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A night to honor legends

There is always an electric atmosphere at Heinz Field when the team plays on Sunday Night Football, but add on to that four legendary Steelers receiving their Hall of Fame Ring of Excellence, and the energy will be enough to light up the entire North Shore.

Bill Cowher, Alan Faneca, Bill Nunn, Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell became a part of football immortality with their enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, when the Class of 2020 (Cowher, Polamalu and Shell) and the Class of 2021 (Faneca and Nunn) were enshrined in August.

Tonight, four of them, Cowher, Faneca, Polamalu and Shell, will receive their Hall of Fame Ring of Excellence, while the Nunn family will also be recognized, in front of the Heinz Field crowd at halftime, something that always gets their blood pumping, especially during their playing days.

"Listen, nothing is going to beat running out of the tunnel for the starting lineups," said Polamalu. "That's the truth. The game is played on the field today. As I much as I love to be in my position, we're football players at heart, not award recipients. Being able to run out of the tunnel onto the field is really the epitome of what it is to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. Only 11 people can really represent us at a time.

"But to be back here in front of the crowd, obviously it's been a while since I've been back. One thing I have always really known about Pittsburgh is we support each other. Supporting the black and gold is really important to the city, and this means a lot."

Sitting in the media room at Heinz Field, Shell was nothing but smiles just taking in the special bond with the fans and his former teammates.

"It's always good to be back in the City of Pittsburgh," said Shell. "We have some of the greatest fans ever."

And he also knows, they have some of the greatest players ever.

"We came from a good foundation, from the Steelers organization," said Shell.

The group has spent part of the weekend reconnecting with former teammates as well as continuing to bond with many of the other Steelers Hall of Famers who are in town as a part of the team's Alumni Weekend. It's a unique fraternity, one where many have said something changes when you put on the Hall of Fame Gold Jacket.

"I don't know what it is, but there is something," said Faneca. "You don't change the person, but there is there is a change of some sort, and I can't really put my finger on it. It's something. There is something I can't put my finger on."

But what will be put on their finger at halftime is a ring that is the next step in their Hall of Fame journey, a journey that started in front of the hometown fans.

"Coming back to Pittsburgh it's always special, particularly the event tonight," said Cowher. "The other enshrinees will be here. Coming back here for a night game is always kind of a special atmosphere."

It will be the next step in what has been an incredible journey, and here is a look at their journeys.

* * *

Take a closer look at the Hall of Fame rings presented to Bill Cowher, Alan Faneca, Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell

Bill Cowher became the 15th coach in Steelers history on Jan. 21, 1992 when he replaced the legendary Chuck Noll.

In Cowher's rookie season as coach, he took a talented team that finished a disappointing 7-9 in 1991 and turned it into an 11-5 AFC Central Division champion that entered the playoffs as the AFC's No. 1 seed. In Cowher's 15 seasons, the Steelers won eight division titles, made the playoffs 10 times, and played in 21 postseason games. Those 21 playoff games included six AFC Championship Games and two trips to the Super Bowl, including a Super Bowl XL championship.

Cowher, who returned to his hometown to coach, finished his career as one of only six coaches in NFL history with at least seven division titles, and joined Paul Brown as the only coaches in history to take their teams to the playoffs in each of their first six years.

Known for his fiery style, and of course the chin, Cowher brought energy and enthusiasm to the sidelines and was respected by those who played for him. It was those men who played for him that became his family, something Cowher spoke about passionately in his Hall of Fame speech.

"I came to Pittsburgh at the age of 34," said Cowher. "I knew of the tradition and the expectation of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I grew up there, so I knew what Chuck Noll and his 1970s Steelers did in revitalizing the Pittsburgh area. But what I didn't know was how to work on the inside. Who were the Rooneys? In my 15 years as a head coach, I grew in every aspect of my life. There was a visionary leader (Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney Sr.), who never missed a teaching moment and inspired those around him. The Rooney family core values were always about family, community, and just do the right thing. When you're together for 15 years, a team becomes your family."

And that football family, they truly loved their Coach. 

"He pushed me. He pushed me mentally," said former cornerback Ike Taylor. "He made you work for it. That is what I loved about Coach Cowher. Whether it was a first-round pick or a free agent, everybody had to work. That is what I respect about Coach Cowher. There was no favoritism. From the first meeting he told you the business side of football. It's not fair, but this is what it is. As a young man, you had to respect it.

"Coach Cowher is Pittsburgh. He is everything about Pittsburgh. He is hard-working, blue collar, Ford F-150 pickup driving, go to work every day and treat my family right guy. Just like the city. He is Pittsburgh. He is everything the city stands for and represents."

* * *

Take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020 and 2021

Alan Faneca was a first team All-Pro selection an impressive six times and twice a second team selection. He was the Steelers first-round draft pick in 1998 and played 10 seasons for the black and gold and 13 overall in the NFL.

He was a member of the Super Bowl XL Championship team, and during his time the Steelers won four division titles and won at least 10 games in five of his seasons. He was selected to nine Pro Bowls and was also named to Steelers All-Time Team in 2007 and the NFL 2000's All-Decade Team.

Faneca was also a key to the Steelers ground game, blocking for teams that finished among the NFL's Top 10 in rushing 11 times, and blocking for nine 1,000-yard rushers and five 3,000-yard passers.

There was something else Faneca was. Patient. He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame six times, and when he finally broke through, it was pure joy and gratitude.

"The fact that I was actually being invited to become a member of this extraordinary football fraternity is hard to put into words," said Faneca. "Perhaps the best word is simply, gratitude. There are thousands of young boys around the country who dream of playing in the NFL. I was one of them."

Like Cowher, football was family for Faneca, a family that supported him through the years and was there in Canton when he was enshrined.

"Playing for the Steelers was like playing for your family and with your brothers," said Faneca. "When I left, a lot of people always wanted to know what the secrets were, what was going on in Pittsburgh because everybody wants to recreate it. The consistency, the Super Bowl trophies. It's hard to put into words, but it's a brotherhood, it's a family, it's the guys in the organization and the locker room. We're all so similar but we all come from different areas.

"We were close, we were friends, everybody in the locker room was like that. That is how you make it through all the rough patches and that's how a Pittsburgh Steelers team that maybe on paper should have 6 or 7 wins, gets 8, 9 or 10 wins. A lot of teams in the NFL are lacking that, and those are things and characteristics that carry over and transfer on the field. Sometimes people would understand me, but most of the times they still didn't, and that's their loss."

* * *

Bill Nunn, the legendary scout, became a member of the Hall of Fame after being enshrined, along with eight others posthumously in April, but was honored along with the rest of the Class of 2021 during the enshrinement ceremony in August. 

"Bill meant everything to the Steelers organization," said Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert. "The players he was instrumental in bringing to the Steelers and the success they had. We as young scouts were fortunate to be around Bill and learn things they implemented when they put those teams together. There were a lot of lessons being taught to us."

Nunn, who worked in multiple roles in the Steelers personnel department beginning in 1967 in a part-time role, and then in a full-time role from 1969-2014, was the first Black Contributor in the 100 plus year history of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nunn was a trailblazer who opened the door for so many to have careers in the NFL, in particular those from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

"I know my grandfather probably didn't think he was going to be in the Hall of Fame," said his granddaughter, Cydney Nunn. "That wasn't necessarily a goal of his. He made such a huge impact on this sport as we know it, the way he scouted players and how he opened doors for so many black athletes."

Nunn, who died in 2014 at the age of 89, joined the Steelers organization in the scouting department after a career in the newspaper business where he started as a sportswriter, then sports editor, and then managing editor of The Pittsburgh Courier.

Starting in 1950 he selected the newspaper's annual Black College All-America Team, developing relationships that benefited his scouting career and opened the door for Black players who weren't getting a lot of attention from professional teams.

Nunn, a member of the Inaugural Class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame and a 2018 Steelers Hall of Honor selection, helped the Steelers find talent from HBCUs that other teams largely ignored.

"Bill Nunn has done so much for the league over the years, not only for the Steelers but also when he was a reporter by going to the HBCUs and finding all of the talent there," said Donnie Shell, who he signed as an undrafted rookie free agent from South Carolina State. "Look at how many players he brought to the Steelers to help build those championship teams.

"I don't know if he realized it or not, but just being around Bill, his professionalism, the way he carried himself in his life, it meant a lot to me and had a great effect on me. He never would have thought that. That is the way he was, unassuming. He made people gravitate to him. You wanted to be in his presence to listen to some of the wisdom that he had."

* * *

The Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated their Hall of Famers at Heinz Field during the Alumni Weekend Dinner benefitting the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program

"Troy being Troy."

That is something that has been uttered time and time again by Troy Polamalu's teammates, coaches, and even those who had the unenviable challenge of playing against him.

It takes a special player to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Polamalu was a special player and then some.

Polamalu was drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft, the 16th selection overall. He played 12 seasons for the Steelers, playing every snap with a passion that endeared him to the fans.

A two-time Super Bowl champion, Polamalu also was a four-time first-team All-Pro selection, two-time second team All-Pro selection, NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2010), eight-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team and Steelers All-Time Team.

His career totals include 12 sacks, 32 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries during the regular season, and his postseason numbers include one half-sack and three interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown.

But for Troy, it was all about those around him, those he shared the football stage with. And it was about playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, protecting the legacy the team has built, a legacy where older players help younger players, even if it means losing their job to them. In Polamalu's case, the older player who set the standard was safety Mike Logan.
Polamalu explained that transition and the Steelers' culture like no other ever has during his Hall of Fame speech.
"Mike Logan, the starting safety my rookie year, shared his full knowledge of the game, wholeheartedly showing a level of humility that helped shape my career," shared Polamalu. "Like many other teammates, his selflessness paved a greater opportunity for others at his own expense.

"It is unnatural in the most competitive environment to train your replacement. Yet this is our culture, Steeler culture. These virtues I learned while playing for the Steelers are what make the legacy of the black and gold timeless. They are passed down in the locker room from the Steel Curtain to anyone who valiantly wears the black and gold, creating a brotherhood that is deeper than money, business and winning.

"To be a Steeler is to consider others before you consider yourself. To protect your brother, even from himself. To give support at your own expense. And when wearing the black and gold suit of armor, make sure nobody desecrates it, disrespects it. Most importantly we ourselves don't dishonor it.

"The only approval any Steeler should seek is the approval from previous legends who have donned the black and gold. And if you've really earned the respect, they'll say, you could have played with us.

"What I truly appreciate about the Steeler way, is that at its core it's success of a family, a culture based on the essential virtues any person respects and honors. Humility, passion, resilience, service and legacy."

Enough said.

* * *

Donnie Shell is a man of faith, and that was something he had plenty of as he waited his turn to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Shell retired after the 1987 season and was elected as a member of the Class of 2020.

"It has been a long journey, but a good one," said Shell "I arrived in Pittsburgh in 1974 as an undrafted free agent and now I'm in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Only God can do that."

Shell was part of the Steelers 1974 rookie class, one that now has produced five Hall of Famers. But he wasn't even drafted, signing with the team as an undrafted rookie.

Shell finished his career with 51 interceptions, still the most in NFL history for a strong safety and had 19 fumble recoveries. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection who had at least one interception in each of his 14 seasons.

"When you look back at your career, that was the one thing you didn't have and you hoped someday you would earn it," said Shell. "This is the highlight of my career. It was the only thing I hadn't achieved.

"It's incredible, outstanding. When you are not drafted, especially when we had 17 rounds in 1974. To be able to crack that lineup, make All-Pro, Pro Bowl and now the Hall of Fame. That was the dream. You have to have dreams to accomplish anything."

Shell said a message was shared with him from some of his former teammates who went into the Hall of Fame before him.

"They say when you put on the gold jacket, something happens to you," said Shell.

When his moment came, he found out firsthand.

"It's true," said Shell. "It's true."

One player who couldn't hide his enthusiasm for Shell's enshrinement was John Stallworth, a fellow Hall of Famer who was a part of the 1974 draft class and retired the same day as Shell in 1987.

"I think Donnie's commitment to be the best at his profession and the fact that he was able to take that commitment and execute and make himself better and to do that over a long period of time is what made Donnie a Hall of Famer," said Stallworth. "Donnie was not satisfied, and he showed that early in his career.

"Chuck Noll offered him the opportunity to become captain of special teams. Donnie thought he was more than a special teams player, he thought he could be a starter in the NFL. That speaks to his desire and dreams for himself and his will to make those desires and dreams a reality.  

"It was hard to be noticed when you think about the defense he played on. He became a star among stars on that defense. That speaks volumes of who he is, what he is about, what makes him a Hall of Famer."

Take a look at Steelers alumni and Hall of Famers in studio during Alumni Weekend

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