When Super Bowl LV kicks off on Sunday, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will be on opposite sidelines. Bell is a backup running back with the Chiefs. Brown is a backup receiver for the Buccaneers. One of them will win their first Super Bowl.
A little over three years ago, Bell and Brown were All-Pro teammates with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell left Pittsburgh following a contract dispute. Brown left that same offseason citing frustration with the organization. Both players reached stardom in Pittsburgh, but left without a championship.
"It's crazy to think, as long as were playing together, we never made it to this point," Bell said during Super Bowl week. "But the fact that we're playing against each other is going to be fun. On different sides of the ball, obviously.
"AB made so many plays and he made so many memories that it would be too tough to pick out one specific memory. He's a great player. It's going to be fun to watch him play."
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Bell and Brown were an integral part of the Steelers' "Killer B" era, along with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Martavis Bryant. Brown was named team MVP four times from 2011-17. He set franchise records with 136 receptions for 1,834 yards in 2015. In 2017, he caught 101 passes for a league-high 1,533 yards despite missing nearly three full games with an injury. Bell was named team MVP in 2014 and in 2016. The '16 season was an especially special season for Bell. He ran for a franchise record 236 yard and three touchdowns in a late-season win in Buffalo. In the playoffs, Bell ran for franchise postseason single-game records 167 and 170 yards in wins over Miami and Kansas City.
"It's been a blessing to see him flourish and to be in this moment, this opportunity," Brown said of his former teammate. "I know he doesn't take it for granted. To see the work we put in, the things we persevered through to be in this position, I'm sure he's grateful."
After running roughshod over the Dolphins and chiefs, a groin injury knocked Bell out during the second quarter of Pittsburgh's 2016 AFC title game loss to New England. That was the closest the Killer B's got to the Super Bowl. In the divisional round of the 2017 playoffs, the Jaguars, who had defeated the Steelers in the regular season, stormed out to a 28-7 lead. Led by Big Ben, Brown and Bell, the Steelers made a late rally before ultimately losing, 45-42. Playing through injury, Brown caught seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns against the league's top defense. In his final game with the Steelers, Bell amassed 155 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
"That game was cold, and it was a battle, hard-fought game," recalled former Jaguars and current Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette. "I know AB was going crazy out there."
Shortly after the loss, Bell publicly expressed his desire to not spend another year under the franchise tag. The Steelers and Bell's representatives had several meetings but never reached an agreement on a long-term contract. Bell held out the entire season after initially flirting with the prospect of returning before the Week 11 deadline. He had an unceremonious 17-game run with the Jets before signing with the Chiefs in October. In Kansas City, he gained 353 all-purpose yards in nine regular-season games.
Bell said that he has never regretted his decision to sit out the 2018 season, even when things were at their lowest point in New York.
"Oh, no. That never crossed my mind," said Bell, who walked away with $28 million of the four-year, $52.5 million contract he signed with the Jets. "I feel like me sitting out, I look at it like it helped me on the back end of my career. Last year, when I came back, I felt like I was a rookie all over again. I was so excited to get back on the field and really just get my gatherings back. It kind of reset my body. I feel like it's going to help elongate my career."
Brown's post-Pittsburgh life has been much more tumultuous. He was traded to Oakland, but his erratic behavior forced the Raiders to release him. He quickly signed with the Patriots but was released after just one game after allegations of sexual and personal misconduct. In January of 2020, it was reported Brown and an accomplice attacked a moving truck driver. Brown turned himself in to authorities after an arrest warrant was issued with a felony charge of battery and burglary. He pleaded no contest to the charges and received two years of probation.
Brown served an eight-game suspension from the NFL for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. At the urging of Brady, the Buccaneers signed Brown to a one-year deal on Oct. 27. Brown acknowledged on Thursday that Tampa Bay was his only opportunity back into the league.
"It's been a long journey over the course of you know, a year-and-a half of scrutiny, adversity, you name it," said Brown, who caught 45 passes for 483 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season. "I've been through it, but it didn't stop me. I didn't want to give up. I just got persistent, made a plan, wrote out my goals, set my intention of what I want out of my life and just took a step back... I'm grateful to be in this moment, but I know there's still a long way to go."
While Brady has been credited with helping Brown, Fournette spoke glowingly about the impact Brown has had on him during their short time as teammates. Fournette credits Brown for helping him stay patient when he was waiting for his opportunity to play.
"You don't know the talks, the little talks that we have with each other," said Fournette, who is slated to make his sixth consecutive start on Sunday night. "How [far] that goes for me, and understanding and trusting the process. When I first got here, he was like, 'You know you're a baller. Your time will come.' He kept telling me that, over and over and over. And it's paying off, as you can see."
Bell has made a similar impact with Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Like Bell was in 2013, Edwards-Helaire has been tasked with carrying the majority of his team's carries as a rookie.
"L-Bell, he came in and just was somebody that I kind of pulled whatever I could get from him," Edwards-Helaire said. "Whatever questions that I had, or if something just popped up in my mind that I just needed an answer for ... if L-Bell was right there, I was asking him. He's always been good of just shooting an answer straight back... I've just been a big sponge pulling in everything that I possibly can from him."
It's safe to say that both players would like to have bigger roles heading into the Super Bowl. Bell had just two carries in the Chiefs' first two playoff games. Brown had three catches in Tampa Bay's first two playoff games before missing the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury. Brady and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes are the headliners. Bell and Brown are somewhere in the background.
Despite their reduced roles, Bell and Brown have expressed gratitude to be in the position they are currently in -- one win away from accomplishing something they had hoped to do together in Pittsburgh.
"It means everything in the world," Bell said. "Ever since I've been playing this game … this is the reason why you play. I've watched every Super Bowl ever since I was a little kid, always envisioning that I would be in the game. Now that I'm eight years into the league, and I finally got here, it's like a dream come true.
"Obviously, I just want to finish the job. I know how long I've been playing this game, and it's tough to even get an opportunity to play in this game. I've got to leave it all on the field."