State Your Case: Donnie Shell

Rick Gosselin


(Photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

Tony Dungy played safety in the NFL and also coached some good ones.

At Tampa, Dungy watched John Lynch develop into a nine-time Pro Bowler and a Hall-of-Fame candidate. At Indianapolis, Dungy watched Bob Sanders develop into an NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lynch and Sanders were both key defensive components on Super Bowl championship teams.

But the best safety Dungy has ever been around could very well have been his former Pittsburgh Steelers' teammate Donnie Shell.

The closer Lynch and Sanders played to the line of scrimmage, the better players they became. Both were huge hitters and among the most physical defensive backs in the game, excelling as box safeties. But between the two of them, they intercepted only 32 passes in a combined 23 seasons.

Shell intercepted 51 passes in 14 seasons. He also recovered 19 fumbles. That’s 70 takeaways. That’s Hall-of-Fame worthy. But Shell reached the finals just once in 2002, was eliminated in the first cut, and hasn’t been back since. He deserves longer and better consideration from Canton for the caliber of player he was.

That’s because Shell was more than a turnover machine. Dungy uses the terms “tremendous…versatile…physical” when discussing his old friend.

“The Steelers traded a Pro Bowl safety in Glen Edwards to get Donnie into the starting lineup,” Dungy said, “and he stayed there for a decade.”

Shell stepped into Pittsburgh’s starting lineup in 1977 and helped the Steelers win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1978-79. He earned the first of five consecutive Pro Bowl invitations in 1978 and was named first-team All-Pro in 1979, 1981 and 1982. He put the “strong” in the strong safety position.

“Donnie played in the box and was like another linebacker as a run defender,” Dungy said. “He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all.”

Shell was an undrafted college free agent in 1974 who claimed one of the 40 roster spots on one of the best teams in the NFL. He started one game as a rookie, and the Steelers went on to win their first Super Bowl. He started two games in 1975 as the Steelers went back-to-back, then served as the club’s special teams captain in 1976.

Shell recovered a career-best five fumbles in 1978, sacked a career-best four quarterbacks in 1979, intercepted a career-best seven passes in 1980 and rang up a career-best 96 tackles in 1984. Shell broke Earl Campbell’s ribs in one AFC title game and intercepted Dan Marino in another.

Shell was voted MVP of Pittsburgh’s 1980 team that included nine Hall of Famers: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount.

Shell was a much better player than history thus far has given him credit for being. Safety is the most under-represented position in the Hall of Fame. There are only seven pure safeties enshrined. Shell has the credentials that could, would and should make him the eighth.


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