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The NFL’s most underrated living legend — Donnie Shell

Former Pittsburgh Steeler safety Donnie Shell has to be one of the greatest success stories in league history, both on and off the field. So why hasn’t the Hall of Fame been calling?

NFL Hall of Fame Enshrinement Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Donnie Shell missed out on a great career opportunity. He could have been an incredible secret service agent because he apparently has the ability to hide in plain sight.

The man they called the “Torpedo” during his playing days seems to have earned the moniker of “Invisible Man” in the eyes of the Hall of Fame voters, and it’s hard to define a reason why.

Donnie Shell’s life story would be a perfect fit for the big screen if it didn’t sound so unbelievable.

We marvel at how players like Antonio Brown and Tom Brady could fall so far in the draft as we watch them have Hall of Fame careers. How could that many scouting departments have been so wrong?

Donnie Shell’s draft story is hard to believe. First off, let’s not forget the Steelers’ scouting department in 1974 was the best in the business, seeing as how they’d just pulled off the greatest draft in league history. They drafted four Hall of Famers that year, making it undoubtedly the best draft class ever.

What’s harder to fathom is that, even though the draft that year consisted of 17 rounds, not a single team drafted a safety from South Carolina State named Donnie Shell. Not even the Pittsburgh Steelers, in all their wisdom. They signed him as a undrafted free agent.

In the Steelers’ defense, as well as the rest of the league, Shell wasn’t an athletic marvel at first sight. He wasn’t a tall, fast, sculpted Adonis of a man like his teammate Mel Blount. Donnie was built more like a fire hydrant. On the field, he resembled a bowling ball and his opponents were the pins. He earned his nickname because, back in the day, you only had a couple of camera angles while watching on TV and, as the play was developing, Shell would suddenly fly into the frame, seemingly out of nowhere — like he was shot out of a cannon.

Shell was the definition of a strong safety and was an enforcer in run support for the Steel Curtain. He was also excellent in coverage with superior ball skills. His 51 career interceptions were the most ever for a strong safety when he announced his retirement.

He was a four-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro during his 14-year professional career, all with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, his 201 career games played in a Steeler uniform still ranks as second-most in team history. An impressive feat of longevity for such a physical player.

It’s easy to see why Donnie Shell is widely considered one of the ten best safeties in NFL history. It is harder to put your finger on what more he could have done to earn his place in the Hall of Fame.

Some feel Shell is being penalized because so many of his Steelers teammates are already members of the Hall of Fame, but this excuse really doesn’t hold water.

To punish Shell in this manner would be akin to not acknowledging Emmitt Smith’s career achievements because he played behind the greatest offensive line of his era.

Donnie Shell wasn’t successful simply because of the immense talent that surrounded him, but actually was a vital contributor on the greatest collection of defensive talent in league history.

Shell went on to enjoy success working for the Carolina Panthers in player development after his playing days came to an end. He has also focused his time and energy toward various charities and public-service endeavors.

Shell was both a leader and a winner during his lengthy playing career which resulted in many individual achievements. His NFL career is not only a feel-good story, but also a Hall of Fame-caliber effort. But he’s still waiting on the phone call that will make him a Hall of Fame player.

Hopefully that call will come someday. He’s definitely earned the distinction.