Markquese Bell couldn’t sit still as family, friends and Florida A&M teammates gathered in a cigar lounge several miles from campus to watch Day 2 of the NFL draft. They hoped to witness Bell become the first Rattler drafted since Brandon Hepburn in 2013.
Murmurs that Bell could sneak into the third round excited him but made him anxious. He spent the evening waiting on the call that could change his life.
The waiting game was torturous. Bell leaned on his grandmother, Pauline, for emotional support while draft picks came in, and she reassured him. Pauline brought the infant Bell home from the hospital and has taken care of him since. Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons told him he would hear his name called soon. His family distracted him by taking pictures next to the numerous banners hanging up to celebrate him. Teammates held conversations with him, cracking jokes and reminiscing about their playing careers while the draft played in the background.
The call wouldn’t come that night.
“It has been pretty stressful, but you know just having my family help me calm down,” Bell told Andscape that night. “They’re talking to me all the time, so it’s a blessing.”
No player from a historically black college or university (HBCU) heard their name called Day 2 of the NFL draft. On Day 3, Bell’s grandmother stayed home to rest while everyone gathered back at the lounge, hoping to hear his name on the final day.
The fourth round passed. Fifth round. Sixth round. Seventh round.
As the final selections came, it set in that Bell’s name wouldn’t be called. His agent’s phone rang multiple times, with teams reaching out to Bell hoping to sign him as an undrafted free agent ahead of rookie minicamp. Looking back to his pre-draft visit and with some salary guarantees, Bell believed the Dallas Cowboys were a great fit for him.
“[Cowboys secondary] Coach [Joe] Whitt, he’s a great coach. He’s a great guy and also he coached my [former FAMU] coach [Brandon] Sharp in college. So you know, that was just something we had in common. We both knew him. We both could talk about the different stuff,” Bell said of the Cowboys during his draft process. “So it was real family-orientated when I came on my visit. I met with everybody, the Jones family [and] they were all smiles, welcomed me with open arms.”
Bell was one of four HBCU players invited to February’s NFL combine. He also played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. At 6-feet-2, with a reputation for speed, versatility and hard hits, Bell was primed to be one of the rising names during the draft process.
Fayetteville State’s Joshua Williams and South Carolina State’s Decobie Durant heard their names early on Day 3 of the NFL draft, and Southern’s Ja’Tyre Carter was a late seventh-round pick. Bell was the only HBCU player invited to the NFL combine not to hear his name called during the NFL draft.
Bell still doesn’t know why he slipped in the draft, but not hearing his name wasn’t the most memorable thing that happened that day, sharing the news with his grandmother was.
“What I remember most was going back to my house and being able to tell my grandma that I was a Dallas Cowboy. That was the highlight of those two days right there,” Bell told Andscape.
“When she calls me if she needs something, I’m able to do for her and I’m in a position hopefully a couple years down the line to be able to take care of her [how] I want to where she won’t have to ask anything.”
The announcement was the culmination of years of support and answered prayers for Pauline Bell.
“I pray for him every night. Those prayers have been answered,” his grandmother said of him signing with an NFL team. “He said he did it for me so before I leave here I can enjoy myself … I don’t know nothing about football. I only watch football to watch [Markquese] play. I saw him on TV the other day [and] I cried because I didn’t know he could go this far.”
Going into Cowboys rookie camp, Bell knew nothing would be given to him since he was coming from an HBCU, and he would have to earn his position. Being undrafted no longer meant anything to him. He wanted to capitalize on the opportunity.
“I’m just as good as anybody else that was drafted or not drafted. I want to come out with that chip on my shoulder and be that player I was in college,” Bell said. “Play with tenacity, play physical, smart play, learn to do defense, and contribute in any way I can.
Veteran safety Jayron Kearse led the Cowboys in tackles last season and noticed the undrafted rookie during training camp.
“[Bell’s] just a young player that’s trying to continue to get better every day. [He] comes out, goes hard, listens, pays attention in the film room, knows his job and he’s also a player that has a lot of ability. Fast guy, big, strong, physical, can do everything,” Kearse said of Bell during camp. “So it’s going to come down to when his opportunity comes and continue to get better every day and he’s going to show up.”
Bell appreciated veterans noticing him and being available for advice. “It’s always a learning experience, so it’s some new things that you can pick up on. It means a lot to me, just knowing that I came in and I was on the right path, doing all the right things to earn those guys’ respect. That’s the biggest part. Once you earn the respect of the room, it makes it a lot easier because they trust you.”
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn initially wanted Bell as a linebacker. After Dallas took linebackers Damone Clark and Devin Harper in the draft, Quinn envisioned Bell in a defensive hybrid role, playing some snaps at safety and linebacker.
“He’s off to an excellent start. You feel someone’s hunger for it. You just do. … I feel that with Markquese. … I’m going in the lab a little bit to find out what they can do, and try to feature them in those ways,” Quinn said about Bell during training camp. “What I’ve seen so far is somebody that can handle multiple roles and I do feel like he has the speed and length to play two spots in our defense both on the back end at safety and down closer to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker when he was coming out of Florida A&M.”
As a result, Bell spent most of his first training camp learning multiple positions as Quinn experimented with Bell in different packages during the Cowboys’ preseason games.
“Just being a student of the game, trying to learn the playbook inside and out. I learned to play with it pretty fast. So now I’m just trying to learn all the details and all the coverages of everybody’s job, so if they need anybody, I can be that person,” Bell said. “I can go down and play linebacker [or] if they need a nickel corner, whatever. Just try to be as helpful to the team as I can.”
Bell intercepted a tipped ball during the Cowboys’ final preseason game against Seattle and returned it for 30 yards. Bell’s interception won the praise of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who interrupted his sideline interview to root Bell on.
“We all had hopes that he would get drafted, but the main goal is to make it to the NFL, and he’s done that. We knew the gem that we had in Markquese Bell over the last three years, and now the Dallas Cowboys get to see it firsthand,” Simmons told Andscape via text message. “He is not only one of the best players I’ve ever coached, but he’s also one of the best people! I’m officially a Cowboys fan!”
Bell is Florida A&M’s only player on an NFL roster and one of 16 players from HBCUs to make the initial 53-player NFL rosters. Bell and Norfolk’s De’Shaan Dixon were the only two undrafted HBCU players in the 2022 class to make their teams. Bell was inactive for the Cowboys season opener but debuted a week later primarily on special teams coverage.
“I don’t even know how to explain it. It was a dream come true wearing the star on my shirt,” Bell said. “So [last] weekend, I was just on special teams. Just trying to help out in any way I could … Really just being able to get out there on the field in an NFL game I’m still trying to come to terms with it right now, but I got my first one in the books.”
After Kearse’s knee injury in Week 1, Bell’s opportunity to play more defensive snaps at safety arrived, and he recorded his first NFL tackle in the Cowboys’ Week 3 win over the New York Giants. Bell is diligently working to earn more time in the future, but he just wants the Cowboys to win.
“This is a blessing, but you know, I still got some things I need to work on, where I can get on the field a little bit more. Right now, I’m just trying to perfect my craft so when I do get put in they can trust me fully, our play style doesn’t drop off,” Bell said.
“I just want to see myself develop as a player, learn how to be a pro, [and] learn how to just do the little things, right. I know I’m not the player that I will be in the future. So right now I’m just striving to be that player who wants to win … Hopefully we continue going on the path that we are right now to keep getting these wins. I get some snaps here and there. But honestly, I’m just grateful to be on the team. … When my time comes, I’m ready for it.”