Quiet Bilal Powell making noise as hard-working Jets back
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Bilal Powell grabs one of the folding chairs propped against the wall and sets it down at the edge of the indoor practice field at One Jets Drive.
The sunlight seeping through the opaque windows late Wednesday afternoon does little to brighten up the expansive space. But the stillness and the shadows of the empty field house seem quite fitting for Powell. The Jets running back is purposely reserved, intentionally understated. And unlike some athletes, the spotlight is one thing he doesn't crave.
"Can I just ask, why did you want to talk to me?" he says in the most earnest of voices.
The quietest man in the meeting room has quietly emerged as one of the most trusted players in Marty Mornhinweg's offense heading into Sunday's showdown between the Jets (3-3) and the AFC East rival Patriots (5-1).
Powell isn't flashy, but he works hard. Damn hard, his coaches will tell you. He's not a burner, but he's determined to gain that extra yard for the good of the team. And he's survived a heck of a lot to get here.
But if he had it his way, you wouldn't know about any of that.
"He literally should have died," said Louisville running backs coach and special-teams coordinator Kenny Carter.
Before Powell became the Jets' starting back, before he rushed for 1,405 yards as a Louisville senior, he was known for running the streets and occasionally carrying a gun. But he's reluctant to rehash the details of his checkered past.
He'd rather not get into his involvement with a neighborhood gang in his hometown of Lakeland, Fla., or the night his mother, Stephanie, found him lying on the pavement, bleeding from a knife wound inches from his kidney after a 2005 street fight.
"I'd say the average person in America would probably not survive in the situations that he had to negotiate," Carter said.
But after years of soul-searching, he has come to accept it all. And Powell, who will turn 25 next Sunday, doesn't regret the path that brought him to this very moment.
"I try to see that everything happens for a reason," said the married father of a soon-to-be 18-month-old boy.
Carter knew what he had in Powell. But the running back didn't know his own potential.
While coaching at the University of Florida from 2008-09, Carter saw Powell, then a star at Lake Gibson High School, "almost single-handedly" beat a Lakeland powerhouse stacked with future NFL players.
"We knew when we got here that we had a gem who, for whatever reason with the previous staff, had not been used," said Carter, who followed head coach Charlie Strong to Louisville in 2010.
But Powell lacked confidence. He also had ball-security issues. So Carter -- who is as much a confidant as he is a coach -- used tough love to get through to his prized pupil.
"He doesn't like for people to just stroke him," Carter said of Powell, who amassed only 933 rushing yards in his first three seasons at Louisville. "He wants truth."
Said Powell: "He just tried to get me to believe -- which he did."
They still talk at least once a week, and while their conversations aren't always rooted in football, Carter freely offers blunt assessment. Immediately after the Jets lost, 38-13, to Tennessee, he texted Powell: " ---- ball security."
Weathering the storm
"The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm."
-- Exodus 14:14
Every morning Powell tries to read a Bible verse. With the aid of an iPhone app, he reads a few more between meetings. His favorite is Exodus 14:14.
"That's how I try to approach things. Just stay calm in any situation," said Powell, now a devout Christian.
He doesn't profess to be a saint. He's just trying to be better than he was yesterday.
Powell was even-keeled when the Jets acquired running backs Mike Goodson and Chris Ivory in the offseason. He still was unproven and few thought he could be an every-down back. But after seven weeks, Powell -- a fourth-round pick in 2011 -- is the AFC's fourth- leading rusher with 360 yards on 87 carries (4.1 yards per attempt).
"He's everything you want a player to be," Carter said. "So I just told him, 'Hey, weather that storm.' "
Meanwhile, Ivory (3.4 yards per carry) has struggled to stay healthy and Goodson -- who missed the first four games because of an offseason arrest -- is out for the season with a knee injury.
"I wasn't worried about it 'cause he wasn't worried about it," said Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley, Powell's best friend on the team. "His mind-set was, 'I've got to go take this job. It doesn't matter who's in front of me.' Besides, he's not selfish. As long as everybody's doing their part, he's happy."
Jets running backs coach Anthony Lynn acknowledged that Powell would get overlooked by some coaches. "But not with me," he said, adding that he saw a "wow factor" in Powell's college game tape. "The success he's having now, it's what I completely anticipated."
Still, the 5-10, 204-pound Powell isn't a household name.
Said Lynn: "If Bilal had the personality of a Mike Goodson, everybody would know who Bilal Powell is."
As a rookie, Powell would sit in meetings with his head down, eyes often closed. He never jotted down a single note.
"I used to get really, really ticked off at him because I thought he wasn't paying attention," Lynn said. "I thought maybe I was just boring him."
But a learning test administered by the team's sports psychologist helped Lynn tailor his teaching. Some football players learn by watching video, others need to physically walk through reps to absorb the material. Others, like Powell, are audio learners.
"He would rather listen to what you have to say than look at you," said Lynn, adding that Powell's audio grade came back extremely high. "And because he doesn't make a lot of mistakes on the field, I don't care if he ever takes a note."
Powell, however, was unaware that his failure to maintain eye contact created the perception that he was shy and disinterested. Even as the face of the Louisville football program, he shunned media attention and often declined interviews. But his desire to say little always was by design.
"He understands that's a tough city and he understands the minute that a chink in your armor is exposed . . . ," Carter said of the New York market. "Remember, he watched what happened with Mark Sanchez."
Powell leans forward on the folding chair and clasps his hands together. His eyes dart from side to side before eventually settling on the reddish-brown rubber floor beneath his feet. His words are measured. So is his voice.
Banners featuring great men of the Jets' past hang from the Ring of Honor wall in the indoor facility as Powell speaks of his own journey to the NFL. He talks about fatherhood and how his son Tavis is a constant reminder to be a better man.
"I know he's looking at everything I do," he said.
Powell's quiet nature masks his once-reckless ways. His past transgressions are part of an early chapter in the Book of Bilal. But there is much more to his story -- and far more left to write.
"You just see the book," Kerley said. "You don't turn it over and read the back, you don't open it up and read the first three pages. You just look at him and you're like, he's a quiet kid. He must have gone to a private school or something."