Gene Upshaw has been fond of Art Shell since the day they met in July 1968, at the opening of the Oakland Raiders' training camp. Upshaw, who at the time was a second-year guard known for being bold and boisterous, wondered out loud about the mammoth rookie tackle sauntering across the field. "Where the hell is Maryland State?" he yelled to Shell.
This is an article from the Oct. 23, 1989 issue
Shy and soft-spoken, but not easily intimidated, Shell ignored Upshaw's question and instead asked one of his own. "Where the hell is Texas A & I?" he yelled in Upshaw's direction. With that, Shell had performed the impossible: He had left Upshaw speechless.
Through the years, the friendship between the outspoken guard and the quiet, gentle tackle grew. They played next to each other on the left side of the Raiders' offensive line for more than 200 games, forming such a formidable tandem that Doug Sutherland, a Minnesota Viking defensive tackle, once said, "They could block out the sun." They were also close off the field, making excursions for barbecued ribs on road trips and regularly whipping their teammates at cards the night before games. They demanded adjoining rooms at training camps and teased each other endlessly.
"The only time I ever get hurt is when you fall or step on me," Shell would tell Upshaw. "Damn it, Gene, I don't know what's worse, you or the defense."
"Shell," Upshaw would say with a devilish grin, "how much do you really weigh?"
In private moments over cold beers, Upshaw and Shell shared secrets and private dreams. Upshaw hoped one day to be a politician; Shell wanted to be a football coach. And they both longed to be elected to the Football Hall of Fame. By 1987, their dreams started becoming reality. Upshaw, who by then was the executive director of the NFL Players Association, was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This summer it was Shell's turn. Then, on Oct. 3, Shell became the NFL's first black head coach in 64 years when he was named coach of the Los Angeles Raiders. The league's only other black head coach was Fritz Pollard, who handled the Hammond (Ind.) Pros from 1923 through'25.
"I've been pinching myself ever since I heard," Upshaw told Shell over the telephone after the news was announced. "I'm so happy."
Shell was choked with emotion. "I can't believe it, Gene," he said, softly. "All those plans we made years ago have actually come true."
In his 15 seasons as a Raider player, from 1968 through '82, Shell was named All-Pro three times and played in eight Pro Bowls, more than any other Raider ever. He played in 207 games, which puts him third on the team's alltime list, behind Upshaw and center Jim Otto, and he was an integral part of two Super Bowl championship teams. His most remarkable performance came in Super Bowl XI, in which the Raiders routed the Minnesota Vikings 32-14. Defensive end Jim Marshall, the Vikings' Pro Bowler, was Shell's primary blocking target that day. The Raiders gained 266 yards rushing, mostly behind Shell and Upshaw on the left side, and that was a Super Bowl record at the time. Marshall didn't make a tackle or get an assist or a sack.
Standing 6'5" and weighing more than 300 pounds, Shell could intimidate opponents with his size alone. Although he rarely spoke on the field, he had no trouble getting his point across. "Art used to eat [Pittsburgh Steeler end] Dwight White alive," says former Raider tight end Dave Casper. "He'd run him downfield, backwards. One afternoon in 1976, Dwight punched me in the ribs and knocked the wind out of me. He hurt me bad, but I didn't let him know. At the end of the season, in the AFC Championship Game, Dwight gave me a little extra effort after the whistle. That was it. I said, 'I'm gonna kick your ass. You aren't worth a damn.' As Dwight lunged forward, he noticed Art standing right behind me. Dwight never touched me again."
Recalls former Raider fullback Mark van Eeghen, "Art had extremely high standards. He prided himself in keeping his guy off [quarterback! Kenny Stabler; a sack hurt Art more than it did Kenny. In an exhibition game in Atlanta, the Falcons' John Zook hit Kenny late. There was absolutely no need for it. Art grabbed Zook by the shoulder pads, picked him off the ground and looked him straight in the eye, as if to say, Don't you ever do that again."
Each game, Shell went through his Mr. Nice Guy routine before the start of the Raiders' first offensive series. With those big brown eyes and an extra-wide smile, he cordially greeted his opponent across the line and inquired about his family and health. "Art would kill you with kindness," says former Raider defensive end Lyle Alzado, who faced Shell when he played with the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns earlier in his career. "The first time we played, he smiled and said, 'How you doing, Lyle?' I thought, 'What the hell is this?' Then he proceeded to drive me off the ground, drop me on my back and run over me. I never had a good game the week after I faced Art, because he was so physical. And I used to beat up guys! Art was impossible to rattle. I'd talk about his mother, sister and brothers. He'd ignore me. I hated Art Shell."
When Alzado joined the Raiders in 1982, he decided it might be time to give Shell a break and maybe even become his friend. Playing for the same team, Alzado thought, they could afford to be nice to each other. "I looked at Art across the line the first day, laughed and said, 'We've done this before, haven't we, buddy?' " says Alzado. "Art just smiled, and then he knocked the crap out of me."
Besides being ferocious, Shell was an intelligent player, who constantly scribbled notes in his playbook. In team meetings he asked questions about strategy. Night after night, he studied game films in his den. He made it his business to learn what every offensive player's assignment was on every play. In 1972, John Madden, the Raider coach at the time, told Shell, who was in his fifth pro season, that he would make a good offensive line coach.
A few seasons later Shell asked Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, how to prepare for a coaching job with the team. For the time being, Davis advised, concentrate on playing football, and we'll discuss this coaching idea toward the end of your career. Davis was true to his word. With Davis's help, Shell landed a job as a volunteer assistant coach with Cal in the springs of 1981 and '82. In 1983, Shell became the Raiders' offensive line coach, a position he held until he replaced head coach Mike Shanahan.
As a player and as an assistant coach, Shell's most impressive trait was his habit of close observation. While Upshaw chatted endlessly to the press after games, Shell listened to his teammates' conversations. He watched his coaches carefully. He never said much, but he soaked up a lot of information.
"John Madden taught me about the game of people," says Shell, who at 42 is the youngest head coach in the NFL. "I learned that you have to understand each individual, when to push his buttons and when not to. From Tom Flores [who coached the Raiders from 1979 to '87] I learned patience. He was a quiet, stoic leader. Mike Shanahan was one of the most organized people I ever met."
Shanahan might have approached his job in an organized manner, but his regime with the Raiders was chaotic. Young, bright and ambitious, Shanahan, who had been the Broncos' offensive coordinator, wanted the job so badly that he promised to work closely with Davis and to retain all of Flores's assistants. Davis, who had never hired a head coach from outside the organization in his 26 years with the Raiders, brought Shanahan aboard in February 1988, and it soon became evident that it would be a dreadful marriage. Shanahan believed in a finesse game; Davis loved explosive running complemented by the deep pass. Shanahan ran the team like a boys' camp counselor, instituting silly rules: no sitting on helmets during practice, no eating sunflower seeds in the locker room. Davis, who had always run a loose ship, seethed, and the veterans did a slow burn. When the team finished the season 7-9, Shanahan decided to clean house. He fired two assistants, Willie Brown and Charlie Sumner. Enraged, Davis hired Brown back as an administrative assistant.
Tension grew between Shell and Nick Nicolau, a receivers coach Shanahan had brought with him from Denver. "Why are you hanging around in this job?" Nicolau asked Shell one day toward the end of last season. Shell, who had been sharing his fine duties with Alex Gibbs, another Shanahan disciple from the Broncos, was stunned.
"That remark hurt Art deeply," says his wife, Janice. "I said, 'Art, why didn't you pop the hell out of him?' "
Davis canned Nicolau. Shanahan then reportedly tried to fire running-backs coach Joe Scannella and quarterbacks coach Tom Walsh, but Davis told them to go back to work. Heading into this season, Davis couldn't hide his un-happiness. Although he offered advice on strategy, Shanahan refused to listen. When the Raiders went 1-3, Davis decided to make a move. After a 24-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 1, Davis phoned Shell's house. It was 12:30 a.m. when Janice picked up the receiver. "Who is it?" Art asked groggily.
"I don't know," said Janice, handing the phone to her husband. When he recognized Davis's voice, Shell took the call in his downstairs office.
"Art was gone a long time," recalls Janice. "When he returned to the bedroom, he said, 'Al's thinking about naming me head coach.' I said, 'Oh,' and went back to sleep."
Shell decided sleeping would be a waste of time, so he got dressed and returned to his office to ponder the future. "I wanted to be prepared if I got it," says Shell. "I made notes about how I would organize the week, how I would deal with the press, and how I would approach the team."
Shortly before noon on Oct. 3, Davis told Shell that the job was his. During a press conference that afternoon, Davis stressed that he wasn't hiring Shell because he was black but because he was silver and black. Led by this symbol of its past greatness, Davis proclaimed, the team would return to "Raider football." Since the hiring, the Raiders, who beat the New York Jets 14-7 in Shell's debut on Oct. 9 and the Kansas City Chiefs 20-14 on Sunday, have been one big happy family, as in the good old days.
"Once a Raider, always a Raider," says former Raider defensive end Otis Sistrunk. "We were close. Whenever I meet a Raider today, I don't just say hello and give a handshake. I hug and kiss him."
Says Alzado, "Being a Raider means that you perform on the field and win for Al. You give everything from the deepest part of your soul. You give your best shot. Al treats players like human beings, and he'll be a part of your life forever. Art Shell is an extension of that; he's the same kind of man."
Shell has spent a great deal of time in his new position reconstructing the players' psyches. "They need to think positively and relax," he says. "I need to bring the closeness back." His biggest challenge is training them to feel like the Raiders of yesteryear, the NFL's nastiest, most feared bunch. Every day he recounts tales of Raider toughness.
"We're going back into the Twilight Zone again," Shell told his players last Friday. "I've got a story about a great Raider player named Dan Birdwell. When I was a rookie, Bird-well sat down next to my locker and said, 'Arthur, you have to play this game like somebody just hit your mother with a two-by-four.' "
Learning to be tough and to persevere has been a theme throughout Shell's life. The eldest of five children, he grew up in the Daniel Jenkins Project in Charleston, S.C. His father, Arthur ST., worked at a paper mill. The family's tiny redbrick dwelling was on Pickens Street between fertilizer and sulfur plants. "There were foul odors all the time," says Theron (Peanut) Seward, a childhood friend of Shell's. "The air was at its worst during the evenings."
The Daniel Jenkins Project was safe, friendly and filled with devout Baptists who kept watchful eyes on their children as well as those of their neighbors. Doors were never locked. "If I went by Miss Pearlie's house and didn't say good afternoon or good evening, I got a whipping when I got home," says Shell. "Sometimes Miss Pearlie would say, 'Come here, boy,' and give me a spanking herself. I enjoyed my childhood. I didn't want for a meal or toys. I had what I wanted—an extended family."
His mother, Gertrude, suffered from a heart problem, and the Shell children were instructed to help their mother with the chores. Because Art was the oldest, he took charge, washing dishes, cleaning the house and helping with the cooking. "My mother agonized a lot," says Shell. "I can still see her crying as she ironed the clothes, worrying about her family. I was very close to her, closer to her than my father, because I was with her so much. She loved to talk, and I loved to listen."
One afternoon, when Shell was 15 and playing in the front yard, Gertrude became ill. Shell phoned his father at the mill and then raced his parents to the hospital in the family's '53 black Chevy.
"Everybody was crying and carrying on," recalls Shell's brother Kenneth. "When the car pulled out of sight, I said, 'Mama isn't ever coming back.' "
Only 35, Gertrude died of a heart attack. Arthur Sr. gathered the children and made them a promise. "I will raise you all," he said. "Being a family is the most important thing."
While his father worked, Shell looked after his three brothers and one sister, and that forced him to grow up quickly. Arthur Sr. had dropped out of school after the sixth grade to help his family in the cotton fields; Gertrude had gotten only as far as fifth grade. Having his children go to college was Arthur Sr.'s biggest dream.
As a senior at Bonds-Wilson High, Shell made all-state in football and basketball, and he accepted a football scholarship to Maryland State. A two-way player in each of his four years, he was named Little All-America offensive tackle as a senior in 1967. The Raiders were impressed with his size and agility—he also started at center on Maryland State's basketball team for three seasons—and they selected him in the third round of the combined AFL-NFL draft in 1968.
"Art was his father's heart," says Eugene Graves, Shell's basketball coach at Bonds-Wilson. "He always talked about Art. He was so proud of him."
Says Seward, "There were a lot of success stories on the project, but Art's is by far the biggest. Everyone is overwhelmed. We should all celebrate."
Last Jan. 24, Shell learned he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. A half hour later, his sister, Eartha, phoned to say their father had suffered a stroke. A diabetic, Arthur Sr. had been undergoing dialysis for several years and was confined to a wheelchair. Now, the left side of his face was paralyzed.
Shell spoke to his father the next morning. "I told him to hang in there tough, that I loved him so much," says Shell. "I told him I'd made the Hall of Fame. He tried to speak, but I couldn't understand him. My brother Bennie got back on the phone and said that when I'd called, he had just finished reading Dad about my making the Hall of Fame. He said Dad smiled, and then a weird thing happened: Bennie heard him clearly say, 'That's nice.' "
Arthur Sr., 67, died late the next day. His final wish was that the family stay close. Shell took the death hard. "I didn't get to see him before he closed his eyes," he says. "He died an hour before my plane landed. I went straight to the hospital and sat in the room with him by myself. I reflected on my life. I know I had made him happy."
Six months later all the Shells and their children met in Canton for Art's Hall of Fame induction. Arthur III, 15, and his brother, Christopher, 13, sat in the front row with Janice. Eartha sat in a wheelchair because she had recently lost part of her left leg to diabetes. "The weekend was very difficult," says Kenneth. "I hurt to my heart. Art was often in tears. He'd say, 'Daddy's not here.' I'd remind him that Daddy and Mama were both right there beside all of us."
Part of the family got together again after Art was named coach of the Raiders. Brothers Bennie and Lawrence were at Giants Stadium for the victory over the Jets. So was Janice. Kenneth, however, couldn't break away from his job as head football coach at Carver High in Baltimore. "When I heard he got the job, I cried," says Kenneth. "My players picked me up in the air and twirled me around. I'd always teased that I was the family's first head coach."
On Sunday, Upshaw got to share in the joy of Shell's recent successes. Before the Chiefs game, Shell was presented with his Hall of Fame ring. Upshaw, Otto, Willie Brown and Fred Biletnikoff, some of the Raiders' other Hall of Famers, took turns shaking Shell's hand. As he watched his best friend, Upshaw remembered Rudyard Kipling's If-, which they had memorized as young professionals.
...If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!
"We've always used that poem as our point of reference, to remember what we are, who we are, to keep our values straight and to think about where we're going," says Upshaw. "Here we are in 1989, and we're still talking about firsts: the first black head coach. In the early years I didn't think Art would be a pioneer. Lately I was worried that it would get to the point where he would be too old to become a head coach. Maybe I shouldn't have. There's one thing that Art and I have learned over the years: You shouldn't be afraid to dream, because you can wake up and find out it's a reality."