He could always catch the ball no matter what uniform he was wearing.
Elijah Bell was a Little Patriot, and then a Raider, and finally a Patriot destined to play a key role in recording the high school’s first-ever state football championship. But the wide receiver didn’t know whether or not that would be the case following his sophomore season, one during which his best friend and teammate Savion Johnson shattered one Wheeling Park record after another while racking up 20 touchdowns and 1,484 yards on 213 rushes.
Meanwhile, Bell recorded six catches for 169 stripes and a pair of scores during that 11-2 season.
“After that season Savion had his choice. So many schools were reaching out to him I thought he’d be able to go wherever he wanted,” said Bell, who is still a teammate of Johnson’s at North Carolina A&T. “There really wasn’t a reason not to keep handing off to him play after play because he almost got a first down every time he ran the ball.
“So, I didn’t know,” he continued. “All I knew is that I loved football, and that I had played with Savion since we were little. One of the best parts about playing for the Little Patriots is that there was a group of us that stayed together all the way to Park, and I’ll tell you that Savion rolled over people back then, and he’ll do it again like he did during his sophomore and senior seasons at Park.”
Ah yes, that junior year, one contested without Johnson in the Patriots’ backfield because the celebrated tailback suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in practice with less than three weeks remaining before the team’s first game. Johnson did not factor in Wheeling Park’s 9-3record that year, but Bell did.
With Killian Coyne as quarterback this 6-3, 220-pound receiver hauled in 26 catches for 404 yards and two touchdowns and finally felt like an offensive asset.
And then arrived their senior seasons. Johnson worked extremely hard with his recovery, and when he didn’t feel like doing so, his father, legendary Wheeling Park running back Boogie Johnson. who went to Oklahoma State, was able to motivate him to do so.
Johnson collected 1,884 yards on 276 carries and scored 26 touchdowns, and Bell caught 49 passes for 1,319 stripes and 17 TDs.
“Savion’s injury actually gave me a chance to show that I could play the game my junior year,” Bell said. “Then we came together our last year and helped the team win our first state championship. It was perfect, really, and now we are still playing together at the same school like we always wanted to, so it ended up working out for both of us. We couldn’t be any more blessed than we are right now.
“And Savion is doing well here. He was red-shirted the first season, and he wasn’t participating very much in the beginning, but then he got healthy and became much more involved,” he continued. “He’s going to be ready to compete for playing time this spring, and I think he’s going to have an impact next season; I really do.”
But it was Bell who proved to be a difference-maker for the Aggies during the team’s 9-3 season in 2016. In 12 games Bell gathered in 35 catches for 631 yards, and average of nearly 53 yards per game, and he scored eight touchdowns. The freshman recorded his longest TD reception of the season during the third quarter of a 42-21 defeat at the hands of North Carolina Central University.
“I didn’t know what to expect when we first came here last summer at the end of June. I just knew I had to come here to work as hard as I could,” Bell said. “I knew they had receivers coming back, so all I could do was go to practice and show the coaching staff what I was capable of. And it worked out for me.
“The coaches have told me that they want me to maintain my weight where I am now and that I needed to work on my side-to-side movement, so that’s exactly what I’ve been doing,” he explained. “Most importantly, you know, is for me to catch the ball when it’s thrown in my direction, and God has blessed me with that ability since I was a kid. I don’t take that for granted either, but I am very thankful.”
That is why his daily routine these days begins at 5:30 a.m. to attend a conditioning session before breakfast. Bell, who will be rooting for the Atlanta Falcons on Super Bowl Sunday in honor of his “hometown big bro” C.J. Goodwin, then attends classes before lunch, more classes before heading to the weight room at 4 p.m., has dinner, and then attends a nightly study hall with coaches and teammates.
Last semester he took the usual core classes like trigonometry, English, speech, general science, and America history and completed his first semester with a 2.9 grade-point average. This semester his curriculum includes biology, freshman studies, statistics, sports science, psychology, and yoga. Bell is working toward a bachelor’s degree in sports science.
“School is a lot more serious on the college level, and when you go to class, you better be ready,” Bell explained. “That goes for playing football. You have to be ready to get to work. There are no days off here because it moves along really fast.
“Our game days are definitely my favorite days right now because that’s when we’re having fun, and it’s awesome to play in front of so many people every single game,” he continued. “We had around 14,000 fans attend our home games this year, and on homecoming we had 22,000 in the stands. It was like we were playing for the state championship every game of the season.”
Another difference between his days at Wheeling Park High and now in Greensboro, N.C., concerns the structure of the university’s football program.
“There’s seems like there is more to it, but I still don’t miss any classes because we can set up our workout and practice schedules around them,” Bell explained. “So it all depends on when the classes I need are offered, and then we go from there.
“Our coaching staff is concerned about our classes and our grades, too, and that’s why we have team study halls during the week,” he explained. “And we can also take some classes during the evenings after lifting or after practice. It really just depends on the classes that you need for your major, and the coaches work with us to make sure we’re doing what we need to do.”
He is the son of Dawn Saunders and Lance Bell, a couple who have witnessed their children use sports as a gateway into college, including Vondell, a junior member of the defensive secondary this past season at California University of Pennsylvania. Elijah was recruited by West Liberty University and by several of the schools in the Mountain East Conference as well as by California U. and others in the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference. The football programs at West Virginia University and Marshall invited him to walk on.
But when the Aggies called, his mind was set on the Carolinas.
“And college here is different than high school, but I definitely like it here,” Bell said. “One of the best parts is you don’t have to sit inside the same building for eight hours every day, I knew I wanted to go to college when I was younger because no one in my family ever graduated from a four-year school.
“That’s one of the reasons why I always planned on going to college, and I was hopeful that I could use sports as my way in,” he said. “My brothers were blessed to get into college with scholarships, so I really hoped that it was possible for me, too, and it worked out.”
Bell was able to return to his native East Wheeling during Christmas break but missed Thanksgiving with his parents because the Aggies were preparing to play Richmond two days later. Bell will remain in North Carolina this coming summer, too, to continue his work for the Aggies’ 2017 season.
He was raised on McColloch Street and attended Wheeling Catholic, Madison, Ritchie, Wheeling Middle, and Triadelphia Middle before arriving at Wheeling Park, but the one constant during his youth was the Little Patriots Youth Football Program.
“Playing for the Little Patriots all those years definitely gave me some of the best years of my life,” Bell explained. “And we had a lot of great coaches just like we did in high school, and our high school coaches knew our potential because they watched us play since we were little.
“I played for the Little Patriots as soon as I was old enough and continued until I aged-out, and I wouldn’t trade those Sundays for anything. Not only did we get to play our home games on the turf at Wheeling Island Stadium, but we also won and won a lot,” he added. “I loved growing up in Wheeling, and depending on what happens with football, I could see me coming back home after college like my brothers did because there’s a lot going on there these days.”
(Photos from North Carolina A&T provided by Elijah Bell)