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