Jets safety Yeremiah Bell during training camp in Cortland. (July...

Jets safety Yeremiah Bell during training camp in Cortland. (July 29, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

The framed picture hanging in Emory Crawford's family room is a constant reminder of the unlikely and unbreakable bond between a steel millworker and an NFL player.

The photo was taken the same day Yeremiah Bell, 34, returned this summer to his roots in Winchester, Ky., amid the sheets of metal and steel-toe boots inside Contech Contruction. It was there that Bell called home for 18 months as he plotted his next step toward college and -- hopefully -- football.

Long before Jets coach Rex Ryan traveled to Kentucky in April to offer him a fresh start, Bell was earning less than $8 an hour to lift up to 1,000 metal pieces a day, weighing almost 100 pounds each. Before Bell became a star with the Dolphins, he was "Mi Mi" (pronounced "My My"), the polite and diligent worker who did his job without complaint. But all the while, he had his sights set on a better life.

"All through college, he kept telling me that, one of these days, he was going to get to the 'big leagues.' That's what he called it," Crawford, a Contech crew leader for almost 25 years, said in his thick, southern drawl during a phone interview in August. "And I said, 'Son, I hope you do.'

"I thought he was just dreaming like everybody else. But he kept dreaming and his dreams came true."

When the Dolphins deemed Bell too expensive to keep this offseason, the Jets swooped in. They signed the free-agent safety, who led Miami in tackles last season, to a $1.4-million contract, two months after acquiring LaRon Landry. The Jets saw the safety tandem as an instant upgrade over last year's duo: Eric Smith and Jim Leonhard.

Bell agrees.

"Not putting down those two guys, but I think we're both fast guys and we're all over the field," said Bell, the Jets' new signal-caller in the secondary. "They were probably a smarter group, but I think me and LaRon are probably more athletic."

Despite suffering a bone bruise in his knee, Bell will be ready for Sunday's season opener against Buffalo, according to Ryan. And the veteran is eager to prove he's more than just a down-in-the-box safety.

The day after the NFL draft ended, Ryan flew to Kentucky with one goal: recruit Bell to New York. "We're fortunate that he decided to come with us because we clearly weren't the only team that wanted him," said Ryan, who has raved about Bell's leadership, blitzing ability and cover skills.

But before Bell left for Cortland with his new teammates, he visited his Contech family.

Having received no college offers, Bell worked lots of odd jobs. "But that's where I found my home," he said of the steel mill where he worked a day shift, curving sheets of metal for guardrails and tunnel liners.

Spurred by "The Roy Kidd Show," a highlight show featuring the former Eastern Kentucky coach that aired Sundays, Bell enrolled at the university and eventually walked on to the football team at age 20. He returned to Contech during the summers and eventually earned a scholarship. In 2003, he was drafted in the sixth round by Miami, and later became a star, recording 101 or more tackles in each of the past four seasons. He also was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2009.

Bell returned to Contech one day this summer at exactly 11:30 a.m. -- lunchtime -- and stayed for an hour and a half. His former co-workers noticed his arms had gotten a little bigger, but other than that, "Mi Mi" still looked the same. It was like a family reunion, as they shared updates and reminisced about the old days in the steel mill. They talked about Bell's daily challenges to play Crawford in an after-work game of hoops on the blacktop parking lot in 90-degree heat.

"I had never been beat one-on-one in a contest until he came in," Crawford, 47, a former walk-on on Eastern Kentucky's basketball team, said with a laugh.

It's moments like these the crew leader remembers when he sees the photo hanging in his family room. The photo of him and "Mi Mi." Together, just like in the old days.

"Oh," Crawford said, quietly. "I miss him a lot."

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