NFC North: Victor DeGrate

Tatum Bell's alibi denies involvement

September, 9, 2008
9/09/08
3:27
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The Tatum Bell story has snaked into its second week of drama.

Monday, the mother of Bell's alibi -- ex-Detroit Lions defensive end Victor DeGrate -- told the Detroit News that her son had nothing to do with the purloined bags of running back Rudi Johnson.

Tuesday, DeGrate himself told the Detroit Free Press: "I had nothing to do with it."

Bell has admitted to taking the bags from the Lions locker room last week after he was released, but he has told numerous media outlets that he believed the bags were DeGrate's. According to Bell's account, DeGrate had asked him to pick up his bags and drop them off with a female acquaintance.

Johnson has said he doesn't believe the story, and DeGrate refuted the account as well.

"The way I just figure, he got caught up in a jam and that was the best thing going at the time, was to say what he said," DeGrate told the Free Press.

We're not really sure where this story can go from here. Bell has made his case aggressively, but so far no one has stepped forward to corroborate. No one is pressing charges, so there isn't likely to be any legal ramifications. Ultimately, Bell will have to convince another NFL team that he is innocent, or is he going to have a hard time extending his career.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

APPLETON, Wis. -- We're packing up here in Wisconsin while also working on an extended post set to publish later in the day. In the meantime, let's take a quick spin around the NFC North now that Green Bay's 24-19 victory over Minnesota has established a hierarchy in the division:

  • After watching Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers lead Green Bay to victory, Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote: "Rodgers showed that the Packers still have the best quarterback in the NFC North." Faint praise, but it's accurate -- after Week 1, at least.
  • Rodgers resisted baiting techniques from the Vikings' secondary, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Vikings defensive end Jared Allen called his performance "one of the least productive games I've had in my life," according to the Star Tribune.
  • Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press appreciated Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's honesty in explaining his mistakes Monday night. "Accountability is good," Powers wrote. "Not screwing up in the first place is better."
  • Chicago running back Matt Forte said Monday he "pretty much" met his goals by rushing for 123 yards in his debut Sunday night at Indianapolis, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Chicago players were entitled to crow about their victory, according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Lions center Dominic Raiola to Detroit reporters Monday: "I hope this loss humbled the locker room." Raiola believes the Lions might have gotten ahead of their hype.
  • The mother of former Lions defensive end Victor DeGrate told the Detroit News her son had nothing to do with the disappearance of running back Rudi Johnson's bags. Former Lions running back Tatum Bell has said he took the bags because he thought they were DeGrate's.

Tatum Bell fighting for his career

September, 4, 2008
9/04/08
12:07
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Bell

Tatum Bell found himself talking in circles as he spoke via telephone Thursday morning.

He knows the Detroit Lions have videotape of him leaving their practice facility Monday with two bags belonging to his replacement, running back Rudi Johnson.

He knows the contents of the bags -- $200, credit cards and clothes -- are missing.

He knows Johnson, a prominent and respected veteran player, has publicly accused him of stealing the contents and that the Lions have done nothing to counter Johnson's claims.

And Bell knows that no NFL team is interested in signing an accused thief. But every time he tells his version of the story -- which, he says, neither Johnson nor the Lions have been willing to hear -- he casts doubt on a friend and former teammate. (Bell believed the bags belonged to former Lions defensive end Victor DeGrate, who had asked Bell to pick them up and bring them to a female acquaintance. He said he was not aware they were Johnson's bags until the Lions called him Tuesday night.)

"I want to defend myself," Bell said, "but every time I do, it's like I'm throwing Victor under the bus and I don't want to do that. So I'm almost like, 'I've got to stop bringing his name into it.' But that's what happened. I'm not lying. And right now, everyone's putting it out there that I'm a thief. They're acting like I got released, and I was mad, so I took the bags of the guy they brought in behind me.

"But it's not true, and that's what's hurting me so much right now. I woke up this morning and I pretty much don't know what to do about it anymore. It's frustrating."

For Bell, the worst consequence of his predicament is that the phone is silent. Several teams expressed preliminary interest in him earlier this week. (According to Bell, the Houston Texans were one of them.) But since the story broke, his agent hasn't heard from anyone.

"I'm very, very concerned that this is my career here," Bell said. "The teams that were interested before, they've already got players for that role now. And as long as it's out there that I'm a thief, it's going to be hard. I guess I need to go to Plan B, which is just to find a way to take care of my family."

As we posted Wednesday, it's not our place to take sides in this story. But we did ask Bell to flesh out his account, especially why he assumed the bags were DeGrate's.

Bell said that DeGrate told him he left his bags in the players lounge of the Lions' locker room. When Bell went to look for them Monday, he saw two bags sitting by a set of computers -- "three or four steps away" from the lounge, Bell said. There were no other bags in the area. He picked them up, left the facility and dropped them off with the woman.

"They weren't in anybody's locker or anything," Bell said. "I saw two bags on the ground and I never thought twice about it. Now, I just hate that I even did it. Victor is a friend of mine and I was doing what he asked me to do. I should never have even picked them up. But it's too late for that. I've tried to reach out to Rudi to tell him that, but I guess he's not interested."

Will this incident leave Bell effectively blackballed from the NFL? His best hope is for the contents of Johnson's bag to turn up with someone else -- and for Johnson to exonerate him publicly.

"If I was in his shoes, I'd be upset, too," Bell said of Johnson. "But that's why I'm trying to explain to him what happened. He doesn't want to hear it, and so I don't know where to go from here."

Now playing at a theater near you...

September, 3, 2008
9/03/08
3:58
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
BellJohnson

It's a good thing we're a little slow on the uptake today. (Long story.)

We were halfway through a post suggesting that former Detroit running back Tatum Bell was either the most na´ve or the most brazen NFL player we had ever heard of. How else could you have explained his broad-daylight swipe of Rudi Johnson's bags Tuesday from the Lions' locker room, an incident the Lions' security staff captured on video?

NFL practice facilities are more secure than your local bank. Surveillance cameras, locked doors and 10-foot-high fences are standard. Teams usually provide an escort to all visitors. Player entrances are as obscure as a presidential hideout, and even the FedEx guy is viewed with suspicion.

A five-year veteran, Bell would have to know that someone is always watching when you're in an NFL locker room. We couldn't understand how a rational person could be so brazen. But thanks to the Detroit Free Press, we now have what is at least a reasonable explanation, one with enough details that it could be checked out pretty easily.

According to the Free Press, Bell said he had agreed to pick up two bags for ex-Lions defensive end Victor DeGrate, who was released Saturday. Bell said he saw two bags sitting on the floor, assumed they were DeGrate's and grabbed them. He denied opening the bags, let alone taking anything from them.

Bell dropped the bags off with a female friend of DeGrate's. The woman returned the bags to the Lions on Wednesday morning, but they were empty. Johnson is still missing $200, his identification, credit cards and clothes.

Plenty of questions remain. What made Bell think the bags were DeGrate's? Where are Johnson's belongings? And what kind of an omen is it for Johnson that he was cleaned out on his first official day with the Lions?

Johnson has made clear he isn't buying Bell's story. It's not up to us to take a side one way or the other, and in fact the Lions might be the biggest loser in the deal. This incident is the kind of flashy, transcendent story that figures to dominate public attention for at least a couple of news cycles.

Instead of talking about a 4-0 preseason, their explosive pair of wide receivers and a very winnable game Sunday at Atlanta, the Lions are addressing a possible player-on-player crime. I think we have an early nomination for next season's "Hard Knocks" series. You can't find better reality TV than this.

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