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Carolina Panthers’ Byron Bell won over a heckling fan last Sunday – first with his play, then with his cleats

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

Most of the time, there is an invisible wall between players and fans at a sporting event. The players pretend they can't hear the fans, no matter how loud they are or what is being yelled. The fans in turn feel free to scream whatever they want.

Occasionally, that wall breaks down, however. Both player and fan realize that each is only human. This is a story about one of those moments, when a player and the fan who heckled him found common ground.

Byron Bell, 24, is the Carolina Panthers' starting right tackle. A nice guy off the field, he is so ornery on it that at least twice this summer he got into on-field scuffles – with his own teammates.

John Hurley, 24, sits in the second row of Section 134 at Bank of America Stadium. He has grown up with the team and attends every game. “I've missed five home games my entire life,” he said. He had gotten engaged the day before the Panthers-New York Giants game Sept. 15 and was feeling feisty as he sat in the stands with his fiancee and her parents.

About 10 minutes before the game, Hurley – who was wearing a Steve Smith jersey – saw Bell walking right in front of him at the 20-yard line and suddenly decided to heckle him.

The obvious sore spot Hurley chose to reference? Bell's very poor performance the week before, when Buffalo defensive end Mario Williams had beaten Bell for the majority of his 4.5 sacks of quarterback Cam Newton. Williams helped Buffalo edge Carolina, 24-23, while setting a record for the most sacks the Panthers had ever allowed to a single player.

“Hey Byron,” Hurley yelled as Bell walked by him. “Mario Williams said thanks for last week!”

Players get yelled at all the time. Mostly, they ignore it. This time, Bell didn't.

“He was jawing at me,” Bell said of Hurley. “So I kind of looked up at him. Look, people can say whatever they want to say. I had had a bad game. But nobody's perfect.”

According to Hurley and nearby Panther fan Tripp McNeill, Bell – 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds – then started walking toward midfield. He kept staring at Hurley, who is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds.

“He was giving me the death glare,” Hurley said.

“It couldn't have been any more obvious,” said McNeill, who owns seats on the front row directly in front of the Hurley family's seats. “Byron walked from the 20, all the way to 50, and never took his eyes off of Johnny. It was a frozen stare.”

The game started. Bell had been so downcast about his performance against Williams the week before that he had repeatedly told teammates he was sorry and had even sent coach Ron Rivera an apologetic text message.

“I took ownership of it,” Bell said. “And then I moved on.”

Did he ever. The Panthers started scoring regularly. Bell was playing dominant football.

Each time Carolina scored, Hurley said, Bell would look up at him – sometimes smiling, sometimes in an “I told you so” sort of way.

“I thought it was cool he was noticing,” Hurley said.

Bell acknowledged this in our interview, saying he wanted to make the point to Hurley, his teammates and everyone else in the stadium that his performance against Buffalo was an anomaly, not a trend.

“Guys who get to the hall of fame also get beat sometimes, and that week was my week to get beat,” Bell said. “But I bounced back. I think I played lights out against the Giants.”

The numbers bear that out. Rivera said Bell and fellow tackle Jordan Gross graded out the highest on the offensive line in Carolina's 38-0 win over the Giants. Bell received a game ball from Rivera. The website Pro Football Focus wrote: “One week after giving up seven total pressures against Buffalo, Byron Bell rebounded with a clean sheet. Also a strong day run-blocking.”

The last time Bell looked over, Hurley grinned at him and gave him two big thumbs-up.

That could have been it, but Bell decided he wanted to meet the fan. “It wasn't one of those confrontation-type deals,” Bell said. “I just wanted to talk to him.”

So after shaking hands with opposing players at midfield, Bell came sprinting toward Section 134.

“Byron Bell is coming to kick your butt!” McNeill yelled to Hurley.

But Bell was smiling. Hurley walked a couple of steps over to the rail. Bell extended his huge hand and shook Hurley's, telling him thanks for adding an extra dose of motivation just before the game.

“I want you to have something,” Bell added. He took off his cleats. On them, Bell had written “Rest in peace Isaiah” – a reference to Bell's younger brother who died in a house fire in 2007 in Texas. He told Hurley and the other fans leaning over about his late brother.

Bell handed the cleats up to Hurley. Even though Hurley has been coming to games since he was in elementary school, it was the first time he had ever gotten something from a player.

“I had to eat some humble pie that day,” Hurley said. “Byron showed me what sort of guy he was that day – now I have an understanding of the man, not just the football player. I'm always going to be a Byron Bell fan.”

As for the cleats, Hurley has them on his dresser at home. He's not quite sure what he's going to do with them.

But he sure won't be wearing them: they are size 17.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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