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Fournette, Bell go from lots of losing to Super Bowl

February 4, 2021 GMT
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Leonard Fournette (28) evades a tackle by Green Bay Packers' Adrian Amos to score on a 20-yard touchdown run during the first half of the NFC championship NFL football game in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Leonard Fournette (28) evades a tackle by Green Bay Packers' Adrian Amos to score on a 20-yard touchdown run during the first half of the NFC championship NFL football game in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Leonard Fournette predicted this day would come. He surely had no idea this is how he’d get here.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back doesn’t remember writing the prophetic Twitter post seven years ago, but someone unearthed it last week and sent social media buzzing.

“Can’t wait til I play in that Super Bowl,” Fournette wrote on Feb. 2, 2014 — punctuating it with a grin emoji.

Fournette is smiling plenty now.

“This tweet from my senior year in high school nothing but Gods plan....... Playoff Lenny,” Fournette wrote last Friday in a quote tweet.

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A lot has happened since that day — an outstanding three-year career at LSU, being the No. 4 overall pick by Jacksonville in the 2017 NFL draft, two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and eventually a falling out with the Jaguars, who cut him after training camp in August.

“It’s crazy how you manifest on things and speak it into existence,” Fournette said. “I’m just blessed with the opportunity I have now to play in this big game with a lot of other great players on this team and the other team.

“I feel good, man.”

As well he should, especially considering where he’s at: with the NFC champion Buccaneers, who’ll square off Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

And consider where he could’ve been: with the 1-15 Jaguars and as far from the Super Bowl as you can get.

Buccaneers teammate Steve McLendon knows the feeling, having been traded by the New York Jets in the middle of a 2-14 season. Same for Chiefs running back Le’Veon Bell, who was released by the then 0-5 Jets.

“It’s been an interesting season, to say the least for me — one of my more intriguing seasons,” Bell said. “When I first started the season, I was with New York and I was kind of fighting an uphill battle with everything that was going on over there. It didn’t work out for whatever reason. I ended up coming over here and the first day here, I loved it right away.”

And what’s not to like? It’s not often a player goes from losers to winners — and maybe winning it all — in the same season.

The hope in Jacksonville just a few years ago was that Fournette would lead the Jaguars to this moment.

Instead, he fell out of favor during a stint that included an arrest for driving with a suspended license and speeding, and a suspension for fighting in a game. There were also health concerns and doubts as to whether he could be the consistent playmaker he was expected to be.

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The Jaguars declined the fifth-year option on Fournette’s contract, a sign he was no longer a part of their future. He became a part of their past when they waived him after unsuccessfully trying to trade him.

“It was a terrible feeling,” Fournette said. “I took a week off and had to get my mind right and also try to to understand why this was going on.”

He ended up signing a one-year deal with the Buccaneers, who didn’t need Fournette to be the star. Instead, he has complemented Ronald Jones in the backfield.

“Once he accepted that, he’s been just a trooper, man,” Buccaneers running backs coach Todd McNair said. “He’s been a soldier.”

Fournette rushed for just 367 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season, but has 211 yards and two TDs in three postseason games.

“I just told him: ‘This team is special and you’re a huge part of it. Embrace your role. You never know when your role is going to change,’” coach Bruce Arians said. “I’m really, really proud of Leonard and the way he’s handled it.”

Fournette acknowledged he’s not used to sitting on the sideline for chunks at a time, and wants to feel as though he’s participating in helping the Bucs win. And that’s exactly what he’s doing the last month.

“Everything wound up working out in my favor in the end,” Fournette said.

Bell is also a complementary piece for the Chiefs, backing up rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire and splitting carries with Darrel Williams. He had a career-low 328 yards rushing and two TDs in 11 games, nine with Kansas City.

“I really like him — I like him as a kid, I like him as a player,” coach Andy Reid said. “He brings that veteran experience. He’s been the best in the business at what he’s done. He’s handled this role well.”

After playing just two games for the Jets and being released when they couldn’t deal him, Bell had a difficult choice. Miami wanted him, but so did Kansas City.

“I made the decision to come here, to play with a lot of great players and coach Andy Reid,” he said. “It probably was tougher than my free-agency decision, for real.”

Once one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL with Pittsburgh, Bell sat out a season in a contract dispute before signing a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the Jets in 2019. That stint didn’t even last two full seasons, a disappointing end to what was supposed to be a massive comeback.

But that could come Sunday.

“It means everything in the world,” Bell said. “Ever since I’ve been playing this game since the age of 4 1/2, this has been the reason why you play it. I’ve watched every Super Bowl since I was little kid, as long as I remember, always envisioning that I would be in the game.

“So now that I’m eight years into the league now and I finally got here, you know, it was like a dream come true. And obviously I just want to finish the job.”

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