Donnie Shell knew that he only had a few minutes to impress. A rookie undrafted agent is only able to live for a few years. It’s really short. Especially so for rookies undrafted from Historically Black Colleges and Universities like South Carolina State. Shell, who was undersized, spent many years playing outside linebacker.
Shell laughed and said, “I was 190 lbs soaking wet.”
Yet, Bill Nunn, a Steelers scout, saw enough in Shell’s delivery of hits — punishing his opponents without regard for his well-being — that he convinced his bosses Shell deserved an invitation at training camp in 1974.
Shell knew that there was always a chance. He made a vow to himself that he would arrive at Saint Vincent College in a better condition than any other student on the roster. But then fate intervened. The NFL Players Association went on strike six weeks. This gave Shell and other rookies extra reps in the early days.
Shell was able to launch a career that would see him inducted into the Hall of Fame nearly 50 years later. In his 14-year tenure in the NFL, the hard-hitting cornerback won four Super Bowls. Next month, he will be the fifth and most unlikely member of the “Steel Curtain,” defense that will be enshrined at Canton.
All four of the other linemen — Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount — arrived in Pittsburgh with a strong pedigree. Shell views Shell’s path to football immortality, which he walked for nearly a decade, as a testimony to the power of innate talent and unwavering belief in oneself.
Shell stated, “It just shows, regardless of where you start, where you go in, how round you’re in or where your played, backup, or whatever, you can succeed if you have a positive attitude.” Shell said, “I knew that I would be able to distinguish myself by my conditioning and physical play as well as being a student and player of the game. This is a great example for young people: when everyone counts you out, it’s not really you who is out.
Shell impressed George Perles, the defensive assistant, quickly.
Shell stated, “I kinda came in with my jaw set.” Shell said, “I knew that by the time the pads were on I would have the chance to show them my skills. Coach Perles said to me, “Keep bringing Shell.” Keep bringing Shell. I was going up and hitting them.”
Shell agreed, even though not everyone was convinced. He recalls being interviewed during the first camp, when the reporter said he was a “long shot.”
Shell stated, “That taught me one lesson: You have to go against what is true.” Shell stated, “(The reporter) proved a fact. He was correct. It’s not common for undrafted men to make it. Sometimes you have to be against the grain. Do not lose heart in your goals. God created everyone with different talents and abilities. Don’t let these obstacles stop you from pursuing your dreams.