Friday, October 21, 2011


Donnie Shell, aka the "Torpedo."

I've always loved Donnie Shell. When I was young, maybe around ten years old, and playing playground football with my cousins, I was always Donnie Shell, or "Mr. Interception" as I called him back then. I did my best to blanket my cousin like Shell did, even though I wasn't allowed to hit him like Shell did. Regardless, I obviously wasn't nearly as good. Didn't matter, he was my man. That's all that mattered.

As I grew and learned more and more about football, I was able to appreciate what a great all-around player he truly was. But one memory stands out above all others: It was a game late in the season in 1978 against the Houston Oilers.

The playoff implications were heavy and Shell was in his first full season as a starter. Houston had already beaten the Steelers on Monday Night Football earlier in the year in a brutally physical game (but weren't all Steelers/Oilers games brutal back then?), but Shell's hit surpassed anything seen in that previous meeting.

Earl Campbell busted through the line for good yardage, spun out of the tackle of another Steeler and BOOM! Shell came out of nowhere and planted his helmet (which would be illegal in today's NFL) firmly in Cambell's ribcage, lifting Cambell off of his feet and slamming him onto the turf. The Torpedo found his target (a hit that, if memory serves, played at the beginning of NFL Live well into the 80s). Campbell left the game with broken ribs and the Steelers went on to win 13-3.

Plain and simple, Donnie Shell was feared. A natural athlete, as he also ran track and played baseball in high school, Shell could fly around the field like Troy Polamalu, and could level hits like no one else. Shell was a special player: he was a ball-hawk, hit like a mack truck, was a great coverage guy and had great instincts to find the ball or the ball carrier.

Shell played strong safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He is considered as part of the famed 1974 Steelers draft though he was signed as an undrafted free agent that year. He's third in Steelers history in interceptions, was named to the Pro Bowl five times (1978-1982), was a three-time All-Pro and retired as the NFL’s career leader among strong safeties in interceptions with 51. An 11-year starter ('77-'87), he was named to the Steelers’ All-Time Team and to the NFL Silver Anniversary Super Bowl Team.

I must note something here: as I've started writing this Blog, I've had to do a lot of research in order to be precise in what I write. So trust me when I say that there are players in the Hall of Fame with fewer credentials. But I digress...

Shell's is almost a forgotten legacy. The early part of his career is overshadowed by teammates such as Mel Blount, the Jacks and Mean Joe Greene, and the latter part is shrouded in the mist that was the haze of the '80s. Because of this, many current NFL and Steelers fans only know no. 31 as Mike Logan, something that is saddening to a student of the game and a true fan. Shell doesn't let it get to him, though. Instead, he just points out that all his "records are in the books." Read more on this humble man in this reflective article:

Donnie Shell is not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, he has only made it as a finalist a couple of times. Should he be considered more strongly as a candidate for the Hall of Fame? Is he caught in the wave of an anti-Steelers bias regarding the Hall of Fame? Pertaining to the '70s Steelers at least. Possibly. The prevailing current amongst Steelers fans is that the likes of he and L.C. "Hollywood Bags" Greenwood should be in the Hall of Fame. But the tenticles of this assumed bias seem to be reaching their way toward other players as well. Dermonti Dawson, for instance, arguably the best center of his era, has been amongst the nominees for a few years now, has yet to be enshrined. The Steelers as an organization may not have the most Hall of Famers, but they do have the most in the Hall from a particular timeframe. If such a bias really exists, Donnie Shell might be caught in the undertow of this tide.

Regardless of all of this, I simply remember the Torpedo. I remember him fondly. I remember the hits that left ball carriers bruised. I remember the interceptions that left quarterbacks wondering how they didn't see him. But most of all I remember "Mr. Interception", a fearless competitor whom a 10-year old boy always wanted to emulate. Even if I never was allowed to pretend my cousin was Earl Campbell.