Understated Shell lets the record books do talking

Former S.C. State player proved to be one of the greatest safeties in the NFL

bgillespie@thestate.comSeptember 7, 2008 

Donnie Shell was the backbone to Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s.

FILE/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


  • About Donnie Shell

    HOMETOWN: Whitmire

    HIGH SCHOOL: Whitmire

    HEIGHT: 5-foot-11

    WEIGHT: 190 pounds

    CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Played strong safety as an undrafted free agent for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense, which won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. ... Named to the Pro Bowl five times between 1978-82, he retired as the NFL’s career leader among strong safeties in interceptions with 51. ... An 11-year starter, he was named to the Steelers’ All-Time Team and to the NFL Silver Anniversary Super Bowl Team. ... Played linebacker and safety at South Carolina State from 1970-73, earning All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Associated Press College Division All-America honors. Earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from S.C. State. ... Named to the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame in 1998. Also a member of the S.C. Athletic and MEAC halls of f. ... Joined the NFL’s Carolina Panthers as director of player development in 1994. ... Has been named a finalist for the NFL Hall of Fame several times since 2001.

Something wasn’t right, the old coach remembers thinking that night, some 40 years ago. Still, in the heat of competition, William J. “Lefty” Johnson didn’t stop to consider what he was seeing. He reacted.

His Whitmire High football team was locked in a fierce battle with rival Cowpens. And here was his best player headed toward the sideline, taking himself out late in the game.

“I yelled, ‘Donnie, go back!’” Johnson, 73, said, laughing. And two-way starter Donnie Shell turned around and did what he was told.

Later, after Whitmire’s victory, Cowpens coach Quay Farr approached Johnson. “He said, ‘Is Donnie all right?’” the old coach said. “Turns out, (Shell) had been knocked out before coming off the field; I didn’t know.

“I told him later, ‘Donnie, if you ever want off again, I won’t say anything.’”

Not that many things kept Shell out of a game — at any level.

From the Friday night lights of Newberry County to the spotlight of four Super Bowls, Shell built a reputation for intensity, competitiveness and, most of all, perseverance. At South Carolina State, that helped him earn all-conference honors; with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was an 11-year starter and five-time Pro Bowl selection, played on four Super Bowl champions and was named to the NFL’s Silver Anniversary Super Bowl team.

That attitude comes through when Shell, now director of player development for the Carolina Panthers, helps young players plan and organize their careers and their lives.

It’s a job he said is “my calling, what God called me to do. I enjoy encouraging kids to have a life after football.”

His success in that role mirrors his victories in football. Shell’s program has earned recognition as the NFL’s best three times since he began in 1994. That’s no surprise to those who played alongside him.

Ask Bennie Cunningham. The Clemson graduate and former Steelers teammate spoke to Panthers players during a recent preseason camp at Shell’s request. “One of the things I talked about (was with) him at strong safety and me at tight end, we went against each other all the time,” Cunningham said. “By comparison, the games were fairly easy.

“When you compete against the best, it brings out the best in you.”

Ask Harry Carson. Under a new NFL mandate, rookies must visit the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Because the Panthers did not have any Hall of Famers to serve as host, Carson — inducted in 2006 — filled the role at his former college teammate’s urging.

“I was so happy to talk to the players about the history of the game and how important it would be for them all to get in Donnie’s hip pocket,” Carson said. “If he could be a mentor for me at South Carolina State, he certainly could be one for them.”

If anyone knows what it takes to come from humble roots to the top of the football “food chain,” it’s the 56-year-old Shell. “Donnie can walk the walk,” Carson said, because he lived it. And still does.

THE ROAD TO THE NFL

Lefty Johnson’s dressing-down of his best player is not his lone “mea culpa” with Shell, who won Class 2A all-state honors at linebacker — and offensive guard.

“Steve Satterfield gets on me with, ‘You had Donnie Shell at guard,’” Johnson said, laughing. “I just told Steve, ‘That way he didn’t mess up his knees.’”

Football might have been a way out of a life of “modest means” — his parents, Leon, a city grounds supervisor, and Aurelia, who worked as a domestic, sometimes struggled to provide for their 10 children — but Shell does not play the victim’s role.

“It made you get to the dinner table on time,” he said, laughing. “We didn’t have any extras” — he remembers extending the life of his shoes with cardboard inserts — “but we had enough to survive on.”

Anyway, Shell was too busy with sports to worry about lacking anything. He played on state championship teams in baseball (as a left-handed pitcher) and basketball, ran track and made a postseason football all-star game. There, then-S.C. State coach Oree Banks, impressed by a 13-tackle, one-interception performance, offered Shell a full scholarship — half for football, half for baseball.

At S.C. State, his play earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame, but it was Jeffries’ arrival before Shell’s senior season that set him on the road to the NFL.

“When we got there, he was wearing No. 90 and playing linebacker,” Jeffries said. “I said, ‘Donnie, we got those young defensive backs (including future NFL player Rufus Bess); we need you leading them. Besides, linebacker (is) nothing but a glorified strong safety.’”

Shell switched positions, and blossomed. A prescient moment came when S.C. State faced Alabama A&M and standout receiver John Stallworth, later Shell’s NFL teammate. “I told Donnie, ‘Let him have the short (completions),’” Jeffries said. “I think Stallworth caught 12 or 14, but he didn’t beat us deep.” And the Bulldogs won.

Still, no pro team drafted Shell. His free-agent choices came down to the Denver Broncos and the Steelers, who were offering about half the Broncos’ bid. Jeffries, who had coached in Pittsburgh, recommended the Steelers because “they were a blue-collar team that would give him a chance.”

Talk about fortuitous timing. The NFL went on strike that season; Shell probably would have made the team anyway. Once in Pittsburgh, he earned a reputation as a special-teams demon and the nickname “Torpedo” for his wicked hits.

A favorite Shell target was Houston Oilers star running back Earl Campbell. Their collisions became the stuff of legend, none more so than a game when Shell sent the bullish back to the sideline.

“Earl hit the line and went into a spin, and Donnie put his helmet in his rib cage. (A) form tackle; nothing illegal about it,” Cunningham said. “But I’d never seen Earl have to leave the field until that time.”

Shell ran a less-than-impressive 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. “Some guys were faster but played slower in a game,” he said. “I might not have had blazing speed, but I was faster on the field.”

Fast enough to retire after the 1987 season, his 14th, with 51 interceptions, a record at the time for a strong safety. From 1979-1984, he had at least five interceptions per season, with seven each in 1980 and 1984. His favorite memory is a three-interception game vs. Cleveland in 1981, and appreciating that requires perspective, he said.

“That era, it was mostly run-oriented teams, maybe 20 passes a game,” Shell said. “Now teams are throwing more, and guys still aren’t getting three picks in a game.”

He laughed. “You look at that, and it makes you realize how great that (game) was.”

It goes without saying that Shell — who practically had to be insulted about his speed and ball-hawking skills to tell that story — qualified as “great,” too.

A NATURAL LEADER

In all those years of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl glory, his friends in Orangeburg always could count on Shell returning home with the same helmet size. A 1974 graduate, he returned often enough to earn a master’s degree in 1978; other trips were to share the knowledge he gained in the NFL.

“He came back to help teach our guys the cover-two (defense), and everyone said, ‘Donnie’s wearing the same pair of jeans he had when he left,’” Jeffries said.

Shell got an early jump on his future job, too, by serving as an impromptu counselor to other players. A devout Christian, he spent as much time studying his Bible as his playbook, Cunningham said.

“He was someone who kept me going spiritually,” Cunningham said. “He was a free agent, but to have the confidence to share with others — he would pray with you, keep you optimistic about the future.”

These days, Shell is still that guy. Lefty Johnson tells how Shell returns to Whitmire each year for a booster-club golf tournament. “He grew up poor but never forgot his roots,” the old coach said.

Which is why, Shell said, his Panthers job is “a natural. I always had that inside me, was always community-minded and wanted to help people. With the Steelers, guys would take you under their wing, indoctrinate you. For me, it was just a natural thing.”

If there is anything missing from his resume, it’s the lack of a spot in an NFL Hall of Fame overflowing with former Steelers.

Carson, who waited years for that honor, believes his former teammate belongs. So does Stallworth, another member. But the “slight” seldom has clouded Shell’s outlook.

“Donnie is content with what he’s accomplished,” Carson said. “If that’s never validated, it’s OK with him.”

Shell, asked about the Hall, laughed. “All my records are in the books,” he said. “All I can do is the best I could.”

As Lefty Johnson can attest, with Shell, sometimes “the best” is not as obvious as it should be.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.

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