The Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s possessed many players with unique nicknames and characterizations.
Surely you know of "Mean Joe", Ernie "Fats" Holmes, L.C. "Hollywood Bags" Greenwood, and Dwight "Mad Dog" White, the nicknames given to the greatest front four to ever play (with respect to the Rams' Fearsome Foursome of the 1970s).
But did you know that the famed Steel Curtain was armed with a torpedo?
That was the nickname given to safety Donnie Shell, a 14-year Steeler and member of all four Super Bowl championship teams in the ‘70s.
Pittsburgh's 1974 draft class is widely regarded as the best ever. It included Hall-of-Famers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, and Jack Lambert. That draft also included the acquisition of Shell out of South Carolina State.
Shell was one of the Steel Curtain's most dependable reserves on the squad's '74 and '75 Super Bowl winning teams. He recorded interceptions in each of his first three seasons playing behind solid veteran Mike Wagner.
After cracking the starting lineup for good in 1977, Shell made the greatest defense ever even stronger. He earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 1978 by picking off three passes and recovering five fumbles, one that was returned for a touchdown. Shell's efforts helped the Steelers post a 14-2 record that climaxed with a 35-31 victory over the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.
1978 was just the beginning for Shell, who would become a regular at the Pro Bowl for the next four seasons. He earned All-Pro status for the first time in 1979, intercepting five passes while contributing to the Steelers Super Bowl XIV victory in January of 1980.
Nicknamed "The Torpedo" due to his superior closing speed and eagerness to launch himself into backs twice his size. A perfect example of this was when the Steelers faced the emerging Oilers in a battle for AFC Central supremacy.
With divisional bragging rights on the line and with the Houston "Luv Ya Blue" crowd in a frenzied pitch, the Oilers offensive game plan was to punish the Steelers defense with a heavy dose of rookie running sensation Earl Campbell, a freight train in high tops; the 70s version of Jerome Bettis but with more of a mean streak.
Early in the game, Campbell broke free before being dropped to the turf by Shell. The momentum-changing hit knocked Campbell out of the game in Pittsburgh's eventual 13-3 win. As Greene said on America's Game: The 1978 Steelers: "It was the only time I was ever relieved to see a player walk off the field."
After finding his place on the the Steel Curtain in his early years, Shell helped mentor several young defensive backs during his years as a veteran. Along with Ron Johnson, a starting cornerback on the team's last two Super Bowl winning teams in the ‘70s, Tony Dungy stated in his autobiography "Quiet Strength" that Shell was one of his closest friends on the team and a mentor on and off the field. Dungy, who helped force a pivotal fumble late in Super Bowl XIII, led the Steelers with six picks in '78.
While many of the Steelers greats from the previous decade transitioned into retirement, Shell continued to play at a high level into the ‘80s. He earned his second consecutive All-Pro honor in 1980 after recording a career-best seven interceptions. After earning his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl berth in 1981, Shell was named an All-Pro performer for the final time in 1982 after intercepting five passes in the nine game, strike shortened season.
Shell continued to defy age as the decade of the 80s progressed. He played and started in every Steelers game from 1982-85, pacing the team with seven interceptions at the age of 32 in 1984. He intercepted at least five passes each season from 1979-84.
Shell retired with 51 career picks after walking away from the game in 1987. Stallworth, who broke into the league with Shell 14 seasons earlier, also retired that season, while Webster also played his last season in the Black and Gold before finishing his career in Kansas City. Before he left, Shell mentored one more promising young Steeler in Rod Woodson, who played alongside No.31 as a rookie during Shell's final season.
While his stats match up with other great defensive backs in his or any era, numbers shouldn't define what made Shell unique. It was that fearlessness and effort that he played with on every snap. It was his peerless athleticism that enabled him to chase down the fastest of players. It was the leadership he displayed to his younger teammates, teaching them the Steeler Way of doing things.
Born in 1985, I don't remember watching Shell at the time he played for the Steelers. But there are two Shell highlights my dad showed me growing up that really stand out and in my opinion defined the type of player he was.
The first play occurred early in Super Bowl XIV. The Rams Wyndell Tyler found a seam in the right side of the Steelers defense and took off. "Watch this," my dad said as Shell came into the picture. "Shell's going fall trying to make the tackle here, but see what happens next."
Sure enough, Shell slipped on the Rose Bowl turf at his first attempt to bring down Tyler as he cut back down the far sideline. Some 20 yards later, Tyler continues to weave through the Steelers defense before Shell re-enters the picture. The last player capable of stopping him, Shell grabs the back of Tyler and pulls him down. The effort displayed by Shell on that play echoed one of the more famous Noll sayings during that time: "whatever it takes."
The second highlight took place some five years later in the 1984 season finale against the Raiders in Los Angeles. The reigning Super Bowl champion Raiders had beaten Pittsburgh the year before in the playoffs, and now looked to snatch away the final playoff spot from the Steelers with their own post season hopes on the line. After already picking off quarterback Jim Plunkett once earlier in the game, Shell victimized him again in the end zone to punch Pittsburgh's ticket to the playoffs.
Every great team needs a guy like Donnie Shell, a consummate pro and consistent performer that didn't mind not being in the spotlight. His bust might not be immortalized in Canton, Ohio, but he will always have a seat at the table of all-time Steelers greats.