Football in the South is religion. Small towns are painted in team colors and stadiums swell to hold the noise on Friday nights. It’s always been that way. Fifty years ago in rural South Carolina two fierce rivals were playing a late season match up. The score was tight and with the game on the line, one of the home team’s 2 way stars was taking himself out of the game after a brutal hit. Coach yells for him to get back in and without hesitation the player goes back to the huddle. Turns out Donnie Shell had a concussion that night, but even that couldn’t stop him from making plays on both sides of the ball.
Donnie Shell was a mainstay in the Steelers defense for thirteen years, second in games played only to Mike Webster. But it was almost a flip of a coin that brought him to Pittsburgh. Undrafted in 1974, he found himself teetering between offers from Denver and Pittsburgh. At his coach’s urging, he went to the Steelers, for less money, but to play for a “hard working blue collar team”. Fifty one interceptions later, I think we owe that coach an Iron City.
Donnie Shell knows what it means to be tough. Just ask Bennie Cunningham who played Tight End for the Steelers and had the daunting job of going against Shell every day in practice, “Games were easy compared to that” he laughs. Cincinnati running back Archie Griffin called him the hardest hitter in the NFL, “He hit me so
hard he hurt my shoulder and my knee at the same time”.
In 1978 the Houston Oilers were a dangerous team. Earl Campbell was setting the league on fire in only his first year. Coming off a marquee Monday night win against the Steelers, Houston was ready to fire up the pistons and hand Pittsburgh another loss late in the season. Playoff spots were on the line. The game was tight and with Houston driving, Campbell took a handoff from Pastorini, crashed through the line, and picked up some nice yardage in the process. Bouncing off a tackle, he rebounds ready break free and … BAM. Like a bat out of hell, Donnie Shell comes out of nowhere and slams Campbell to the ground. That’s why they called him the “Torpedo”.
Donnie Shell also knows what it means to be humble. Maybe it was his southern upbringing under poor circumstances with 9 brothers and sisters. He learned to make due, prolonging the life of his shoes by using cardboard to replace the soles. As a five time pro bowl selection, four time super Bowl Champion, NFL Strong Safety leader in interceptions, he should be in Canton. But when asked about his absence, Shell is content, “Let the record books do the talking” he says. But a smile creeps
across his face when he remembers his favorite game, a three interception work
of art against Cleveland. Nobody does that. Nobody. Not even today in a pass first NFL.
A natural mentor, Shell found himself in an ideal position after his playing days. Using the Master’s degree in guidance and counseling he had earned during his time with the Steelers, he was hired in 1994 as the Carolina Panthers Director of Player Development where he served for 15 years. On his priority list for player programs were financial learning, family assistance, and continuing education. He had found his second calling, earning “Most Outstanding Player Programs” for three consecutive years. In 2002 the NFL Player Development Department created the Winston/Shell Award in honor of Donnie being a pioneer of sorts, always having the most creative program in the NFL. He was inducted into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame in 1998.
Shell didn’t see immediate playing time in the NFL, but was named Captain of Special Teams in his second season. Like everything in his life he took it all in stride “I want to be a starter someday” he told the Pittsburgh Post in 1976, “I know my time is coming… (I have) the patience to wait for my opportunity”. He made the most of his early years on the kick coverage unit, putting passion into each time he was on the field. He may not have clocked the fastest 40, but he always got to the play first, as if he was shot from a cannon. “The reason I go down there so fast (to cover kicks), well, to tell you the truth, I don’t like to get beat on anything”, and it’s pretty safe to say Donnie’s never been beat to anything, including dinner. You can imagine being a kid in a family with a dozen mouths to feed; being first in line was a smart move.
Shell’s roots in South Carolina run deep. During his time with the Steelers he made
frequent trips home, always helping out the younger guys in football and in life. They say he always came back in the same jeans he left in, proving that Donnie Shell was giving so much more that he was taking. Shell was a great guy in coverage, hit like a freight train and had cat like reflexes to get him the ball. He was a Torpedo.