Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell on their origin story, Super Bowl memories and gold stars galore

Former NFL stars Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell spoke exclusively to RadioTimes.com in the build-up to hosting Super Bowl coverage live on BBC this weekend.

Osi Umenyiora Jason Bell

“Once you start running out there, you just see, it almost seemed like a million camera flashes, lights going off everywhere. It was an incredible feeling.

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“The minute the game starts, your body automatically shifts into what you’ve been trained to do over the course of your entire life. Leading up to the game and then running out there, the adrenaline that you feel, the things that you see going on. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Osi Umenyiora has experienced a Super Bowl from a vantage point countless numbers dream of, though few will ever witness.

Armour-clad, hot breath colliding with cold February air, staring down GOAT-elect Tom Brady in the closest 21st century equivalent of gladiatorial showdown, ‘Umenyiora 72’ got the job done with the New York Giants. Twice.

This weekend, two-time champion Osi will take up a very different position, watching Brady – the man he once wrapped around like a blanket on the field – embark on his Super Bowl 2021 odyssey, 4,000 miles away, from the comfort of the BBC sofa.

He makes up one half of an increasingly popular partnership alongside former teammate, inseparable friend, and part-time ballroom dancing whizz, Jason Bell.

The pair form the face of the National Football League in the UK. Their joyous chemistry, the glint in their eyes, the passion and verve for a sport that gave them so much – the infectious duo have cult status among the growing legions of American Football fans on this side of the Atlantic.

RadioTimes.com enjoyed an exclusive chat with the pair in the lead-up to Super Bowl LV as Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs aim to defend their crown against Tampa Bay Buccaneers and near-indomitable talisman Brady… but first things first, do they actually like each other?

“I’ll tell you how it works. I’ll tell you how this whole thing happened,” Bell began to lay down the origin story, beaming.

“When I got to New York, a good friend of ours, Antonio Pierce the linebacker is from where I’m from in Long Beach, California. When I first signed with the Giants, Antonio said: ‘These are the guys I’m friends with and they’re cool. And you’re going to be friends with them’.” Osi was on that list.

“He’s not standoffish, but you’ve got to know him, he’s got to have a conversation with you and be like: ‘Oh, I want to have another conversation with this guy,’ and as I had more conversations with him and got to know him and watch how he did things, I had so much respect for him. He had no choice but to be my friend, I was gonna hunt him down for our friendship.

Osi Umenyiora Jason Bell
Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell either side of Antonio Pierce, the man who brought them together
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“We also respect how each other we plays, right? I got to see Osi play all the time because I’m in the back watching him and I’m like: ‘This guy is out of control’. He was hurt one game and he got a chance to watch me play on television. He came back the next day and was really excited to talk to me!”

Osi expanded: “I spent so much time as a defensive end just focusing so much on my position I never really knew what they were doing back there, then I got injured. They travelled to play Tennessee and I was at home sitting down with one of my other buddies and we’re watching the game and I was like: ‘Damn, Jason is balling!’ He was making plays. When they came back, I went up to him, we became really cool.

“When you look at what me and Jason have, this is 2021. What he’s talking about happened in 2006. We’re talking about a friendship that goes back 15 years. It’s a long time to be aware of somebody. We’d hang out in the offseason, I came to LA to do some thing, Jason was there, we hung out. At a party at my house, I think it was in ’06 when Jason first got there, he came over.

“It’s been a long time that we’ve known each other and that’s why you see what you see. What you see between me and him, it’s real. It’s not like an act.”

In the months that followed Jason and Osi’s first encounters with one another, Bell soldiered through multiple games of the Giants’ 2006 season with a fractured arm. Unfortunately, soon after, he was forced to retire from the sport prematurely in 2008 due to back surgery.

That same year, Umenyiora formed part of a seven-man wrecking crew that brought Brady – then with the New England Patriots – to his knees (and again in 2012).

Osi Umenyiora
Osi Umenyiora helps take down Tom Brady at the Super Bowl in 2006
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“It was a complete blur. The first Super Bowl, I don’t really remember the game that much because to me, it was almost as if somebody else was playing and I was just like watching the game happen. It was a surreal moment. The second one, I remember that one in vivid detail, but the first one it was, it was ridiculous man, it was almost like somebody else was playing.

“And conversely, that was the game, I played the best in. Maybe I should have probably done that more often throughout my career. Have somebody else playing while I’m just looking.”

Following their careers, both men moved to the UK and have enjoyed sustained success on this side of the pond.

Bell said: “I’ve always been interested in different cultures, especially when I first got into the NFL and was able to travel. I was spending time in the offseason in Europe, the UK, and I’ve always found that interest in people from all different walks of life, and you get that here.

“Being involved with the NFL has just been a very special experience out here. I feel that my connection to this country is through the sport of the NFL. And I feel like I kind of belong here because of that. Even though I’m an immigrant, this isn’t my native country, because of that association with the NFL, I feel like I belong here. It’s been quite surreal, but I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else at the moment. I love this country for a lot of reasons. And I’m just very appreciative that I’m here. I don’t mind the weather to be honest. I like the weather, but that’s being from California.”

We’re speaking after a fresh dusting of snow across London, not enough to construct an adequate ball, enough to spark a flurry of excitement. “I’m into that we didn’t grow up with that,” Bell revealed.

Bell is an impressive speaker – confident and upbeat, driven and polished, a smile never more than a few seconds away.

The 42-year-old recently made it through three weeks of a lockdown-embroiled series of Strictly Come Dancing, an experience that has woven him deeper into the Great British tapestry.

Jason Bell
Jason Bell enjoyed time with the Houston Texans and New York Giants during his career
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“That was an experience. I thought about something Osi said, the Super Bowl started and it wasn’t too big for him and he balled because of it, and I said: ‘Man, Osi, I wish you would have told me that on Strictly, man!’ because I could have used that.

“When they go out there and they tell you how many people are watching it, it can quickly become a little nerve wracking but I really enjoyed it. Osi was there, when they allowed people to come, and that was very special. My friends, Nadine, Osi and his wife came and that made it special for me – that experience with the people you care about.

“I see why the country loves it because not only is it entertaining, but as a person who took part in it, I learned a lot about myself that I haven’t really been able to learn since I retired. You have to be put in pressure situations to kind of tap into those skills and Strictly allowed that to happen and I understand why it has the notoriety and love it does.”

The spotlight shifts to Umenyiora. Does he fancy a go? “No, no, no, no, no. That’s not for me. That is not for me.”

Osi has a calm presence, perhaps more reserved than Jason, but warm, insightful and armed with a deep laugh, a frequent sound from both of the guys that would put the bass levels on my laptop speakers to the test.

The 39-year-old was born in London, raised in Golders Green, until the age of seven when he left the UK with his family to live in Nigeria. When asked where he would define ‘home’, he joked: “That’s a great question because I don’t really know. British people think I’m American. American people think I’m Nigerian. Nigerian people think I’m British. I’m just kind of floating around everywhere.

“I think because I’ve been able to adapt and take in different things from everybody’s culture, I’ll say I feel like home everywhere. But inside I feel Nigerian, but I feel at home in any one of these countries. There’s only really one thing I remember [growing up in the UK] but when I say it, it doesn’t come off well.

“Growing up – I don’t want to come off cocky or anything like that” [he didn’t] “they used to have this gold star system. I don’t know if they still do that. Whenever you do good, they’ll give you gold stars. And I remember growing up, under my name, it was like gold stars, my gold stars were all the way off the page. And everybody else’s was like this. And that’s the only thing I remember from growing up here!”

Osi Umenyiora Jason Bell
Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell are the face of the NFL in the UK
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Asked whether either of them would consider a return to the US, Umenyiora said: “I’ll never say never, but getting into the coaching situation in America, I think would be really difficult.

“I’d have to be on my last legs and be broke. Coaching is a hard gig. It’s not easy. You’ve got to deal with some knuckleheads, you’ve got to deal with some people who are really stubborn. It’s not like it is in college or in high school – it’s a very difficult thing to do. I much prefer to be out here, I like it out here, and hopefully me and Jason will continue to be able to progress out here.

Bell jumps back in, after initialling ruling out a return, the scent of Osi’s departure gets to him. “I want to change my answer. If he says we’re going back coaching, I guess I’m going coaching! My answer is whatever Osi tells us we’re doing, I’m pretty much gonna be involved in that.”

For now, British TV screens will continue to be graced by Jason and Osi – and we will be all the richer for it – with the Super Bowl coming live this Sunday evening.

For first-timers, an NFL game is a daunting affair, that’s before adding the unique bedlam of a Super Bowl into the equation. Do the guys have any tips for how to get started?

“I don’t know if I give you any tips on watching the NFL game besides sit there, get some food, maybe get a little alcoholic beverage if you’re that kind of guy, if you’re into that sort of thing,” begins Osi, a mischievous grin breaking out. “Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle that is the biggest sport in America.

“I have a plethora of snacks. You name it, I’m probably eating it on the Super Bowl. My wife makes really good food. She makes these little sausage rolls. And Jason knows about those little sausage rolls. We have this little Margarita that she makes? And it’s just an all day affair.”

Bell’s excited eyes light up at the mention of the the home cooking, but his focus returns to Chiefs v Buccaneers, the mouthwatering clash we have in store: “If it’s your first time watching it, these two quarterbacks, you have heard about them.

“As the game comes to a close, one of them is going to have the ball in their hands. You watch them go down there, drive down the field, score, get some points and you’ll just see the magic. You will feel it. You will understand why they’re so special. Not everybody can do that.

“And that’s why we’re talking about these two guys, as an amazing match-up and two of the greatest to ever play.”

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Super Bowl LV is live on BBC One and BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday 7th February with kick-off at 11:30pm. If you’re looking for anything else to watch, head over to our TV Guide.