The Sentinel "Guardian of Your Conscience"
Shell Shocked That’s how many of the Steelers NFL opponents felt when hit by Donny Shell when he patrolled the gridiron Donnie Shell played in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974-1987. He was a member Steel Curtain defense during the teams early days of glory. When he hung up his cleats, he had 51 picks which was more than any other “pure” safety in the history of the league. He started eleven straight years for the Black and Gold and was voted as a member of the Steelers All-Time Team and the NFL Silver Anniversary Super Bowl Team. I recently spoke with Donnie via telephone from his South Carolina home. A.B.: Donnie let’s begin by hitting the rewind button and reflect on your experience regarding the Steelers legendary super scout, the late Bill Nunn Jr. When you were initially scouted by him what was your first impression of him? D.S.: He was a very knowledgeable guy and he was very at ease with what he was doing. You felt the certain confidence in him but you could also believe what he said. He knew all the coaches in the HBCU and he had a great rapport with them. As a player, you're a young guy, you're going to go right to your head coach. He's kind of a mentor your father figure. And um, I went straight to coach Jeffries and Coach Jeffries Bill Nunn called and said that he wanted me to sign with Pittsburgh. But I got two other calls last night too, one from Houston and one from the Denver Broncos. So I was kinda in-between when Bill and I met. After we met, I met with Coach Jeffries. He said; “you need to go to Pittsburgh.” I said, “Coach what you know about Pittsburgh?” He said; “one thing I do know is I know Bill Nunn and I also know they are hardworking people in Pittsburgh and that’s your M.O.” That conversation convinced me to sign with Pittsburgh and that was the best decision I ever made in my life. A.B.: Did he forewarn you about Coach Chuck Noll and what to expect from him? D.S.: No, not really. He worked with the players and their families helping to integrate them into the national football league. Bill was that guy back in the early seventies that was the director of player development even before there was a title. The NFL didn't have a program for player development but we (the Steelers) had Bill. We could always come to Bill when we needed something. He was that person that did everything for us. He did everything that I did as the Director of Player Development for the Carolina Panthers for 15 years but he just didn’t have the title. A.B: You were bestowed with a nickname when you first began your career the NFL, because you were considered a special team’s kick coverage nightmare for the opposing team; that nickname was” torpedo.” Where did that name come from? D.S.: Steelers defensive end, [the late] Dwight White had a nickname for mostly everybody that came in and played for the Steelers. On special teams I was going down busting the wedge so no one could run the ball up in the middle. I would go down and boom, just knock out the guy like I was a bowling ball. So one day Dwight looked up at me and said; “Hey Shell, I’ve got a name for you. You are “the torpedo” So it kind of stuck with me. A.B.: Who were the toughest running backs’ and/or receivers ‘that you covered? D.S: As a nickel back I would have to say the toughest wide receivers’ I had to cover back in the day was Cliff Branch. And also in the nickel package on 3rd downs, I was responsible for the tight end and Ozzie Newsome was tough as well he could have been a wide receiver. As far as running backs go the running back for Cincinnati. I can’t think of the guy’s name. Oh yeah, Pete Johnson. He ran a 4.4, 4.5 or something like that. Man, even with that speed he was still a tough cookie to get down, so he was one of the tougher challenges that I had to face as a player. A.B.: Even though you played during the early stages of the Steelers glory years, is there a particular year that you just felt more comfortable and confident that the team was going to win a championship? D.S: To be honest, every season and has its own challenges. After we won in 1974, every team in the NFL began to treat playing us like it was their homecoming game and I wasn't ready for that. You had to have your mind made up that they're coming after you every game. It’s hard to consistently face that regularly from every team in the NFL from a mental, physical and emotional standpoint. So we never got too high after a win and we never got too low after a loss. Our team leaders like Franco [Harris] and Joe [Greene] kept us on an even keel always trying to prepare us to be ready to go the full length of the season. A.B.: Hall-of-Famers, Paul Krause, Brian Dawkins and Ed Reed are all NFL HOF inductees as “pure” safeties except Krause who also played wide receiver as well as safety. Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed had 64 picks when he retired. However, many of those picks occurred during the current pass happy new millennium era of the NFL. When Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins was enshrined in Canton in 2018 He had 37 picks. Minnesota Vikings All Pro DB Paul Krause was enshrined in 1998 with 81 picks. Krause set an NFL record with 81 career interceptions but it took him 14 years and three trips to the HOF voting finals before the committee eventually voted him in and that may have also been based on him playing wide receiver. Neither Paul Krause nor Brian Dawkins ever won a Super Bowl. However, you had 51 picks when you retired and you had played on four Super Bowl winning teams’. When you left the game, the league was still firmly in the midst of the three yards and a cloud of dust culture. Your numbers rival and even exceed some of the same position players that are now enshrined in the NFL Hall-of-Fame. Do you think that you might have been or continue to be slighted because so many Steelers players have already been inducted from the Steelers legendary teams’ of the 70s? Do you also think that may be a deterrent to the voting press regarding your present and future induction into the HOF? D.S.: No, I do not and it shouldn’t be. The only criteria that should be considered and matter is a players’ body of work. My body' of work is out there. They only have to take a look at it, and if they think that I'm worthy after looking at my stats then I’ll get their vote. A.B.: What players performed alongside you in what you might consider best defensive backfield during your career with the team and what was the process that elevated you from a special teams’ ace to a starting defensive back for the Black and Gold? D.S: When I first got there Mel Blount was at one corner and J.T. Thomas was on the other side. Mike Wagner was the strong safety and Glenn Edwards was the weak safety. All of those guys had made All Pro and I was trying to break into the lineup. That was a pretty good group. I was just saying to myself, I've got to break this man. I got to get through some way, somehow. I beat it like I had done it all my life in high school and college. You know I’d been up, worked hard and excelled throughout my career but I was a little low because those four guys were really good. A.B.: Did the Steelers starting defensive backs ever reach out to mentor you even in light of the fact that you might be standing in line to succeed them? D.S.: Oh yeah, especially Mel [Blount] and Mike [Wagner], those two in particular stand out to me. Mike was a very smart. He showed me how to use my mind and study the processes and not get so emotional. He showed me how to quiet myself down and come out for the next play regardless of what happened on the previous play. It was hard to accept not being a starter because when I was in college, I was captain of the football and baseball teams’. When I arrived in Pittsburgh, I sat on the bench for three years, wow! There was one particular time that Mel [Blount] saw that I was getting discouraged. I didn't know Mel personally, but one day he just walked across the room over to me. I didn’t know what to expect. This big six feet four guy coming over and said: “you’re going out to dinner with me tonight?” He took me to dinner and sat me down and really talked to me. He explained to me my role as a player and our goal as a team. He said, “The goal is to go to, play and win the Super Bowl. Everybody has to do their job. You do an excellent job on the kickoff team and on third down but everybody has to do their job.” He brought me back in into the fold and made me to make me see that it was about the team and not the individual. He repeated: “Don; we’re going to go to Super Bowl if you keep doing what you're doing.” That conversation was a great encouragement to me. A.B.: Pittsburgh obviously continues to love you and adore you as a former player and as a person. How does it feel when you come back for some of the functions that they have when they're celebrating different milestones in Steelers history and people still admire you almost as if you've never quit playing? D.S.: That’s just the Steelers nation and the makeup of the Rooney family. That's what has made it work. The Rooney’s have always made us like a part of the family. Not only while you’re playing, but also when you retire. When I go back and do anything for the Steelers, they always make me feel like I'm part the family and the organization. They wrap their arms around you and say, “This is the Rooney way; this is the way we do things.” That was a valuable lesson to me. That’s why I started the Donny Shell Scholarship Foundation to help students who perhaps can't afford to pay for their college tuition. I was there for 14 years and I learned this [giving back] because of the Rooney family. They have always reached out to the community, always helping people. I saw that and it had a great impression on me. A.B.: If you have one bit of advice for today's players, what might that be? D.S.: I don't think that I can give just one piece of advice because there are times that advice has to be layered because of various situations as well as being a different person evolving in their life as well as their career. The first piece of advice is having values in life. You’ve got to be a champion in whatever you do in life. It could be football; it could be being a good family man in a great marriage. You shouldn’t have to be motivated; you should be self-motivated because you want to do it, not because you have to. The other thing is hard work. You can't ever be afraid of hard work. God gives everybody talent but some may have to work harder than others. I had to learn how to study on my own in order to make myself better, but also being an educator and a teacher by trade I use those same terms to teach. When you study and work hard at anything that you are attempting to do, the odds of you being a success become much greater. A.B: Thank you Donny. D.S: You’re welcome. Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: or 412.583.6741 Follow him on Twitter@ultrascribe


239 Fourth Ave., Suite 1602, Pittsburgh, PA 15222