‘Never wanted to do it. Always avoided it when I was playing,’ dismisses Jason Bell when asked if becoming a television personality was something he thought he might try in retirement. It was never in Osi Umenyiora’s post-playing plans either. ‘It wasn’t really something I was interested in doing. I just wanted to chill, retire. But my wife was like, ‘’nah you’re gonna get out of this house brother!’’.’ So how did these two reluctant TV stars, defensive teammates for 2 years on the New York Giants a decade ago, become one of the best double acts on British television?
The list is endless. From Morecambe & Wise, through Saint & Greavsie, The Two Ronnies, Skinner & Baddiel, Ant & Dec, Neville & Carragher, Mel & Sue. British Television has always loved it’s double acts, both in sport and light entertainment. To straddle both genres is an art in itself and it’s one that the former Giants pair have done with brilliance, ease and wit over the last two years. There’s been some good ones down the years on British NFL television coverage, the original twosome of Nicky Horne and Miles Aiken, Luckhurst and Imlach, Cadle and Halling, Coombs and Carson. Yet with Osi and J-Bell, the league and BBC appear to have struck gold in that elusive criteria of being able to appeal to novice viewers and seasoned fans. They’re instantly accessible to any audience on what can often be, compared with other sports, quite a complex subject. You get all the analysis and former player insight you could wish for. You also get the fun.
In real life Jason comes across as you would expect from the screen, the laid back West Coast coolness, the million dollar smile, that no doubt helped in his rise to the pros playing as a defensive back, a position where only the next play matters, forget what just happened, be it good or bad. Osi has a slightly more complex demeanor, one that can seem gregarious but also serious, focused, maybe a little intense. One suspects this has been partially influenced from a career hunting; hunting quarterbacks and hurting running backs, that is. ‘I hate quarterbacks’ he freely admits shaking his head, still 5 years after his last game. Once a defensive end, always a defensive end.
Bell was initially signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2001. After a year he was traded across The Lone Star state to the newly formed 32nd franchise, the Houston Texans which meant he narrowly avoided playing under Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. ‘I had got traded to Houston the year before he (Bill Parcells) came (to the Cowboys). We played against him and I was told by the guys in Dallas that I was the type of guy he’d have liked. He liked tough guys, and when I mean tough I mean there’s so much adversity in the game, you don’t know when it’s gonna hit you but he liked guys that could battle through that. You’re mentally tough.’
Both Osi (drafted by Big Blue in the second round in 2003) and Jason ended up at the New York Giants under the coaching of another reputed taskmaster Tom Coughlin. Neither had any problems with that type of authority despite Coughlin’s league-wide with reputation. Bell laughs in recollection, ’He came into the Giants because they needed discipline. I had played under Dom Capers (now Defensive Co-ordinator in Green Bay) when he was Head Coach in Houston for four years, loved him. They were friends (Capers and Coughlin), very similar styles. Capers was not as drill sergeant-ish but they were very organised; meaning you knew what was gonna happen, when it was gonna happen, what you were gonna do. And as a player that’s important and I was ok with that. So when I went to New York I was like ‘’I know this structure, this is nothing new’’. I think for guys who had not been in that structure it was tough.’
‘I was so young at that time and didn’t know any different.’ reflects Umenyiora. ‘College for me was harder. In college it’s a lot tougher than the NFL, you have school too. On top of that you have practice so it’s like a full time job. The rules aren’t as strict so you’re out there banging everyday. So when I got to the NFL it’s was ok. But the people who had been in the NFL a while and got used to the way things were, they had problems with it (Coughlin’s new regime).’
The duo have won an army of fans and admirers beyond you average American football fan since they started appearing regularly on the BBC highlight shows. Their chemistry and friendship on screen appears authentic but did they hang out together at the Giants? ‘Yeah’ admits Bell. ‘When I came to New York I’d obviously known Antonio Pierce from Long Beach California, he told me ‘’these are gonna be your friends. This guy’s cool, this guy’s cool.’’ He was like ‘’Osi’s cool, Strahan’s cool, Carlos (Emmons) is cool. These are the guys you’re gonna be friends with’’ and he was right you know!‘
‘That Giants team, I’m still closer with than anybody I played with.’ admits Bell fondly. ‘The Giants already had a culture, it just clicked. Coming into New York. The Mara family and Tisch’s. It was about the players, it really was and you could feel it. Whatever was best for the players and it just trickled down.’
This year marks the tenth anniversary of that Giants team going on to win one of the most unexpected Super Bowl victories in the history of the league. Bell would unfortunately get injured before the season began but for Umenyiora, he would be at the epicentre of the team’s strongest weapon, the defensive line and pass rush. It was also the year he would get six sacks in one game against the Philadelphia Eagles ‘I don’t think that was my best game.’ admits Umenyiora candidly. ‘Statistically it was. The best game I played was against Carolina in 2006 and I didn’t have any sacks. But I hit the quarterback eleven times. It was the most dominant performance I had ever been apart of without recording any sacks. Against Philly I don’t think l was that dominant, almost like, lucky. I got to the quarterback six times and each time it was a sack which is unheard of.’
‘We had a dominant defensive line. It didn’t quite come together every game like the way it did in the post season. We knew if we were going to win that we would have to play well. We were the most talented group on the team both times (also in 2011 Super Bowl winning season). So once you put that onus on yourself you have to go out there and prove it.’
‘I was on IR, I got hurt that year, that’s when I had to retire,’ recalls Jason of the Super Bowl run. ‘It was the same team I was on from the previous year where we lost in the playoffs. When we went on that run with that team, defensively they were so dominant on the defensive front seven. Strahan, Osi, Tuck. Three guys like that, when you have that you know you can dominate. Plus with Antonio Pierce who was our leader and linebacker and is one of my closest friends. They just had it, defensively. I just remember the year before, Osi and Strahan getting hurt, I was a DB thinking wow, the game has changed without those two guys up there.’
And it wasn’t just on the defensive side of the ball that it all came together for New York in 2007. ‘I talk to Plaxico Burress all the time about it, about how he and Eli were just so much on the same page, they had their own hand checks, they saw the game the same way,’ reveals Bell which pleasingly, also demonstrates that ex-pros reminisce about the good times and glory days just as much as fans do!
NFLUK hit pay-dirt when they paired Umenyiora and Bell together on screen. Whilst it’s main aim might be to catch the attention of the casual fan, the popularity of the former Giants duo has hardcore fans entertained in equal measure. The Week 3 BBC highlight show immediately after the week of Trump comments and anthem kneeling was brilliantly handled by Jason and Osi, powerful and the eloquent voices for their sport and country (adopted in Osi’s case which made it resonate all the more). It was also superbly marshalled by Mark Chapman whose role in this we shouldn’t overlook. In fact to call it a double act is to probably undersell the role of the best all round sports presenter of his generation. Able to appeal to the common man and the sport nerd in equal measure, Mark has the uncanny knack of guiding conversation down the path you want it to go. To be able to do this across so many sports with such skill and knowledge is most impressive part of his repertoire. And for a fanbase that does not suffer fools gladly, Mark’s ability to tread the fine line of making the sport accessible without frustrating loyal fans is laudable.
And in what will be good news for the fanbase, it doesn’t sound like either Bell or Umenyiora have any plans to move on from what they’re doing in the British broadcast and social media. ‘I love the game of football, I love everything around it.’ gleams Jason. ‘I love even coming into the NFLUK office and being around the people. It’s football. I feel like I’m in an organisation and getting on the show with Osi and Mark. It’s just fun, it’s real. Talking about something I love and I have passion for and respect.’
But what if one of the American networks, so impressed with their work on this side of the pond, came calling with an offer? Osi isn’t interested in such talk. ‘(Michael) Strahan’s the gold standard for all athlete’s right now. When I knew I was going to retire I talked to Mark Waller (VP of NFL International) and we talked about coming over to London and I thought if that’s the case I might as well be the Michael Strahan of the UK. I’m not going back, I’m not doing anything in America. I love the country but I just feel like too many former athletes have gone down that path. Whereas out here it’s new, it’s different, it’s fresh for me and here is where I want to be.’
Osi and Jason will be on the Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Browns coverage on BBC2 1pm Sunday 29th October.
“Former NFL athletes Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell were speaking at the European launch of NFL Game Pass, the new OTT subscription service operated by OverTier. To find out more, visit: nflgamepass.com”