It is safe to say every fan who watched the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s knows Donnie Shell. They also realize he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame if it weren't for the general anti-70s Steelers bias in Canton, OH. Nonetheless, enjoy the interview with Shell below where he talks about everything from being elected into the Black College Football Hall of Fame, his post-NFL life and some great memories of some great Steelers teams.
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First, congratulations on being elected into the Black College Football Hall of Fame. Especially entering the NFL from a small Southern school like South Carolina State, what does that honor mean for you?
To be inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame means a great deal not only to me but to my family. When you attend South Carolina State University, you receive more than a education. I was mentored and nurtured by my professors and coaches. This process allowed me to mature as a young African American male.
Can you let readers know about your post-NFL life. What have you been doing since the NFL and how you got started?
In 1994 -2009 I was the Director of Player Development for the NFL Carolina Panther Football Organization. I coordinated all player programs (Career internships, Continuing Education, Family Assistance and others). These programs were designed to assist athletes and their families during and after their career.
After retiring from the Carolina Panthers in 2009, I started Donnie Shell Consulting, LLC. This business provides public speaking, Program development and Life coaching. In 2010, Donnie Shell Consulting, LLC became a consultant for Dr. Ronald L. Carter, President of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC.
Donnie Shell Consulting is responsible for developing the Spiritual Life Center for the campus of Johnson C. Smith University.
How hard was it for you to adjust to life after the NFL and how did you do so? What about your time it he NFL helped you?
It really was not hard for me to adjust to life after football because I completed my college degree in four years while participating as a student athlete in football and baseball. During my first two years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, I received my Masters Degree in Counseling Education. God blessed me to look beyond my football career and prepare for life after football. As I mentioned earlier, when you attend South Carolina State University, you receive more than an education.
You were signed on by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in '74. Why Pittsburgh - what made you decide to sign with them?
I was not drafted in 1974 but I received three opportunities to sign as an undrafted free agent.
The opportunities were with the Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers. I had kind of made up my mind to sign with the Denver Broncos because they signed my former South Carolina State teammate Barney Chavous in 1973. But after consulting with my college coach Willie Jeffries, I signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and you know the rest of the story. Young African American men need someone they can trust when they are making difficult decisions and Coach Jeffries was there for me.
As a rookie, who helped mentor you most and helped you adjust to the team - both on and off the field - and how did they do so?
My rookie year Sam Davis and Mel Blount mentored me. In the early seventies, there were no player development programs to assist you in coping with life in the NFL. The veteran Steeler players would take rookies under their wings and mentor them. This mentoring was done quietly behind the scenes, but I believe it was one of the main reasons we were successful as an organization. When the Steelers played a West Coast team, I had the privilege of speaking with Sam Davis for three hours about the nuances of the NFL.
Also as a high school and college athlete, I never had to sit on the bench. When I came the Steelers, I sat on the bench and only got in the game on special teams, goal line defense and prevent defenses. I was becoming frustrated because I was not a starter. Mel Blount took me to dinner and let me know the team goal was to go to the Super Bowl and everyone had to do their job to accomplish this goal. He encouraged me that I was doing a great job and that my time would come to be a starter at my position. He made me recognize that no one individual was more important than the team and this advice came at a critical time in my career and gave me the right perspective.
Coming from a small school, what was your biggest adjustment to the NFL game, and how did you do so?
My biggest adjustment was the speed of the game and you only adjust to that by playing full-time.
When you arrived in '74, did you have a sense of how good the team was and would become? Did you feel that the team was on to great things at that time?
Pittsburgh was one my favorite teams and I followed them very closely. I knew that they had a good young team and was very close to becoming winners. I always tease Franco Harris by telling him they had a good team but they also needed the help of the 1974 class of rookies to be a great team.
How much did humor play a part in that and on the team in general - can you offer some examples of the hijinks or funny occurrences?
We were all practical jokers. I remember someone putting white power in my and other players helmets or tying you up with up with tape to the goal post and someone had to cut you loose.
You are known for your physical style of play, but you actually left the game as the NFL's strong safety leader in interceptions with 51. Do you think your converge skills were overshadowed by your physical play, and what about you enabled you to have that rare combination of physicality and coverage skills?
I don't think my coverage skills were overshadowed. You must remember during the early seventies, teams were more run-oriented than pass-oriented. I believed my coverage skills were acknowledge because of the 51 interceptions.
I played linebacker in high school and college so this allowed me to become a physical player. I believe being able to play football, baseball and basketball in high school and playing football and baseball in college made me an all-around athlete.
Despite your physical style, you lasted in the NFL for thirteen seasons. What do you owe that longevity too?
Actually I played for fourteen seasons and I attributed it to being one of the best conditioned athletes on the Steelers team and to the grace of God for keeping my healthy.
Do you watch football often now? What do you think of the way the game has changed?
I do watch football and I believe some of the rules for safety are over-emphasized. Coach Chuck Noll taught us the proper way to tackle is with your head up and your legs because your legs are the most power part of your body when you use them properly. I notice some players actually throwing their entire body at their opponent and that is not the proper way to tackle.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I observed the Rooney family having a great faith in God and always helping in the Pittsburgh community. Many of the Steeler players had a similar faith in God and enjoyed assisting people in the community as well. The Rooney family is a great role model for the players, their families and the NFL.