A Block At Tackle

The quiet strength that made Art Shell the game's best left tackle has also made him the rock-solid coach of the Raiders
September 04, 1994

He could crush you. He had those legs, that ass. He had arms nearly too thick for shirtsleeves. Over the years a man his size just naturally takes on names. Two of his were Angus the Bull and Brahma. People saw him and that was what came to mind. He went 6'5" and 305 pounds. Don't believe the old game programs that listed him as 275. It was all a ruse to deceive the enemy—that and a dream of his youth, a memory.

He had that noggin, too, that head. The Oakland Raiders had a hard time finding a helmet to fit him. You wonder where they found his jersey. They probably sewed a couple of black bedsheets together and added a silver number 78 to either side. He was that grand, that epic. He was a thousand other things the world doesn't even have names for yet. He was also nice. As a matter of fact, he was about as nice as they come.

"Hello," he would say to his opponent before a game, giving a smile from behind his birdcage. "How are you? Nice to see you again. Let's play hard and have a good game today." He would walk up to his left tackle position on the offensive line and, staring across the way, deliver this little bitty insult of a speech.

By now the stands were going crazy with noise, and the guys on the field were hopping with nerves, and there he was being Mr. Congeniality.

You halfway expected him to reach out and shake hands. All he needed was a name tag on his left shoulder pad that said: HI, THERE! MY NAME IS ARTHUR SHELL JR.

"Well, hello, Art," they replied. Or most of them did. Some just shrugged and looked away. These were the smart ones, the ones too proud to be afraid. They knew what was coming. He might be a perfect gentleman, a sweetheart of a guy. But he was still Art Shell. And he could crush you. It didn't make sense.

People with nothing better to do still argue over who the alltime best quarterback was. After a while the names begin to run together into one: Montanaunitasbradshawnamathstarr. Same with running backs. Brown, Simpson, Payton, or they reach way back and come up with Nagurski.

But offensive left tackle is a done deal, settled long ago. It belongs to Art Shell, the old Brahma himself. Shell played the position from 1968 until he retired after the 1982 season, and he played it better than anyone else, ever. In the end he will most likely be remembered as the first black NFL head coach in more than 60 years. But every defensive lineman who ever faced him will remember him for one thing: his utter greatness.

"Art was the man," says Dwight White, a former defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "You know what the most terrible situation in the world was for me? Fourth-and-one or third-and-two against the Raiders. Because you knew what was coming. They were running right over Art. My neck is shot today—I've got bone chips in it, it still hurts and gives me all kinds of problems. And it's all because of head-butting Art Shell."

"When you start thinking about left tackle and who was the best to play there, it really shouldn't even be up for discussion," says Dan Conners, a former Raider linebacker and teammate of Shell's. "Art was just it. He dominated."

"He was perfection," says Henry Lawrence, another old teammate of Shell's. "If you played against Art, the last thing you wanted to do was get him upset. If you could beat Art, and then be an——about it and do
something stupid like hit or just bump the quarterback, Art would kick your ass. He didn't want his man ever to come close to the quarterback. It really pissed him off. 'Mother——!' I can hear him saying now, screaming, 'Mother——, what are you doing, hitting my man like that?' And then the other guy apologizing. 'I'm sorry, Art, I'm sorry.' "

Shell is 47 now. He still has that big, proud body, although his weight is down to about 305, some 35 pounds less than he weighed last summer, when doctors told him he had diabetes and placed him on a strict diet. He had to give up the fries and double cheeseburgers, the pizza and barbecued ribs, the butter pecan ice cream and milk shakes—in other words, all the perfectly nutritious things that helped make him such a mountain of a man. Janice, his wife of 24 years, often sends him to work in the morning packing a lunch hardly big enough to satisfy a bird. It's always either tuna or turkey. It's salad greens and nonfat milk. One of his players, center Don Mosebar, likes to bring fresh fruit and leave it on Shell's desk.

"Coach was in a bad mood last night," Janice has been heard to tell her husband's assistant, Mark Arteaga, on the telephone. "How's he eating? Is he sticking to his diet?" Or Shell's two college-age sons, Arthur III and Christopher, will call their father with similar questions. The way these people love him, the way they worry about his health, you wonder if they can even recall what terror he brought to those who had to face him.

"I used to be known for having a pretty good head slap," White says. "I remember the first time I ever head-slapped Art. I slapped him as hard as I could, I really laid into him. But he just shook it off. He didn't even seem to feel it."

Shell had the toughness, and he had everything else you need to play left tackle. He rarely lifted weights, and yet he possessed great strength, the kind that seems to come from some hidden source way down deep inside. He also had great feet—feet equal to those of some of the Raiders who occupied skill positions. He could run the 40-yard dash in five seconds flat, remarkable considering his size and the fact that he was always timed after practice and on grass and while still wearing shoes clotted with dirt and pants heavy with sweat. He had played basketball in college—at a small, historically black school then called Maryland State, now Maryland Eastern Shore—and in the off-season he often joined his teammates in pickup and charity games.

"He was amazing to play basketball with," says Fred Biletnikoff, the Hall of Fame receiver and an 11-year teammate of Shell's. "He was like a gazelle out there, dribbling the ball, making passes. He would get up and down the court incredibly fast, and then he'd dunk the ball at the other end. Just unbelievable."

Shell also had the right temperament to play left tackle. He was selfless, devoted to the cause; he was the Secret Service agent willing to take a bullet. And he would slip into a funk if he was anything but perfect.

"Artie, you played a great game today," his position coach, Ollie Spencer, told him once.

"Ollie, nah," Shell replied, shaking his head in disgust. "Remember those plays in the third quarter? I screwed up on that."

"But that's going to happen, Art. You played a great game!"

"Ollie, nah. Those plays, Ollie."

And then the two sat there for a time and argued about it.

"But you did play great, Art!"

"No, Ollie, I didn't!" It could get pretty confusing sometimes.

"I remember we were playing once in Cleveland and they had a hostile crowd there," says John Madden, coach of the Raiders from 1969 to 1978. "Everyone was noisy and excited. One of the defensive linemen for the Browns hit [quarterback Ken] Stabler a little late, I thought. So I run out on the field, and I start yelling at the guy who hit him. I'm calling him every name in the book, and finally he starts walking toward me. All the fans are up on their feet, and it's all of them and this one guy against me. I'm standing there thinking, Oh, no, what are you gonna do?

"And then Art comes and steps in between us. Art wedges his big body between me and this guy, and he points a finger and says to him, 'Look, you just go over to your side of the ball and listen to what John says. Because whatever John says is true.' It's not an emotional thing, either. He's not screaming or thumping his chest. He's talking quietly, but you can feel the weight behind what he's saying. Well, the guy doesn't even hesitate. He walks over to his side of the ball, and he doesn't say another word to me, just like Art told him."

In those days the Raiders were a left-sided team. They had a lefthanded quarterback in Stabler, and they had Shell at left tackle and Gene Upshaw, another superb player, at left guard. Tight end Dave Casper usually lined up on the right side of the ball, leaving Shell with acres of pasture between himself and the wide receiver. But it was his pasture, and he tended it well, filling it not only with his wide body but also with his unremitting force of will. He and Upshaw had such confidence that they would plead with Stabler to run plays to their side.

In Super Bowl XI, at the end of the 1976 season, Shell kept defensive end Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings from contributing a single stat: no sacks, no tackles, no assists. It was probably Shell's finest game, but he has always been far too humble to make a fuss about it. Even today when the subject comes up, he is quick to deflect attention from himself. "Jim Marshall was a great player," he says. And then he adds, as if to convince himself, "It was just the Raiders' day."

Afterward Stabler was named Most Valuable Player, but more than a few of the Raiders were of the opinion that Shell deserved the honor. "That Super Bowl," says Upshaw, "was the first time I ever saw a player at any position dominate like that. Art was incredible. It was like we were playing against 10 guys."

"If Art Shell could stand there and use his hands all the time just to guide guys like they do today," says Al Davis, the team's managing general partner, "I don't know if they ever would've gotten a sack on him."

At a party the night before Shell's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1989, several of the old, gnarled giants who had already enjoyed this experience pulled Shell aside and predicted his immediate future. "You're going to cry," they said. "You're going to cry like a big baby. You're going to get up there and start talking about your mama and your daddy, and you're going to cry."

"It is rare in our football culture," Davis said the next day when making the presentation speech for Shell, "where the will to win is so great...that we look into the trenches for greatness, where the real battle is always being fought.... The Art Shells are the magnificent blue-collar warriors of football, their arms encrusted with dried mud and bloody bandages, their huge bodies bulging out of their dirty armor, their heads encased in terrifying helmets and cages."

When his time came Shell approached the podium and, gazing out at the crowd, felt his heart swim up into his throat. And suddenly he saw what amounted to his life come screaming before his eyes. Shell stood before the audience and confronted all that was good and was lost and would never be again. He saw his parents, for example, as they had been many years ago. They were both gone now, but in his mind they were young and happy again, as they had been back in North Charleston, S.C., when he was growing up there. His mother, Gertrude, had died of a heart attack when Art was 15, and his father, Art Sr., had succumbed to a stroke only two days after learning that Art had been named to the Hall.

But as he stood at the podium, at that moment of bristling clarity, they were with him again, as were so many others. His teachers and coaches. Players he had known. Friends.

"See that post way over there? I'll race you to that post. Last one there is a dog. O.K., ready? Everybody ready? Go!"

Even as a boy he had to be perfect, he had to win. Some of the other kids might have been faster, but he believed if he wanted it bad enough, he could take any race.

"Hey, Mom, what's wrong with Dad?" Art was a few years older now, looking out the window of their small brick home in the Daniel Jenkins housing project. They could see Arthur Sr. sitting at the wheel of his car after a day at the paper mill. He had removed his hat and was rubbing a hand over his face, staring off with an expression at once foreign and familiar. Arthur Sr. was devoted to his wife and five children. Each day he worked to near exhaustion, yet it was still a battle to make ends meet. When the kids went off to school, Arthur Sr. always made sure they had lunch money, though when he left for work it was often without any money of his own.

"What's wrong with him, Mama?"

"Nothing, Art, he's just going through some things."

"What things?"

"Just things. You'll understand one day."

Each morning the big yellow bus took young Art past a school for whites only. He could see the boys whom he would never know or compete against, the ones the local paper was always trumpeting for one success or another. Hoping to find an entree into that other world, Art, then 17, sat down one day in typing class and wrote a letter to coach Woody Hayes at Ohio State University. He listed his accomplishments and tried to explain why he thought he would make a good Buckeye. He stuffed the letter in an envelope and wrote out the proper address, then he stamped it. But when he left class that day, he found that he couldn't mail the letter. Something stopped him—some hard, unspoken truth about who he was and what the southernmost part of his country was in the year 1964—and he threw the letter away.

"Being black," he explains, "I couldn't understand why all these so-called Northern schools were recruiting kids like me and the Southern schools weren't. When you're down in that setting, you know there's racism, but you don't know or don't understand how it can be on that high a level. You're just a kid looking out at the world, just a kid asking, 'Why is it like this? Why are people like this?' "

The only coaches to recruit him were from small black colleges, but they came in force, sometimes three and four at a time. He was all-state in football and basketball, big and husky and fine, and when his senior year was up, he decided to attend Grambling and play for coach Eddie Robinson. Less than 24 hours before his bus was to leave, however, Roosevelt Gilliam, then in his first year as football coach at Maryland State, showed up at the Shells' doorstep and announced, "Art, I'm not leaving here until you leave with me."

"But my dad's at work, Coach," Shell told him.

"Then I'll wait until he comes home."

When Arthur Sr. returned, Gilliam offered his hand and said, "Mr. Shell, I can promise you only one thing: Your son will get an education in four years."

That seemed the right button to push, the one too many other recruiters had overlooked. Arthur Sr. allowed himself a smile. "O.K.," he said. "You've got him."

In college Shell played both ways and was named a Little All-America offensive tackle as a senior. The Raiders selected him in the third round of the 1968 draft, but they weren't certain where to play him. "On defense," Al Davis says, "he would have been very good inside against the run, but he never would have been great. On offense, though...well, he was great."

Shell didn't become a full-time starter until his third season with the Raiders, but in short order he and Upshaw established themselves as the best left side in all of football. They were running buddies off the field, as well. Their lockers were side by side, and when they traveled or reported for a meal or went to a team meeting, they generally sat next to each other—Shell on the left, Upshaw to his immediate right. In time they became superstitious about this whole arrangement, and they developed a routine that, to their thinking at least, brought them good luck. During training camp Upshaw always went down to breakfast alone and returned to their room to find Shell waiting. Shell, who didn't like to eat before practice, never had breakfast or lunch; dinner was it. "What did they have?" Shell said as soon as Upshaw came through the door.

"Eggs, bacon, biscuits...," Upshaw replied.

After lunch when Upshaw came back to the room, Shell was waiting with his feet propped up on the edge of the bed. He was holding a newspaper, though not necessarily reading it. The important thing was that he have the paper in hand.

"What did they have?" he asked.

And Upshaw told him: "Salad, steak and potatoes, iced tea...." If Upshaw didn't tell him, the whole world would come to a stop. The Raiders would never win another game. Everybody would die.

When he was a boy Shell had dreamed about becoming a coach, and now as an All-Pro player he occasionally stayed after practice to work with younger teammates. He studied game film even when he didn't have to, and he asked questions about positions on the field other than his own. Says Madden, "Art knew what everybody on the entire field was supposed to be doing."

After the 1974 draft Madden and Davis sent Shell down to Tallahassee, Fla., to spend a week working with Henry Lawrence, a tackle who was the Raiders' first-round pick from Florida A&M. "Basically he came down and opened up his surgical kit," Lawrence says. " 'This is how we do it in Oakland,' he'd say, then show me. He conducted a clinic, and I asked if I could invite some of my teammates to participate, and he said, 'Sure, bring them over.' He talked about football and pride and the Raider tradition. Everybody was in awe."

A few years later, in 1977, Shell taught Lawrence something else about the game. It was Christmas Eve, and the Raiders were facing the Colts in Baltimore in a playoff game. On the Raiders' first offensive series Colt defensive end Fred Cook blew past Lawrence and nailed Stabler just as he was releasing a pass.

"What's wrong, Killer?" Shell said to Lawrence. "Can't you keep your guy out of there?"

"Yeah," Cook interjected, on his way to his huddle, "I'll be back there all day."

The game was in its second overtime before Cook broke through again and sacked Stabler, but the Raiders won anyway. 37-31, and earned a spot in the AFC Championship Game. Afterward, while his teammates were celebrating, Lawrence shuffled into the showers, found an empty corner and started bawling with an intensity that alarmed even himself.

"What the——is wrong with you?" Shell asked, his voice rising a notch. "We just won, Killer!"

It took Lawrence awhile to speak, since he was still crying so hard. "The guy got a sack on me," he finally said.

Shell laughed quietly to himself. "This is good," he said. "I'm glad to see this." After a bit he added, "You've arrived. You understand now what it takes."

Lawrence began to calm down at last. He stood up tall and looked his friend, his idol, in the eye.

"This lets me know that you want to be the best," Shell told him. Then he left the showers without saying anything more.

After Shell retired, his friends would always tell him, "Hey, Art, you're going to be a head coach someday." But he had his doubts. He and Willie Brown, another old Raider teammate and Hall of Famer, were shooting the breeze one day at a scouting combine in Indianapolis when Davis came strolling by. "Do you think we'll ever get a chance to be head coaches in pro football?" Shell asked him.

"——, you guys don't work hard enough to be head coaches," Davis answered. "You're feeling sorry for yourselves! You guys'll get the chance if you work at the——thing! What is this, 'Will I ever get the chance...?' "

Shell had worked as an assistant offensive line coach for the Raiders ever since the end of his playing days. He and Brown were short-listed for the head job when the Tom Flores era came to a close, but in February 1988 Davis hired Mike Shanahan, then the offensive coordinator for the Broncos. To some of the old Raider diehards, Shanahan was an outsider and an unknown quantity. Homegrown talent had served the organization well in the past; Davis had promoted assistants Madden and then Flores to the top position. But in recent years Davis thought the team had become "too soft" and needed "outside direction."

Toward the end of the '88 season, one of Shanahan's assistants approached Shell in his office and said, "Why don't you leave, Art? Mike doesn't want you here. Why are you hanging around in this job?" Shell was struck hard by the remark, and he needed a moment to collect himself. He'd been a Raider for more than two decades, and this outsider was suggesting he resign.

"As long as Al Davis is the owner of this football team," he finally told the man, "I'm here and I work with him. When he tells me to leave, then I'll leave. Not until then."

At home that night Shell told Janice about the incident. "Art, why didn't you pop the hell out of him?" she said.

Later on Davis called him on the telephone. "I heard something," he said.

"Yeah, what's that?"

And Davis related the scene just as it had happened. When he finished Shell said, "It's true."

Davis fired the assistant. Then, four games into the '89 season, he fired Shanahan and summoned Shell to his office. Before Shell could even sit down, Davis started talking. "They're all going to say you're the first," he said, avoiding use of the word black. "But I'm not interested in that, Art. You're my friend, you're a Raider, you've done a great job for us, and you deserve this shot. But you've got to do like your predecessors did." He paused a moment before saying, "You've got to win."

Shell won, all right. He won seven of 12 games to finish out the year. And over the next four seasons he led the Raiders to the playoffs three times. Another thing he won was the confidence of his players. Shanahan had tried to meddle with the character of the team, stripping away freewheeling traditions that went back to the franchise's earliest days. Under Shell you could sit on your helmet during practice again. You could suck on sunflower seeds in the locker room. And, best of all, on the field you could forget about fancy X's and O's and just play smash mouth again. You could be what had made the Raiders famous: tough, cocky, straightforward, proud.

"His first training camp as head coach," says Eddie Anderson, the free safety, "we were practicing goal line and were supposed to be going half speed. A running back came through going full speed, and he ran me over, and all the defensive guys started messing with me about it. So the next time the back came through, I really hit him. I mean, I really laid into the guy. So Coach Shell stops practice and calls everybody up. You could see how mad he was. And he says in a clear, firm voice, 'If any one of you wants to challenge me, I'll take you on right now."

"Everybody was quiet, not even moving. I knew then we were dealing with a very serious man."

Soon after he got the job, Shell started another Raider tradition. Before each game he joined his players in the locker room and told them stories about the old days. There was the time Ted Hendricks rode across the practice field on a white horse. They needed to know that story, to learn what people meant when they called the Raiders mavericks and renegades, kooks and flakes. And they needed to know what defensive tackle Dan Birdwell, another Raider great, had told Shell when Shell was a rookie. "Arthur," he said, "you have to play this game like somebody just hit your mother with a two-by-four." They also needed to hear about Upshaw. And about Blanda and Tatum and Brown And Al Davis. You could never give them enough about Coach Davis, as Shell called him.

He told them many things, but he never revealed much about himself to his players, most of whom were only children when he played the game. This past June the Raiders held a three-day minicamp, and after practice one day a rather large defensive tackle named Chester McGlockton approached Shell and asked him if it was true what he'd heard earlier that morning.

"What's that?" Shell said.

"That you were the best left tackle ever to play the game," McGlockton said.

It wasn't an easy question for Shell to answer. He was by nature a humble person. And his father had always told him that you don't have to be heard to be seen. But, then again, he had also been instructed to tell the truth, to always tell the truth.

Shell let on a reluctant smile. He crossed his arms and looked at the ground. Finally he said, "Yeah, I was," settling the issue once and for all.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER PHOTOFRED KAPLANShell (78) and Upshaw kept Raider passers out of danger for 15 years. PHOTOWAYNE REYNOLDSEven today the two former teammates heed the superstition that in their playing days kept Upshaw to the right of Shell. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAlways a careful student of the game, Shell prepared to be a coach by tutoring younger linemates during his playing days. PHOTOPRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAMETwo decades after starring at Maryland State, Shell listened as Davis introduced him at his Hall of Fame induction. PHOTOUNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND EASTERN SHORE[See caption above.] PHOTOAL TIELEMANSShell broke the ice for black NFL coaches in the modern era.