If one were to quickly write up a shortlist of the most underrated players in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you would probably have to put the name of Donnie Shell right up at the top. Having come to the team as an undrafted free agent in a class in which they drafted four players who went on into the Hall of Fame, there are many who believe he should join them.
He also would have liked to have joined them in hearing his name called in the draft, if only to avoid the stress. “It’s very challenging”, he said recently in a sit-down interview with the Steelers’ website. “You weren’t drafted and you see all these draft choices and they seem to be getting all of the attention”, he recalled.
But what made it easier was having Head Coach Chuck Noll. “That’s one thing I liked about Coach (Chuck) Noll”, he said. “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”.
Shell also talked about the fact that a player strike during his rookie season of 1974 helped him stick around. With veteran players sitting out, he was able to get valuable reps. “That will always stick in my mind”, he said. “I will always have something to prove, and that kept me motivated”.
While he said that the Steelers were his favorite team, it was beyond his expectations to experience the bond that he would eventually form with his teammates and his organization. “We came from different parts of the country and different backgrounds, but when we came to the Steelers organization we were a family”, he said.
“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”.
One interesting point that he brought up is the fact that the league was much different then in terms of how it handles its players. “When I got here we didn’t have player development”, he said, “so the veterans took you under their wing and taught you the nuances of the National Football League”. He believes that “that helped us be the group we were”. It’s interesting to note that Shell served as the director of player development for the Panthers from their inception until 2009.
It was players like Mel Blount, Joe Green, and Jon Kolb who showed him the ropes, and a bit later in his career he tried to return the favor for one player. “It was Tony Dungy”, he recalled. “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”.
Dungy has since campaigned to see Shell join him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not simply because of what Shell meant to him, but because of what he meant to the game, as a five-time Pro Bowler with four Super Bowl rings, retiring as the leader among all strong safeties in career interceptions with 51.