Literally decades after people began to wonder if it would ever happen, former Steelers strong safety Donnie Shell was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last week and will be inducted this summer as part of the Class of 2020.
What an honor, one that, to reiterate, was a long-time in coming for the four-time Super Bowl champion. Shell retired in 1987 after 14 years in Pittsburgh, but not before being named a First-Team All-Pro three times, a Pro Bowler five times and posting the most interceptions for a strong safety with 51.
When he gets up there on that stage in Canton next August to make his induction speech, Shell will officially be the 10th player from that famed Steelers dynasty of the 1970s to be so honored.
Will Shell’s induction seem any less special to him or anyone else since it came 28 years after he was first eligible? Absolutely not to him. As for the rest of us? When a player such as Shell gets elected to the Hall of Fame after so many years of waiting, we tend to have an “Awww, I feel so happy for him,” attitude about it, as if it’s not as special as making it right away.
Fair enough. It is a big deal when a player is inducted on his first try, as it signifies that he truly was an all-time great among all-time greats. That’s a distinction that should not be diminished, even as I sit here honoring a player that finally made it in 33 years after playing his final snap in the NFL.
Having said all of that, however, the National Football League is celebrating 100 years of existence. The Hall of Fame’s first class was enshrined on September 7, 1963. Even though the league has seen literally hundreds of thousands of players come and go over the past century, as of 2019, only 326 have received the honor of football immortality.
Years from now, when some youngster sees Donnie Shell’s bust sitting there alongside other greats, he or she won’t really know—or care—that Shell had to wait decades longer than some of his Steelers teammates to get in. They’ll just think, “Wow, he must have been a pretty special player.”
If the NFL keeps electing members at the pace it has for the past 57 years, it’s doubtful that, even in another hundred years, the HOF’s members will even reach a thousand.
It doesn’t matter that Donnie Shell had to wait so long to get into the Hall of Fame. His induction may not carry the same cachet as Mean Joe Greene’s or Terry Bradshaw’s, but much like them, he is now NFL royalty.
He is also now forever immortal.