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Shell: A long, but good journey

A strict accounting of history will show that Donnie Shell and Bill Nunn were elected to receive their sport's highest individual honor in different years, and even with the global impact of COVID-19 they were enshrined separately. But in the eye of the football gods, they entered together. If not hand-in-hand but together all the same, because each man was a significant part of the other's resume that got them both through the doors of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nunn already had ushered many young men into the National Football League, first as the Sports Editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and then as a starring member of the Pittsburgh Steelers player personnel department, when Shell was tying to decide on a next stop for his budding football career.

Up until that moment on Jan. 30, 1974 when Donnie Shell made the most significant decision of his athletic life, he was a former linebacker at South Carolina State hoping for a chance at a career in professional football. Because he had not been drafted through 17 rounds and the calling of 442 names, Shell was able to pick his spot. As young men facing such a decision so often do, Shell turned to his college coach – Willie Jeffries – for advice.

As a veteran coach at HBCU's South Carolina State, Jeffries was very familiar with Bill Nunn, very familiar with what he knew about recognizing talent and with what he stood for as a man, and so when Nunn gave his word to Jeffries that Coach Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers would give his player a fair and legitimate chance to make the team and create a career in the NFL, that was all the veteran college coach needed to hear.

And so it was that one Hall of Fame playing career began as another career as a contributor took one more step toward inevitability.

"It has been a long journey, but a good one," said Shell from the podium in Canton after being presented for induction by his daughter, April. "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. When I first arrived in training camp a reporter mentioned to me, 'I want to interview you after you have lunch.' I said, 'Sure.' He began the interview with the statement: 'Don't you know you're a longshot to make this Steelers team because you're undrafted and a free agent, and you're not gonna get many reps or many chances in practice to show what you can do on the field?"

The facts that seemingly had the potential to derail the Donnie Shell fairy tale of a nobody-from-nowhere who went on to own four Super Bowl rings and retire from the NFL with the most interceptions by any strong safety (51) in league history were these:

• Shell was trying to earn a spot on a team coming off the first back-to-back playoff appearances in the history of a franchise that has been founded in 1933.

• Chuck Noll had upgraded the talent and character of a team that finished 1-13 in his inaugural season of 1969 to such a degree that winning a division championship and playing in the postseason no longer were viewed as bridges too far. And Shell would be trying to crack a defensive unit that the previous season included five Pro Bowl players and three future Hall of Famers.

• Specifically, Shell would be trying to find a place in a secondary that had its four starters account for a combined 34 takeaways (24 interceptions and 10 fumble reoveries) during the 14-game 1973 regular season.

"When the facts get in the way of your goal, you must go against the grain of what is true to achieve your goal," said Shell. "So I looked (the reporter) square in the eye and I said, 'Mister, I'm from South Carolina State University. Coach Willie Jeffries said I could do whatever I want to do when I get to training camp, and that I have a good chance to make this team.'

"The thing I liked about Coach Chuck Noll is he did not care about where you came from or what college you went to. But are you self-motivated. Praise God for coaches who are not only coaches at HBCUs, but mentors and fathers to their players. Praise God for Bill Nunn, who advocated for HBCU players across the NFL and had the foresight to see ability to switch me from linebacker to strong safety."

Before Nunn's foresight had the chance to blossom into what ended up being a Hall of Fame career as a strong safety, Shell had to make the Steelers roster. In 1974, he was helped by an NFL players' strike that hit just as training camps were opening, which meant many established veterans were not present when the Steelers reported to Saint Vincent College.

And so it was that the reporter's words of impending doom and gloom to Shell didn't come true. In fact, the reality was just the opposite, because all over the league rookies were getting unprecedented access to coaches' good graces because the train kept moving toward the start of the regular season. Shell began his professional career on special teams and soon became a star in that phase of the game, so good that Noll once suggested he be the team's special teams captain.

But Shell demurred, because he saw himself as more than a special teams player, and his self-profecy soon became reality. Donnie Shell didn't become a full-time starter until 1977, but once he did he started 159 of a possible 166 regular season games until he retired after the 1987 season.

"At the end of that (1974) training camp, I was one of 13 rookies to make that team," said Shell.

And of those 13 rookies in 1974, five of them – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, and now Donnie Shell – have busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame to cement their status as the greatest single draft class in the history of professional sports.

"I would encourage all parents to send their children to South Carolina State University," said Shell, "because someday they may be a general in the Army, or a United States Supreme Court justice, or a member of Congress, or just maybe a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

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