playoff with a 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the regular season finale. Included in that string of victories is a 10-9 win over the Niners on Nov. 10 at San Francisco.
Bell, who earned all-state honors for the Greenville Lions in 2006, received a lot of media attention in the Charlotte area when a story by Scott Fowler appeared on Charlotteobserver.com detailing how Bell gave away his size-17 playing shoes to Panther fan John Hurley, who had heckled Bell before the Panthers’ 38-0 victory over the New York Giants. Bell had given up several quarterback sacks the previous game to Buffalo defensive end Mario Williams during the Panthers’ 24-23 loss.
“Hey Byron, ‘Mario Williams said thanks for last week,’” Hurley had yelled from the stands at Bell, according to Fowler’s report.
“He was jawing at me,” Bell told Fowler. “So I kind of looked up at him. Look, people can say whatever they want to say. I had had a bad game. But nobody’s perfect.”
Every time Carolina scored during the game Bell would look in Hurley’s direction and then ran up to him smiling after the game, took off his shoes, signed them “Rest In Peace Isaiah” and gave them to the fan. Bell’s brother died in a Greenville house fire in 2007 and Bell has turned the family loss into a source of motivation during his football career.
Obviously, Bell will be watched today by Panther fans like Hurley, plus fans from New Mexico, Greenville and around the country.