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Donnie Shell: Bill Nunn ‘Gave Us Exposure’ As Black Athletes From HBCUs In 1970s

Is there ever a time in which a fanbase will be entirely pleased and satisfied knowing that every member in the history of their favorite organization who has ever been involved in their success that is deserving of such an accolade as being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is actually in? probably not.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that is certainly the case, and will continue to be the case, even assuming that Troy Polamalu and Alan Faneca later this week are voted in as members of the 2020 class, joining Centennial selectees Bill Cowher and Donnie Shell. There is always L.C. Greenwood, after all, and Andy Russell. There will always be those who insist Hines Ward deserves to be there.

How about the guy responsible for helping to put guys like Mel Blount, John Stallworth, and now Shell on the radar? The Steelers drafted three players from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the early- to mid-1970s at a time in which the region was often overlooked and turned them into members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And the man who likely did the most work on them was Bill Nunn. I already wrote about Nunn recently, but I saw a quote yesterday from Shell speaking about him, arguably one of the very most respected members of the organization in Steelers history. He remained a presence from the late 60s all the way until his death in 2014.

Shell, who came out of South Carolina State in 1974, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Nunn was a guy who “gave us exposure”, referring to players at HBCUs. Nunn ultimately climbed up to managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier before joining the Steelers, and they annually released a Black College All-America team.

Despite being one of the most influential black newspapers in the country, their lists didn’t make much of a mark until Nunn was finally able to get involved with the Steelers. Dan Rooney decided to listen to him after fielding his criticism, brought him in as a scout, and they began unearthing gems from a largely untapped resource, with Shell among them.

“You look back at the picture, and a lot of guys wouldn’t have made it if not for him. What a great legacy, to have opened that door”, said Shell, who was enshrined into the Black College Hall of Fame back in 2010.

“He had some extraordinary gifts. Along with being a writer and communicator, he had the gift of identifying talent”, he went on of speaking about Nunn. “When Bill was scouting, you’d find some diamonds in the rough in black colleges”.

In addition to the aforementioned names, other notable players the Steelers were able to add through HBCUs included Ernie Holmes, Dwight White and Greenwood—most of the Steel Curtain.

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