For the past month former Steelers safety Donnie Shell has felt the love from the men he played with. He has read every word they said about him as he waited for the 'knock on the door' from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And it touched him more than he ever could have imagined.
"The thing I really enjoyed was hearing the comments and advocacy of my teammates," said Shell. "I will cherish that forever. That is awesome. I told my son keep everything from the websites, save it all for my grandkids. To see how they thought of me as a teammate. I knew some of that, but when they expressed that and it came out in articles, it almost brought tears to my eyes. That was awesome.
"To just see how much my teammates cared about me and made comments of that nature. You don't think of yourself in that vein because you are playing for the common goal. However, we all have the ultimate goal and dream to be inducted into the Hall of Fame."
The dream came true for Shell on Wednesday when he was announced as one of 10 Seniors who will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Centennial Class of 2020, joining former Steelers Coach Bill Cowher, who was announced on Saturday as a part of the same class. Shell becomes the 10th player from the Steelers 1970s team, as well as Coach Chuck Noll, to become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is the 26th member of the Steelers' organization to earn the honor.
"When you look back at your career and that was the one thing you didn't have, you hope someday you will earn it," said Shell. "This is the highlight of my career as I look back it. It was the only thing I hadn't achieved in my career. I became a starter. I was an All-Pro. We won four Super Bowls. We were champions. This was one of my goals.
"It's incredible, outstanding. When you are not drafted, especially when we had 17 rounds in 1974, then you come up and make a young team, an up and coming team with that defense. One year we had 10 Pro Bowlers on our defense. To be able to crack that lineup rather than giving up and saying I can't do it, I looked forward to becoming a starter and wanted to be All-Pro and make the Pro Bowl and hopefully one day have this, get in the Hall of Fame.
"That was the dream. You have to have dreams to accomplish anything."
When Shell got the call, he was at a loss for words.
"Wow. Wow. David, it's amazing. I am at a loss for words," Shell said to Hall of Fame President David Baker when he got the call.
"My wife said I talk so much that is the first time I have ever been without words," Shell said live on NFL Network's Good Morning Football. "It's a great feeling. To think of where I come from, born and raised in Whitmire, South Carolina, playing football in high school and then matriculating to South Carolina State University. Leaving there and coming as an undrafted free agent to the Steelers. I kept working from special teams and to a starter and we won a few Super Bowls. It means a great deal. You didn't do it by yourself.
"Don't give up on your dreams and aspirations. I believe God created everybody and gave them certain talents and gifts. Some had to work harder to make those gifts come out and I was one of those people."
Steelers President Art Rooney II has been a long proponent for Shell to be a Hall of Famer and issued a statement.
"I want to congratulate Donnie Shell for his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame," said Rooney. "He was a dynamic defender for our historic Steel Curtain defense in the 1970s.
"As an undrafted rookie Donnie immediately earned the nickname 'The Torpedo' for his physical special teams play. Donnie became a starter and a force from the strong safety position both as a tackler stopping the run and a ball hawk having 51 interceptions – a record for the strong safety position. Donnie is now the fifth member of our 1974 rookie class to be inducted.
"We are excited he will be honored with our sport's highest individual honor this summer in Canton."
Shell didn't earn the nickname 'The Torpedo' for nothing. Not even close. He could hit. And when he made contact, opponents would feel it as he would come at an unsuspecting running back or receiver like a torpedo, flying at them with no fear at all.
Just ask Earl Campbell, who was the victim of one of Shell's notorious hits. Campbell, a 233-pound running back for the Houston Oilers, was having a career season in 1978 with 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns. But against the Steelers on Dec. 3, with the AFC Central title at stake, Shell imposed his will. In the first quarter, Campbell was escaping a tackle for extra yards when Shell came flying up to the line of scrimmage and delivered a huge hit. Campbell left the game with a broken rib, and the Steelers beat the Oilers, 13-3, in a season that ended with the third Super Bowl championship in team history.
"There was a game in Houston and Donnie came up and hit Earl Campbell before he had a chance to turn up the field, caught Earl in the ribs. I don't want to say I was glad he got hurt, but I was glad he left the game," said Joe Greene. "We had some knock down drag outs with the Oilers. Donnie was the hitman. He gave muscle to our football team. That is what we were known for on our defense, contact. And we had some contact people back there and Donnie didn't take a backseat to anyone.
"Donnie was an all-around player. He gave us flexibility versus the offense. We didn't have to change our personnel group when the offense went from standard to three wide or four wide receivers. Donnie would line up in the slot and cover the slot, which is what teams try to do all of the time. Offenses want to get out in a mismatch in coverage, and because we had Donnie, they couldn't do that to us. We could play all of our coverages and defenses because of Donnie Shell.
"He was a linebacker in college. We called him Torpedo. Donnie got started on special teams. He wasn't supposed to be the fastest guy, but he was always the first guy down. He made collisions. When he got into the starting lineup, he made an impact in the running game. He would always talk about guards who were pulling and getting up field on him. They were 250 pounds he was 215. He asked how do I deal with them? Chuck (Noll) said when they are running parallel with the line, you hit them. Hit them before they see you. He got that down well. He had a lot of collisions on the line with those guys and he won."
Shell was part of the Steelers 1974 rookie class, the one that produced four Hall of Famers in the draft. But he wasn't even drafted. He signed with the team as an undrafted rookie, coming in as a linebacker but making the successful switch to strong safety.
His numbers speak for themselves. Shell finished his career with 51 career interceptions, still the most in NFL history for a strong safety and had 19 fumble recoveries. Let's just say that number again – 51 career interceptions. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection who had a least one interception in each of his 14 seasons.
Take a look at some of the best photos of DB Donnie Shell
"Donnie came into the league and I saw him work on being a free agent, to special teams, to a starter and his approach to that," said John Stallworth. "He became a valuable component of what I think was the best defense in the National Football League. Donnie had tremendous value. You had the guys up front and linebackers, but Donnie anchored that. His ability to come up and hit folks and stop them in the run game at a time when the run game was very important. Donnie was a player that did that. If you look at the number of interceptions he has at a time when the strong safety was looked at as just being a strong safety and doing run support and not a splash player kind of guy, Donnie was a splash player kind of guy. Then you give him the ability to come up with the interception, Donnie was that guy.
"He was a force on our defense. One of the reasons we were so strong."
Shell was a force on a historical defense, a defense he didn't realize was as dominating as it was at the time.
"At the time you don't think you are making history," said Shell. "Then as you continue to play, you retire and you look back and see what we accomplished winning those Super Bowls, it was just incredible. Playing with guys like Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Mike Wagner, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, the list could go on and on. The unique thing about playing with those guys is if someone was able to diagnose our defense and get positive yardage on a play, we will talk about it going back to the huddle and correct it if we saw it again, because we were going to see it again. I enjoyed that unique perspective of being able to make adjustments on the go.
"It was a special group. The Steelers were special. We had a sense of family. It's not only a football organization, but it's a family organization. I felt that family spirit from the Rooney family, what they did for us and our families and in the community. That made it more unique than anywhere else."