Donnie Shell becomes fourth SC State product inducted into Pro Football HOF

South Carolina State retired head football coach emeritus Willie Jeffries’ legacy is etched in his outstanding success as a coach on the field, but he is equally respected for the advice and guidance he has provided to his players and others away from the field during a 40-year coaching career.

Countless former Bulldog football players, other students, assistant coaches and colleagues have benefited from the sage advice of Jeffries, a College Football Hall of Fame coach.

Among them is Donnie Shell, a former SC State and National Football League (NFL) standout who is a member of the 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class scheduled for induction Saturday Aug. 7, 2021 at Canton, Ohio. The Enshrinement ceremony is set for 6:30 p.m. at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Shell’s induction, which comes almost 30 years after his first year of eligibility, will give SC State four honorees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, tying the university with Grambling, Jackson State, and Morgan State for the most players in the prestigious shrine from a historically Black college or university (HBCU). Other Bulldogs enshrined are Marion Motley (Cleveland, 1968), David “Deacon” Jones (LA Rams, 1980) and Harry Carson (NY Giants, 2006). In the Palmetto State, the Bulldogs lead the way as Clemson is the only other school in the state with an inductee. The Tigers have one, Brian Dawkins, who was enshrined in 2018.

Shell, and 19 other inductees who make up the 2020 Centennial Hall of Fame Class, were scheduled to be enshrined last August, however, the event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 Class will also be enshrined during a ceremony set for Sunday (Aug. 8) at 7 p.m.

After going undrafted in 1974 after a stellar SC State career, Shell received free agent offers from several NFL teams, among them the Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Feeling a bit slighted by the Steelers and scout Bill Nunn (more on Nunn later), who had coveted Shell as a Bulldog senior, and presented with a more lucrative financial package from both the Oilers and Denver, Shell’s initial decision was to join the Broncos, where his former teammate Barney Chavous was making a name for himself. Jeffries, however, recommended Pittsburgh and his star player took his college coach’s advice, which proved to be prophetic.

“I laid out my reasons for signing with the Steelers to Donnie,” recalled Jeffries in a recent interview. “My biggest point was that Pittsburgh was a blue-collar team, and given time, he would have a great chance to make the team. He started out playing linebacker for us but we moved him to strong safety, a position pro scouts were projecting him as an NFL player. Of course, the NFL strike that season helped his chances as he made the team and went on to make a lot of people proud, including the SCSU faithful.”

Not only did the rookie Shell make the team, he and several other free agent signees — including a couple of fellow HBCU alums and other rookies, among them Mel Blount (Southern) and John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) — helped the Steelers to the most glorious period in their history. Blount and Stallworth were earlier enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as was a long list of other Steelers.

“It’s great that he is finally going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” noted Jeffries. “He played on Steeler teams than had so many great players and I think that delayed the honor that he’s finally getting.”

Jeffries makes a good point as many sports writers and pundits have opined that there was some bias toward the Steelers, who had one of the most dominant runs in professional sports during an extended period and were loaded with potential hall of famers.

“Coach Willie Jeffries encouraged me to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers instead of the Denver Broncos,” Shell noted recently.” As an undrafted free agent,” I valued his advice because I realized he saw something in me, and also had a better grasp of the NFL.

 Jeffries was not the only coach who saw something in Shell and pushed him to take advantage of his gifts and talents. People in his hometown of Whitmire also played a role in boosting his career.

 “Coach Lefty Johnson, my high school coach, recognized that I had the talent and ability to play college sports and he encouraged me to do so,” said Shell, known for his level-headedness and his faith. “When we as adults see or recognize individuals with gifts and talents, I think it is very important that we encourage them to be all that God has created them to be.

 “I was also fortunate that Coach Oree Banks (who preceded Jeffries as Bulldog head coach) signed me to a full scholarship to play football and baseball at SC State. He, too, saw something in me.”

 Bill Nunn, the longtime sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, who later became a key scout for Pittsburgh, also liked what he saw in Shell. In fact, Nunn had an eye for talent and HBCUs were always a stop on his scouting treks. In addition to Shell, his NFL jewel finds from HBCUs who played for the Steelers included John Stallworth (Ala. A&M), the late LC Greenwood (Arkansas Pine Bluff), and Mel Blount (Southern). In total, 11 of the players on Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl team in 1974 were from HBCUs, most discovered by Nunn.

 Shell and Nunn are among five Steelers in the 2020 and 2021 hall of fame classes set for Enshrinement this year. Others include former players Troy Polamalu and Alan Faneca, and Coach Bill Cowher. Nunn is in the 2021 Class and is being enshrined as a Contributor, the only African American to receive such honor thus far. He is being honored posthumously as he died in 2014 at the age of 89.

 Shell’s 14-year (1974-1987) NFL career, all with the Steelers, was remarkable. He played on four Super Bowl winning teams, was elected to five Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro first team three times. He was Steeler MVP in 1980 and went on to snare 51 interceptions, setting a record for the most picks by a safety.

 His career at SC State was also an enviable one. He was team MVP twice, and also earned All-MEAC and All-America accolades. He is a member of the SCSU Athletic Hall of Fame, among others, and was named to his alma mater’s Centennial Football Team (1907-2007). He joins fellow Bulldogs Motley, Jones and Carson in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he might not be the last as SC State’s great legacy is currently on display in the NFL as two of the league’s top defensive players are Indianapolis LB Darius Leonard and Philadelphia DL Javon Hargrave, both former Bulldog stars.

 Carson, the last Bulldog to be enshrined at Canton, was Shell’s teammate at SC State for two seasons. The former Bulldog All-American, NY Giants star and one-time Super Bowl champion, recalled his time with Shell and commented on the latter’s pending induction.

 “Two of the first people I met on campus were Donnie Shell and Barney Chavous,” said Carson. “They were sitting on the steps at Dukes Gym, where at the time, the weight-training equipment was located. I was impressed with Donnie from the start, the way he carried himself, the leadership he exhibited. It trickled down to me. I consider myself fortunate to have played with him two seasons.

 “Donnie went on to establish himself as a great player with Pittsburgh, worthy of Hall of Fame accolades,” continued Carson who himself was passed over for years by voters before being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. “Coming into the league as a free agent and enjoying a long and productive career, he was a very impactful player on Steeler teams and in the NFL. This honor is long overdue.”

 Echoing an observation made earlier by Jeffries, Carson noted, “I think the problem with Donnie’s long wait was because so many Pittsburgh players have been inducted that some of the voters held back from voting for other Steelers. Donnie should not have been held back, but I’m happy that he is going in and will be joining an exclusive club where you can’t get cut and you can’t get kicked out of. His bust, as will mine’s and other Bulldog players, will be on display for years to come.”

 Current Bulldog head football coach Buddy Pough, a teammate of both Shell and Carson at SC State during the mid-70s, saw Shell’s talents on display early.

 “Even back then, Donnie was a difference-maker,” Pough recalled. “He was probably playing out of position (LB) a bit before Coach Jeffries came in and moved him to safety. He blossomed at the new position and I’m proud to say I played with him and am glad he’s finally getting his due from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

 Shell’s emotion at reaching this milestone in his life was readily on display during a recent interview, as was his faith. He expressed no bitterness for the almost three-decade wait.

 “First, I would like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the honor of being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” said the Whitmire, SC native. “I am proud to be joining the three other inductees from South Carolina State University and I hope there will be more in the future.

 “It also proves to parents and others that if your child in interest in playing college sports and obtaining a great education, I would encourage them to send their children to South Carolina State or another  HBCU. And, one day — maybe one day — they will make it to the Pro Football HOF or distinguish themselves in some other profession. As far as the NFL, the hall of fame is the highest honor you can achieve as a player. As an individual award, it ranks number one but as a team award, I’m also proud of the four Super Bowl Championships we won at Pittsburgh.

 “I have always strived to be the best at whatever I was asked to do,” continued Shell, “and this honor causes me to reflect on the people that helped me along my journey, including my mom Aurelia Shell and my dad Leon Shell (both deceased). I remember my mom always insisting that we attend Sunday School and church every Sunday and my dad’s great work ethic. Their spiritual foundation and great work ethic gave me solid footing to stand on when I was growing up, and during my college and professional career. It continues to benefit me today.

 “And, I salute my hometown of Whitmire,” Shell continued. “The folks there always supported me and held out hope that the day would come when I would go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I loved them for it but wondered myself if this day would come.”

 Shell, whose wife Paulette, and all three of their children attended SC State, remains engaged with the university. Today, he is a member of the SCSU Board of Trustees. On Saturday at Canton, he will be supported by family, as well as a strong Bulldog contingent. Shell’s daughter, April, will present him at Saturday’s ceremony.

 The Bulldog contingent expected to travel to Canton, includes athletics director Stacy Danley and Pough. Jeffries was also scheduled before experiencing a last-minute health issue. Newly named SCSU Acting President Alexander Conyers will also be unable to attend the enshrinement, but did offer his thoughts on Shell’s pending induction.

 “Donnie Shell epitomizes the realization of a universal mission established by SC State University since its founding some 125 years ago,” Conyers said. “As a student-athlete, he excelled in the classroom and on the football field, always striking a balance between his love for his sport and his desire to receive a quality education.

 “When his hard work paid off in the way of a stellar career in the NFL, he never forgot from whence he came.  God, his love for his family, and his unwavering commitment to his alma mater remain the core tenets by which he accomplishes his goals.  Through his successes, Donnie Shell has become a role model by which our students and student-athletes pursue their dreams and realize their purpose in the world.  We congratulate him on his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

Categories: National Sports, South Carolina Sports, Sports