Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker is violent and dangerous, but he’s also smart, aggressive, fearless, and persistent. Though scary in a villain, those are all qualities that are positive in a football player and qualities that San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver Ronnie Bell – a seventh-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan – manifests on the field.
“The Dark Night is my favorite movie,” Bell said. “And so I guess that’s where it started. That was the initial video, me watching just clips of that, and then clips of specifically just the Joker in that movie and then the Joker in this, and the Joker in that. Then before I knew it, I was in it.
“…[I] ended up going down a deep, deep rabbit hole of Joker stuff and before I knew it, that kind of became my thing and it became something I was really, really into. I got tattoos all over my body now of the Joker. But it all started my freshman year…It was just one random night, before I knew it I was like four or five hours in and just YouTube, just all sorts of Joker mess.”
The gameday persona has not been lost on Bell’s 49ers’ teammates.
“He’s a different person on gameday, for sure,” said 49ers’ wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. “He’s like the Joker – he’s just smart. He knows what he’s got to come and do and get done. Smart dude.”
Bell has caught the attention of another Joker – so to speak – on the 49ers’ offense, as tight end George Kittle taps into that same mentality.
“I kind of see the cartoon version of it, because one of my favorite things about Ronnie, you saw in the preseason, he gets a ball in his hand,” Kittle said. “He’s violent, he’s physical, but just what we’ve seen so far. He had a great route for a touchdown, cover zero does exactly what he’s supposed to do and gets rewarded for it. But you see him blocking and trying to knock people over and then he’ll get a pancake on a corner and he just hops up and jogs off the field…I really appreciate people like that. He’s just, I’m going to do everything I can. I’m going to try to ruin your day on this one play. And then, oh, next play. I’m good. I appreciate that.”
Per 49ers’ rookie kicker and Bell college teammate Jake Moody, that style of play embodies Ronnie Bell.
“He’ll do everything up until the whistle that’s considered legal, but pushing the limits,” Moody said. “And he doesn’t care to get in any fights or anything like that. He’ll get on people’s nerves, joke around with them and the second that the play’s over, he’ll just run away. And that’s always been his style. He’s never got to try and pick any fights. He’s just going to do whatever he can to get in the other guy’s head without breaking any rules or getting any flags.”
Although the 49ers’ are killing the seventh-round pick game, a talented and veteran wide receiver room made making the 53-man roster an uphill battle for Bell.
“I played against Ronnie for three years when I was at Penn State and he was at Michigan,” aid 49ers’ rookie safety Ji’Ayir Brown. ” He was always was on a scout sheet, always was a guy to look out for, matching up against him. He always was a guy who played, who showed up. I had the most confidence that Ronnie was going to make this team and that he was going to be a player on this team.”
The work, the personality, and the fortitude was noticed throughout the 49ers’ offense.
“He had such a good attitude,” said 49ers’ running back Christian McCaffrey. “He was doing all the things that, called grunt work, he was doing all that extremely fast and extremely well. He was running off safeties full speed, he was blocking, he was making tough catches…so it’s been cool to see him compete. He’s a fighter and it’s what you want in a rookie receiver who’s in that position. So we’re all proud of him and excited for him to continue to grow.”
Bell shone throughout the preseason and was getting snaps as soon as the regular season began.
“When he struggles or when he’s not being successful and you get on him a little bit, he is not a guy who sits there and pouts and feels sorry for himself,” said 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He kind of has a chip on his shoulder and rises to the occasion and rarely makes the same mistake twice. You can tell how fiery he is out there with blocking, having the ball in his hands and he’s a talented dude, too. So he’s going to keep improving for us.”
Though it wasn’t showing up in stats, his key blocks and special teams play were noticeable. Then, in Week 3 against the New York Giants, Bell recorded his first NFL catch and first NFL touchdown simultaneously, turned a would-be interception into a catch, and had an important special teams tackle. Smart, aggressive, fearless.
“Put the ball in the air, Ronnie Bell’s coming down with it,” said Michigan wide receivers’ coach Ron Bellamy. “That’s something that we used to always talk about here is just put it close to him because he’s going to make a play for you.”
That’s the mindset Bell has with every snap.
“If it’s in the air, you got to go get it,” Bell said. “Like the deep ones, the high ones, whatever it is. If you got to jump up and go get it, you got to be the one to go get it.”
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That aggressiveness is something 49ers’ wide receivers coach Leonard Hankerson noticed early too.
“What stood out about him was, first, his toughness,” Hankerson said. “Whenever he got the ball in his hand, the kid was hard to bring down…He made plays wherever Michigan really put him…I always look at physicality, toughness…He has been doing a great job of working on the mental side of it with the playbook, and then going through Rookie Minicamp to OTAs. He has just been one of our most consistent guys just bringing it in the part, just doing it every single day.”
Like the Joker, not everything has come easily to Bell. He had a tough college recruiting process, as schools were more interested in Ronnie Bell the basketball player than Ronnie Bell the wide receiver. It was a late offer from Jim Harbaugh and Michigan that took him to Ann Arbor, aka the best place ever.
Though Bell’s first college catch was a touchdown, they weren’t all perfect and he faced early and loud criticism. He found tremendous success, though, and entered 2021 as Michigan’s top wide receiver but tore his ACL in the first half of the first game of the season.
“Ronnie loves that The Joker has an organized chaos way of doing things,” said Missouri Western State University wide receivers coach, and Ronnie Bell’s father, Aaron Bell. “And I think that’s kind of helped him throughout some of his adversity. Whatever comes his way adversity wise, he knows it’s some form of chaos. And he just locks into this mode of I’m going to defeat it no matter what it is.”
Bell returned in 2022 to have a career year, as he helped the Wolverines to beat Ohio State, repeat at Big Ten Champions, and then play in the college football semifinal.
“When I think of football, thinking how it goes, man, bullets get to flying,” Bell said. “It’s chaos and that’s something [the Joker] speaks about, being an agent of chaos, being something that he’s about and able to flow with. And my favorite thing about him, though, is that no matter really how it goes, whether he’s winning, Batman’s winning, whoever’s winning, whenever he’s doing what he’s doing, it doesn’t alter the way that he’s going about his business. He’s attacking and doing what he’s trying to do.”
Due to his leadership while in college, Bellamy gives Bell credit for the success that current Michigan wide receivers are having.
“Just the way they watched Ronnie practice, the way he attacked things, the way he just challenged, not only himself, but the guys on defense and the other receivers,” Bellamy said. “Being his position coach, I’ve seen that manifest in our wide receiver room. And it happened when Ronnie left here, he passed the torch to Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson, and those guys are having fantastic years. And you can see some of Ronnie’s personality coming out with those guys, and it’s pretty awesome to see.”
Speaking of his personality, Bell has fun and it’s part of what has endeared him to his 49ers’ teammates.
“That’s always a part of it, just being able to fit in the locker room, fit in the receiver room, just to have fun with other guys,” Hankerson said. “Any time you can get around guys that you have no familiarity with it, then you get there and you learn, then you can be yourself, and to open up and to express how you feel and the beauty of who you are…He’s a good dude, genuine guy. He loves to smile. Always has a smile on his face. I think he always does the right thing. So, he’s actually good to be around.”
Case in point, he taught himself magic, yes magic, during OTAs.
“He’s a competitor,” Aaron Bell said. “Whatever it is, he’s trying to win. He actually told me. He just picked up golf last year, and I’ve been playing for 20 years. He told me, ‘In three years, I’m beating you.’ And I’m just like, “Oh, okay. Right.” But the thing about him is he has fun doing it all. Even though he’s competing, he’s having fun doing it all.”
The fun factor, because, after all, football is a game, and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that.
“He likes to have fun and play football,” said 49ers QB Brock Purdy. “And honestly, for me, I sort of feed off that, and I like that, just as a young guy who can come in and sort of just play loose and have fun with the guys and sort of remind all of us that man, we’re playing ball. And yes, you got to be locked in, do your job, do it right consistently. But Ronnie does a great job with just bringing just a little bit more juice and energy with the guys being that young body, that young mind. So I feel like he’s a little different in that area and I like it.”
The 49ers (4-0) take on the Dallas Cowboys (3-1) in prime time on Sunday, and the seventh-round pick who just made it to the Big Ten school will be a guy to watch.
“There’s just times I sit back and I’ll talk to my nephew about it or whatnot, and I’m just like, ‘Yo, he’s really in the NFL. This is crazy.'”
Smart, aggressive, fearless, and persistent.