CHARLOTTE – Vonn Bell naturally stepped into a leadership role when he signed with the Panthers this spring.
The 28-year-old safety had put seven years into the NFL, with 121 games and a Super Bowl appearance under his belt. He brought a different level of life and league experience to a generally young locker room – and a particularly young secondary.
Bell’s vocal leadership stuck out from the moment he stepped on the practice fields at Bank of America Stadium, as he often holds his own in friendly sideline banter with fiery assistant head coach Duce Staley. He’s regimented, early, and consistent, as Hayden Hurst noted how he sees Bell’s car already parked at the stadium when he pulls up each morning.
These skills blossomed over time, but he comes by them honestly, his mother Vanessa said. Vonn’s the son of two first-born children and grew up with a brother, Volonte, who was four years older than him. He watched their habits, and he developed them into his own.
Vonn’s father Vencent was a dominant linebacker at West Point High School in Mississippi, earning a scholarship to play under Frank Beamer at Murray State in the 1980s. Vanessa is a longtime educator who works as an assistant football coach for East Lake Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Vonn grew up. Volonte graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and was an assistant men’s basketball coach at Chattanooga State Community College.
Of course, Vonn was a natural leader to his peers, but in the family, he followed in their footsteps – especially Volonte’s, making him the 7-year-old who played with 11-year-olds.
At this point in Vonn’s professional career, he channels what he’s observed.
“The table has turned for him to have that leadership role,” Vanessa said. “He knows what’s embedded through him – through his dad being a top linebacker in high school for the state of Mississippi. He has the background. He has the tools. So now, it’s just getting out there, getting it done. We’re very proud of him.”
While collecting playing experience across his professional career, Vonn Bell has gone through change within his family.
Volonte died in February 2020 following a fatal car crash. He was 29. Shortly after his brother’s passing, Vonn’s father shared news of his cancer diagnosis. Less than a month after Vonn signed with Carolina in March, Vencent died. He was 58.
“Through our faith, the Lord has kept us, and (we’ve) been able to sustain and be resilient through these different transitions,” Vanessa said. “It’s kind of good having something new to look forward to, just a new challenge, a new responsibility for Vonn.”
What Vonn Bell shows in Charlotte is a product of his upbringing. He carries those lessons in his actions here.
Vencent Bell was raised on a West Point, Mississippi farm, waking up with rooster crows to feed animals and cut grass.
Stories he’d tell stuck with Vonn, who innately emulated that ethic in the work he’d do in school and sports.
“He was just work all day,” Vonn said. “I will never forget that as a kid growing up. And I just took that along my journey.”
Vencent and Vanessa set a standard for Volonte and Vonn in childhood: Be structured. Have a Plan A and a Plan B. Make good grades in school. Stay humble. Have good character.
In sports, Vanessa said Vonn started with swimming and moved into soccer, T-ball, flag football, and basketball. He’d always “play up,” running with Volonte’s age group four years older.
The brothers were devoted to Sunday basketball at the YMCA. (Vencent held a long career with the YMCA, serving 34 years total, with his tenure ending as executive director of the James W. Wilson Jr. YMCA of Montgomery, Ala.)
Vonn said they’d frequently follow up a long day of pick-up games with dinner at CiCi’s Pizza, making memories that still stick with him.
“(Volonte) said playing with us, the older crowd, will make everything come easier for you, so that really helped me,” Vonn said. “He taught me a lot. Sometimes, there are good days and bad days, and we just always push through it. He showed me adversity, showed me how to persevere, and just keep on pushing.”
Vonn took an organized approach to football at Ridgeland High School in Rossville, Georgia. Vanessa said he kept a mental checklist of everything he wanted to accomplish to get himself to the next level – and he checked the items off.
He played college football at Ohio State, winning a national championship with the Buckeyes in 2015, and was drafted by the Saints in 2016. He played in New Orleans for four years and spent the last three in Cincinnati before joining the Panthers.
Across seven seasons, he has posted 636 career tackles, 9.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, and six interceptions – including a pick off Patrick Mahomes in overtime of the 2021 AFC Championship game, which helped advance the Bengals to Super Bowl LVI.
“He’s always had a plan in mind,” Vanessa said. “He may not say things like, right off, but he’s observant – very observant. He can catch on; very intuitive. He does pay attention. He does listen well.”
Those are traits with which Vonn credited his parents. He said that he and Volonte started their childhood days with chores and finished all work before play, so adjusting to that kind of routine in adulthood came quickly.
“They set the foundation, and they always had a plan,” Vonn said. “I will say that, for me and my brother, they always had this vision for us and how we’re supposed to correlate that to our everyday life. We’re just structured. …
“This just helped carry that through my adult life now. Having that structure and that mindset of getting the job done, and everything else is going to take care of itself.”
Roles change throughout a lifetime. Those being cared for become caretakers.
After Volonte’s death, and while Vencent underwent treatment for cancer, Vonn checked in on his parents often. Vanessa said he’d offer to hire chefs and suggested they try the Mediterranean diet. He’d mention supplements to take, oxygen chambers, and infrared light therapy concepts.
Vonn stopped by for visits, too, spending time with his father during treatments.
“Life came full circle,” Vonn said. “How he took care of me. … I wanted to give that tenfold, whatever they needed. I didn’t want them to worry about anything. And I was always going to be there, no matter what the circumstance might be.
“It’s just a thing of life, and it just helped me realize a lot of things and put in a different perspective in life, how to go about things, how to treat things or how to attack things. Always being present – that was the biggest thing – just being in the moment, and never take anything for granted.”
Vencent, Vanessa, and Vonn shared a lasting moment this spring.
Not many weeks before his father would pass, Vonn surprised his parents with a visit to a barbecue restaurant in Nashville after one of Vencent’s chemotherapy treatments.
Vonn brought his dog Draco, and the Bell family enjoyed a meal together.
“I was cutting up his food for him, walking him to the bathroom, just having intimate moments with a loved one, a family member,” Vonn said. “That will always stick with me forever.”
“Vencent was just elated,” Vanessa said.
They said leaning on faith has helped them through the losses of Volonte and Vencent. Vonn and Vanessa have each other, and they have the future.
And Vonn knows it’ll come together if they stay with the plan; that’s what his parents taught him.
“Even when it’s cloudy days, the sun’s always coming,” Vonn said. “Just got to stick to the process, stick to the plan. Everything else is going to work out. And always ask for God to strengthen you and give you the strength in your mindset, physically and mentally.
“And always go out there with a smile on your face, even when things are bad. Just go out there being the same person, being even-keeled, but always lean on (God) for sure.”
That’s what Vonn Bell does.
His mature presence is rubbing off on the younger ones here, such as third-year cornerback Jaycee Horn, a budding star learning from a veteran defensive back.
“Vonn (puts) me on so much game, just seeing how much of a professional he is,” Horn said. “How he takes care of his body every day, how he’s in the film room; he knows the playbook. (It’s) just something big for every young guy to pick up on and follow in his footsteps.”
Bell’s a lively presence in the locker room, playing games and cracking jokes with teammates before practice.
His personality shows even more on the field, where he’s frequently chirping with Staley, putting in work in the process.
“It started back in OTAs, when I was kind of talking to the defense, and a couple of guys, you know, we say things back and just kind of drop it. But Vonn came off the top rope,” the assistant head coach said. “Every time I said something, he said three things. Every time I said two, he said seven, and it just kept going from there.
“But we motivate each other. We challenge each other. And then, when it’s all said and done, you’ll catch us walking back, and he’ll be like, ‘What did you see?’ And I’ll be like, ‘What did you see?’ So along with that motivation part of it, we’re also kind of coaching each other.”
Tight end Hayden Hurst was around Bell in Cincinnati, so all of this is familiar to him.
Bell’s experience and character were traits Hurst noticed immediately.
“He’s one of the best humans I’ve ever been around,” Hurst said. “He’s the first guy in the building. … He’s hitting the lift. He’s in the sauna. He’s the quarterback of the defense. That’s what he did in Cincinnati. That’s why we were so successful on defense last year. He’s kind of the captain out there. Getting him is a pretty big deal. He brings that confidence and that experience.”
Vonn Bell is doing what the Panthers brought him here to do, and he knows how to do those things because of where he came from.
When Vonn’s among the first players to show up, he channels Vencent’s early mornings on the farm. When he commits to a plan, he models Vanessa’s teaching. And while he coaches up guys a few years younger, he’s harkening back to his childhood alongside Volonte.
Those Bell family values still stick with him.