Donnie Shell: ‘When We Came To The Steelers Organization We Were A Family’


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.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • GoSteelerz

    Shell belongs in the HOF no doubt. Class act all the way, one of my favorite all time Steelers!

  • StolenUpVotes

    Put him in!!!!!

  • Milliken Steeler

    I still remember as a kid, watching Earl Campbell of the then Houston Oilers as a young kid, just run through our division and the rest of the league. If you’re to young to know who Campbell was, picture Legarette Blount, if he had more moves and was faster. Campbell could run around, or over you.

    Then came the Donnie Shell game. Earl was running around the the line and about to break free and then you just see this black and gold blur come into the picture and nail Campbell. Earl twisted and fell forward but, Shell hit him so hard, it cracked some ribs. It should have been called the shot heard round the world part two.

    Shell was a thief in the secondary however, he would viciously defend the turf against the run. Not having him in the Hall because, ” the Steelers had to many hofers from that team” is just beyond stupid.

  • Steve

    Matthew – Great article, really enjoyed it – Thanks!

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    One of my all time favorite players. He was a viscous hitter, and as mentioned by Milliken Steeler, no play demonstrated it more than the one where he broke Earl Campbell’s ribs. It completely f’d the Oilers and was arguably the most important play of that season.

  • IndianaCarson

    Yes back in the late 70s the Houston Oilers were the bitter rivals of the Steelers just like the Baltimore Ravens now. However, I did like their coach “Bum” Phillips who usually had some interesting quotes.

  • John Pennington

    Should hire Donnie Shell as coach for safties.

  • Rocksolid20

    I second that !