Donnie Shell waited 30 years to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But that wasn't the hard part for the former hard-hitting Steelers safety. No, the hard part was not telling anyone he was going to be inducted for the day and half between the time he was informed he was going to be among the members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Centennial Class and when it was announced to the world.
"Playing football is easy,” Shell said Thursday, a day after the Hall of Fame announced the 15-member Centennial Class of which he was a part.
“When you know you’re in the Hall of Fame and can’t share it at that particular time, that was a very difficult task. We weathered the storm. We came through it. I’d rather be playing football.”
Shell said he was informed by Hall of Fame representative David Baker via a phone call Monday. He then was flown to New York to be part of the official announcement on the NFL Network Wednesday morning.
For a player who had received so much support from his former teammates, it was difficult keeping the secret.
Former Steelers defensive back and NFL coach Tony Dungy had used his own induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a platform to stump for Shell by having his former training camp roommate introduce him when he was inducted in 2016. And other former teammates wrote letters of recommendation and made their feelings known in regard to Shell's candidacy over the years.
Not telling them he was going in was difficult.
"Tony was a great advocate. Mel Blount, Franco (Harris), Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, all of those guys," Shell said. "When I read their comments, it brought tears to my eyes. It was kind of like we were on the field again."
But the day finally arrived. Some 33 years after Shell retired following the 1987 season, he will finally be enshrined, making him the 10th member of the Steelers of the 1970s to be inducted. He'll make the fifth member of the Steel Curtain Defense to enter the Hall of Fame, equaling things out with an offense that has five members, as well.
"We’ve got to get one more," Shell said with a laugh. "If two more go in, we’ll be back even again. When you’re playing, you don’t see it. It’s an awesome accomplishment. To do with the players we did it with, they were not only great players, they were great people."
Shell also will be the fifth member of the Steelers' 1974 rookie class to go into the Hall of Fame, a feat that likely will never be matched. Wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, center Mike Webster and linebacker Jack Lambert are already in the Hall of Fame.
But what sets Shell apart from that group is that he went undrafted in 1974, despite there being 17 rounds in the draft.
He attributes that to the fact he was a 190-pound outside linebacker at South Carolina State. But the Steelers had different plans in mind for him. They moved him to safety.
And though he didn't break into the starting lineup until a few years later, Shell made a name for himself on special teams and covering slot receivers on third downs, allowing corners Blount and J.T. Thomas to stay outside where they could thrive.
In those days, when teams threw the ball less than 20 times per game, you had better be able to tackle. And that's where Shell's ability as a former linebacker showed up.
"It could have been intimidating for me, but I looked at it as a challenge," Shell said of joining an already talented Steelers defense as an undrafted rookie who was changing positions.
"I wanted to prove to the Steelers organization what I could do. I might be a little lax in my pass coverage, but when we put the pads on and started hitting, I think I got a lot of the coaches’ attention. It was a great opportunity for me. Guys like Mel Blount and Mike Wagner became my mentors and helped me develop as a player."
Shell lasted 14 years in the NFL as a strong safety. He appeared in 201 career games, starting 162 and delivering a number of bone-jarring hits, none more memorable than when he broke the ribs of Houston's Earl Campbell in a game in 1978, forcing him out of the game.
"I apologized to Earl after that," said Shell, who said he has gotten to know Campbell over the years. "I was glad I got him out of the game, but I apologized to him."
However, just as important as his big hits were the interceptions. Shell credits playing baseball in his youth for helping him develop the hand-eye coordination that helped him record 51 career interceptions, a record for a strong safety. That also got him the attention to make five trips to the Pro Bowl and earn All-Pro status three times.
But the Hall of Fame just hadn't happened.
"The numbers were there. You’ve got to keep praying and trusting and I never lost my confidence," Shell said of the process.
“Look at my body of work. I produced. The hay was in the barn. There was nothing I could do. You can pout about it, get sad about it, get disappointed. I was never that. I thought when my time came, I would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
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