Carolina Panthers

'Road House' gets shot at NFL dream

With third-string quarterback Brett Basanez out, Dalton Bell will see significant action against Pittsburgh on Thursday.
With third-string quarterback Brett Basanez out, Dalton Bell will see significant action against Pittsburgh on Thursday.

CHARLOTTE -- A week ago, Dalton Bell was just another one of the faceless rookies in the Carolina Panthers' camp.

Now, he's the face you'll probably see the most in the Panthers' preseason finale Thursday against Pittsburgh.

"Are you sure you have the right guy?" he jokingly asked a group of reporters Monday, when they congregated around the quarterback who made most of the throws in practice (starter Jake Delhomme was resting).

Bell's also going to take most of the snaps against the Steelers since he's the third quarterback, in the wake of Brett Basanez's season-ending wrist injury. And since Delhomme's only going to play a series or two and backup David Carr probably won't go much past halftime if at all, Bell's going to get his shot.

So after spending training camp being mistaken for Carr but otherwise going unnoticed, he was suddenly throwing passes to players such as Steve Smith.

"Yesterday I was a little nervous, I'm not going to lie," he said. "Today I felt a lot better, just getting into a groove and getting used to it.

"It's a big opportunity. I just hope to do the best with it Thursday night and hopefully good things will happen."

The 24-year-old rookie has been all grins since he arrived, since his background wasn't exactly suited to NFL success.

He didn't get many offers out of Canyon (Texas) High School, so he decided to stay in town and attend Division II West Texas A&M. There was a vague offer from Texas Tech, where they wanted him to walk on and maybe play as a fifth-year senior.

Instead, he rewrote the WTAMU record book in two years as a starter, going 20-4 and passing for 7,779 yards and 62 touchdowns.

He said a number of teams called before the draft, but afterward his only choices were Carolina and New Orleans. The Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger-Cats claimed his negotiating rights in the spring but traded them to Saskatchewan.

If things go well Thursday, the hope is he never has to go north.

There's the potential for a spot on the Panthers' practice squad, since they'll probably carry two quarterbacks into the season. Basanez might have made the team as a third, but there'd probably be no danger exposing Bell to the waiver process if they wanted to stash him on the developmental squad.

While spare arms in camp come and go, Bell's made a bit of an impression on the coaching staff, as he's got nice touch on deep passes and an easygoing demeanor.

"He's got a strong arm," coach John Fox said. "He's a young player that is still learning the position in this league. He's got a live arm and he seems willing to learn, and he's made progress."

Of course, progress for Bell is getting to the point people know him and where he's from. He's explained countless times where his school is (the northern panhandle of Texas, 15 miles south of Amarillo), since many probably thought West Texas A&M was one of the fictional schools featured as opponents in football movies.

"I tell them about where it is and how much different it is here," he said with a grin. "And they seem to look at me a little dumbfounded sometimes, maybe not believing some of the things.

"It's a lot different. It's a lot smaller, a lot less people, no one comes to practice and watches; it's just a different world."

Of course, he's also become known by his camp nickname "Road House." Fox hung that one on him in reference to Patrick Swayze's character, James Dalton, in the cult movie about a Zen bouncer who beats up beer-swilling rednecks while fleeing from a secret past tragedy and romancing an emergency room doctor.

Believable stuff.

"Yeah, coach Fox likes to call me 'Road House,'" Bell said. "As long as he's happy with that, I'm fine with that. I've seen it a few times ... reluctantly."

But it's definitely not a reflection of his character.

His conversation was peppered with talk of the "blessing" this opportunity was for him, and he's got a wife and a young son. On the first day of camp, when one female proclaimed her admiration for who she thought was Carr, Bell smiled and politely said, "Thanks, but I'm not David."

So while his given name earned him a nickname, there's not much similarity between him and the kung fu master namesake Fox has latched onto.

"Yeah, I'm a bouncer back home," he said with a laugh.

At least he'll get a chance to make last call Thursday.

• Panthers notebook • 3C