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Memorable Games from 25 Steelers Legends: No. 23 -- Donnie Shell


It';s been a few weeks since we continued with our countdown of 'Memorable Games From 25 Steelers Legends', a series conceived by and produced by longtime BTSC reader Michael Uhlhorn. To be clear, this series is definitely a countdown of 25 legendary Steelers, but the premise is different than most lists. Rather than trying to argue whether Casey Hampton really belongs on the list, or if Hines Ward belongs higher than, say, Lynn Swann, this list emphasizes the career games of 25 legends. Sure, feel free to argue about the list itself, but it's not really the point of the series. Instead, rather than just glossing over the careers of some of the franchise's most revered and productive players like these lists almost always do, the objective is to highlight some outstanding performances that perhaps some of us had forgotten about or were not aware of. Many thanks to Michael for the series, which I plan to roll out on a more regular basis moving forward.-Michael B.-


23) Donnie Shell - Defensive Back (1974-1987)

Donnie Shell is the perfect example of the costs of ignoring small school stars in college.  Not only was Shell good enough in college to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, but he also was an All-American during his career at South Carolina State University (a historically-black university).  Shell went undrafted in 1974, and was later signed by the Steelers as a free agent.  He is considered one of the members of the Steelers' vaunted 1974 draft-class, despite not being drafted, and started in 11 of his 13 seasons in Pittsburgh. 

Shell is regarded by many as a top-15 safety in NFL history, and arguably the best ball-hawk to ever play his position.  He was overshadowed by the defense that had been built around him, but Shell was an all-time talent, not just for the Steelers, but for the NFL as a whole.

Shell won four Super Bowls, retired with a then-record for a Strong Safety 51 interceptions. He is a member of the Steelers All-Time Team, selected to 5 Pro Bowls, and 3 All-Pro teams, and was voted team MVP in 1980.  His exclusion from the Hall of Fame is one of the greatest mistakes Canton has made.

Career Game: Week 1 vs. Houston Oilers, 09/07/1980

Statistics: 2 INT.'s for 76 yards.

The Steelers faced a pair of common foes when they lined up against the Houston Oilers and their new quarterback: Ken Stabler.  Stabler, 35 years old at the time and in his last 16-game season, went on to lead the Oilers to an 11-5 record, first place in the AFC Central division (the division dominated by the Steelers for the previous decade) and over 3200 yards passing.  The Steelers were going up against not only one of the best QB's of the era, but arguably the best running back of the time as well: Earl Campbell.  The Steelers would go on to win this game through a dominant defense that suffocated Stabler, and forced him to throw 5 interceptions.

John Clayton has written that Donnie Shell would save his hardest hits for Earl Campbell, and in this game he had a few of those as well.  Shell could fly through the field like Troy Polamalu, but level hits like no one else in football history.  Shell was a special player, and showed his hitting, and ball-hawking abilities in this week 1 game. 

Shell had games with sacks, touchdowns, and multiple interceptions, but his ability to dominate a team as good as the 1980 Oilers by making Ken Stabler throw 5 interceptions, stands out to me.  This game may not seem particularly special to many of you, other than the obvious stats (interceptions and yards returned after the pick), but this was one of the last times we would see the dominance of the Steel Curtain.  The 80's were a dark time for the Steelers in many ways - especially compared to the 70's, and post-80's Steelers football.  The Steelers had defeated the Oilers in back-to-back AFC Championship games, and even though this was not the Steelers' season, this game showed that dynasties die hard, and take teams with them.  Stabler threw 28 interceptions in 1980 and was never the same quarterback after that season.  (I know this game didn't cause his career decline, but let me live in my fantasy world!).   

The Countdown:

No. 25 - Casey Hampton (12/10/2010)
No. 24 - Rocky Bleier (10/26/1975)