Legends Series: Donnie Shell
His nickname was “The Torpedo,” one befitting of his closing speed and willingness to launch himself at anyone with the ball. But Donnie Shell could have had a number of other nicknames during his time with the Steelers, underdog being another viable option.
Shell came to the Steelers as a member of the Class of 1974, yes the same class that yielded four future Hall of Famers. But Shell was an undrafted rookie free agent that year, someone who was tasked with beating the odds to make the roster. He did just that, lasting14 seasons in the black and gold, making five Pro Bowls and being a key figure on four Super Bowl championship teams.
“It’s very challenging,” said Shell. “You weren’t drafted and you see all these draft choices and they seem to be getting all of the attention. That’s one thing I liked about Coach (Chuck) Noll. He didn’t care. He didn’t care what round you were taken in, he didn’t care if you were first round, last round or free agent. Are you self-motivated, can you help the team win, and are you a good team member? That is what he cared about?
“Pittsburgh was my favorite team. I always saw Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount and now I am able to get on the field and practice with them. I was kind of in awe. When it came down to it, football is football.”
Shell ranks third on the Steelers all-time interception list with 51, behind only Hall of Famers Mel Blount (57) and Jack Butler (52).
“That is great company and two great men,” said Shell. “On the field and off the field. I am honored to have my name spoken in the same breath as those two guys.”
Of those 51 interceptions Shell said there is one that really stands out. It was in 1980 against the Baltimore Colts. The Steelers were holding on to 20-17 lead late in the game, but Colts quarterback Bert Jones had them driving. Shell intercepted Jones at the Steelers four-yard line, and returned it 25 yards, allowing the offense to eventually run out the clock for the win.
“He was just picking us apart,” recalled Shell. “We finally settled down, Coach told us settle down. We were playing Cover 2 and he told us they are throwing the quick slant. I settled down and picked off the ball and it changed the momentum and we won a close game in Baltimore.”
Shell also weighed in on a variety of other topics in this exclusive interview:
What did it mean to play for the Steelers?
“It was awesome to have the opportunity to come up like I did as an undrafted free agent and for them to give me an opportunity. It was special. That was all I was looking for, a chance. Coach (Chuck) Noll was that type of coach. He was looking for people that were self-motivated and wanted to do well and do well for the team.”
Did you take pride making it as a free agent and staying with the team for your career?
“Without question. In my rookie year in 1974 they had a strike which helped a lot. We got a lot of extra work as rookies. That will always stick in my mind. I will always have something to prove and that kept me motivated.”
Who had the biggest impact on your career?
“My wife first of all. My family. My wife really supported me and allowed me to do what I always dreamt about doing. A lot of people don’t understand that. They see us on the field, but it takes a good foundation and family support. For me to have my full concentration on the field and to perform at my optimum. She gave me that.
“Also the coaches in my life. I think my high school coach, coach Lefty Johnson. He was the one that gave me rides after practice and told me I can be whatever I want to be. I am looking at him strange and wondering where is he getting this information from. He saw something in me that sometimes when you are younger you don’t see. Coach Willie Jeffries at South Carolina State University had a great impact on me as far as wanting to be a teacher and a coach.”
What was it like to be a part of a group that came together to be so successful?
“It was great. We came from different parts of the country and different backgrounds, but when we came to the Steelers organization we were a family. I think Coach Noll and the Rooney family had a lot to do with that. Making us feel like a family. Coach Noll had the unique ability to really push our buttons. He could really challenge us to get the best out of us.”
Did you know then how special a group you were, or does it take a while to realize that?
“When you are going through it you don’t really realize it. Now that I have been out and look back at it, I see the statistics about how hard it is to get back to the Super Bowl, it’s awesome what we accomplished and we did it as a team.
“When I got here we didn’t have player development, so the veterans took you under their wing and taught you the nuances of the National Football League. There was a veteran player that always took you under your wing and shared details with you. That helped us be the group we were.”
During your time playing veterans reached out and helped you. Who did you in turn reach out and help when they were a rookie?
“It was Tony Dungy. He was my roommate my third year. I got to know him in a great way. He was an All-American quarterback and switched to defensive back. I got to know him. The things that Mel Blount, Joe Greene and Jon Kolb sewed into me, I tried to sew those things into him being his mentor and helping him to establish himself.”
Was it special to be an underdog and remain with the same team for 14 seasons?
“That was my niche. I didn’t mind being the underdog. I still had a lot of self-confidence in my ability. I came in with a lot of confidence even though I was undrafted.
“I feel very special about that, about retiring a Steeler. I don’t think I would be the person I am today if I would have moved around. Once a Steeler, always a Steeler. I remember looking at the highlight film after Super Bowl. They said ‘There are 31 teams in the National Football League, and then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers.’ That set us apart from other teams, not just athletically, but community wise giving back.”