Donnie Shell, even with his recent nod into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, perhaps still rates as among the most underrated defensive backs in NFL history. The fact that it took a special centennial anniversary class to get him in says enough.
Undrafted during the historic 1974 draft class for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Shell would play, but wouldn’t be a full-time starter for a few years. Whether he was a starter or sub-package player, however, one thing that remained consistent was Chuck Noll, whom he said “always incorporated life lessons in his coaching”, speaking with Arthur Moats on his podcast.
“Chuck was a great teacher, a great mentor, not only for when we were playing, but also life after sports”, he said. “He said, you’ve just got to get ready for your life’s work, and you can’t do this all your life, so you’ve got to prepare for that”.
Shell had a 14-year NFL career, and was 35 by the time that he retired, realizing that he has at least another 35 years or more to go, without having football to fall back on, either financially or otherwise. So having Noll in his ear was motivating.
“He was always talking about life after football”, Shell told his hosts, noting at one point that Noll told him he was proud of him for pursuing his Master’s degree while playing. “He said life is hard. You think football practice is hard? Life is gonna be the same way when you get out. He always encouraged us to be the best that we can be, because he knew that there was a life after sports”.
But life was also a part of football, and Noll was damn good at that. He created a dynasty in the 1970s from what was one of the worst franchises in the NFL when he was hired in 1969. Even that first season, his team went 1-13. They drafted Terry Bradshaw with their first-round pick the following year.
It was a few years later that they would make the jump to an NFL superpower. He recalled one pre-game meeting in 1974 when John Madden said of a game between the Raiders and the Dolphins that the two best teams had played that day.
“Our next meeting, Chuck came in—he’s very reserved, he never says anything, never raises his voice—‘excuse me. You know what? They said the best two teams played yesterday. You know what? I believe the best team is in this room’”, he recalled of that meeting. “And boy, we got fired up. You talk about people getting fired up? He never says that, never gives any type of speeches like that. We got fired up. I looked over at Joe Greene, man, he said, ‘yeah, we’re ready’”.
This is a well-known anecdote, but it’s also a pivotal moment in the Steelers’ dynasty. The Steelers went on to beat Madden’s Raiders in the AFC Championship Game the following week, reaching the Super Bowl for the first time. They would win it again a year later, and then twice more before the decade was up.