Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News
Allen Park— It’s closing in on midnight, Oct. 13, 2010. Two seemingly angry young men approach each other at a terminal gate inside Hopkins Airport in Cleveland. One has just arrived from Philadelphia; the other is bound for Philadelphia.
“Hey,” running back Mike Bell said.
“Hey,” running back Jerome Harrison said.
Both were having unproductive seasons and had been traded for each other — Bell from the Eagles to the Browns, Harrison from the Browns to the Eagles.
“He had a mad look on his face and I had a mad look on my face,” Bell said of the encounter.
They crossed paths again Tuesday. This time, they were headed in the same direction — in the same SUV bound for the Lions practice facility — with much sunnier dispositions.
The Lions signed both running backs to compete for the No. 2 spot, essentially replacing rookie Mikel Leshoure, whose season ended Monday with a torn left Achilles tendon.
“Both are experienced players and both have produced at a high level in the NFL,” coach Jim Schwartz said after the two participated in their first practice. “They have different skills but both have a good resume. Hopefully we can get them up to speed quickly.”
Both are 28 and have shown flashes of brilliance, but have spent the majority of their time in supporting roles.
Harrison (5-foot-9, 205 pounds), a product of Kalamazoo Central, had his breakout year in 2009 when he amassed more than 1,000 yards for the Browns (862 rushing, 220 receiving). He’s more of a home run threat than Bell, having a pair of runs of 70-plus yards during his career, including a 50-yarder last season with the Eagles.
Harrison ran for 286 yards in one game in 2009.
“Dreams come true sometimes,” he said when asked about that game. “It was a great day but it’s in the past.”
He chafes at being classified as anything but a multi-purpose runner.
“I’ve been running the football since I was 6 years old,” he said. “Anything you ask me to do, I will try my hardest to do it. I’m just going to work and whatever they ask me to do I’m going to do. I want to help in any way.”
Things went sour in a hurry for Harrison in Cleveland. He was miffed he wasn’t given a contract extension after 2009. And he could see the writing on the wall when he found himself playing behind Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty.
But he wasn’t in the mood to dredge up the past Tuesday.
“None of that, man, I am here now and I am excited,” he said.
Bell’s mission is even more redemptive than Harrison’s. After rushing for 654 yards and helping the Saints win the Super Bowl in 2009, Bell pretty much fell off the grid. He was the third back first in Philadelphia and then in Cleveland. Combined, he had 47 carries last season.
“The first team that called is where I was going — I was one of those guys,” said Bell, who is bigger than Harrison — 6-0, 225 — and considered more of a between-the-tackles runner.
“I was not highly recruited, so to speak. I just wanted to get a call and I would be on the first thing smoking.”
When Bell has gotten the ball, he’s produced. He had 677 yards as a rookie in Denver in 2006. Then, after bouncing around the next two seasons, he posted 654 yards with New Orleans. Last year was mostly a lost year.
“I was so unproductive last year, I didn’t think I would get much opportunity,” he said. “I didn’t play much with the Eagles and I didn’t play much with the Browns. There was LeSean McCoy, an all-Pro-type back, in Philly, and Peyton Hillis, an all-Pro-type back, in Cleveland.
“It was nothing that I did or didn’t do but I know I was stigmatized.”
Bell, however, knows the situation in Detroit.
Jahvid Best, a fleet-footed game-breaker, is the featured back. Leshoure was targeted to be the power guy to complement Best. Bell thinks his running style fits that description.
“This opportunity means everything,” he said. “The fact that they chose me is a blessing. I bring hard running and I can get the tough yards. But I feel like I am faster now (having not played much last year) and I am trying to open my game up.”
Both also understand there are no guarantees.
Maurice Morris, the team’s most productive runner at the end of last season, is out with a hand injury. But he, too, is in the hunt for the spot.
Both seemed fired up by the competition.
“I was shocked,” Bell said. “This team is good. Definitely all the rumors out there about the Lions being a playoff contender are true. They hustle. There’s a lot of positive energy out here, guys making plays and running to the ball. It’s a blessing to be here and I am glad to be part of the rise of the Lions.”
Getting to know … Mike Bell
Position: Running back
Birth date: April 23, 1983 (Phoenix)
Experience: 6th season
Teams: Browns, Eagles, Saints, Broncos
Position: Running back
Birth date: Feb. 26, 1983 (Kalamazoo)
College: Washington State
Experience: 6th season
Teams: Eagles, Browns