There was a release of raw emotion inside the Jets locker room from Le’Veon Bell that told you that this day was different than any he had experienced in his six NFL seasons.
“Come on, Sam!’’ the Jets running back screamed at Sam Darnold as the quarterback peeled his uniform off in front of his locker.
“Come on, Tre, how about that 40-yard run?’’ Bell bellowed at Trevon Wesco, one of his favorite chess counterparts on the team, referring to a breakout 32-yard catch-and-run the little-used tight end had to put the Jets in position for their go-ahead field goal in a gritty 16-10 win over the Steelers in their home finale.
“All wins feel amazing,’’ Bell said, still in uniform and in between pumping up his teammates in the winning locker room, “but this one had a little extra sweetness on top … a little extra topping.’’
This day always was going to be about Bell — regardless of the result (a Jets win), of how many yards he ran for (72 on a season-high 25 carries) or whether he scored a touchdown (he did not).
Bell has a complicated history with the Steelers — as the third-best running back in franchise history (behind only Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis), despite having played there for just five seasons.
His history, of course, also includes refusing to play under the franchise tag in 2018 and sitting the season out before signing a free-agent contract with the Jets before this season.
“I didn’t play any harder in this game than I did in any other game,’’ Bell insisted. “It was just fun competing against guys I used to play with.’’
When he arrived to the stadium on Sunday morning, Bell was wearing Steelers colors — black slacks and a yellow sweatshirt.
“I wasn’t doing it to be petty,’’ he explained. “I thought it would draw a little attention. That’s all it was.’’
On Twitter the day before the game, Bell posted a message waxing poetic about his time in Pittsburgh, praising Steelers fans and posting a video that included highlights from himself in a Steelers uniform with the Styx’s “Renegade” — an unofficial theme song of the Steelers’ — playing in the background.
“The fans showed love today,’’ Bell said, referring to both the Steelers fans who virtually took over MetLife Stadium and to Jets fans.
Bell, too, got some closure with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, he said he hadn’t seen “since I didn’t show up’’ for training camp last season.
“It was good seeing him,’’ Bell said. “I understand how everything went on. Obviously, it wasn’t his fault. I respect him and he respects me. He came up and spoke to me and shook my hand and said, ‘Congratulations.’ ’’
It was clear from the start of the game that Jets coach Adam Gase was going to make it his business to feed Bell the ball.
“Coach Gase told me before the game, ‘I got you today. I’m making sure you’re going to get that ball today,’ ’’ Bell said. “It felt good. I feel sore, and there’s no better feeling.’’
Gase praised Bell for not getting out of whack during the week anticipating the kind of emotion Sunday was sure to elicit.
“He did a really good job this week of kind of staying level,’’ Gase said. “He knew that we would make sure he had opportunities to affect this game. The first series was big for us. He had some really good runs.’’
Bell ran for 26 yards on four carries on the Jets opening series, which ended in a 7-0 lead. Later, he had a critical 7-yard run on third-and-5 that put the Jets in range for the field goal that gave them a 16-10 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Asked after the game how he felt the Steelers defense did against Bell, Tomlin said, “Not enough. They won the game.’’
And Bell, even without gaudy numbers, was a big part of that.
Jets left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who played his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, called the victory “one of the most gratifying wins I’ve ever had in my life.’’
Beachum knew Bell knows the feeling.
“I think this was really special for him,’’ Beachum said. “This guy has put in a lot of work and things may not have happened the way he wanted them to happen in his departure [from Pittsburgh]. But I know he was excited about getting this win.’’
Bell has stayed the course all season despite circumstances that could have caused him to snap in public, and he’s never wavered, always remained a positive force inside the locker room. He’s as much a reason the Jets’ foundation didn’t crack at 1-7 as any player in the room And for that, it was difficult not to feel for him Sunday.