Shell hangs on to his Bulldog roots

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Now in an NFL front office, Donnie Shell owes a lot to his days at S.C. State

SC State celebrates 100 years of Bulldog Football, Nov. 9 How poor was Donnie Shell during his childhood days in Whitmire?

Let one of his former coaches, Willie Jeffries, fill in the blank.

“Donnie Shell was so poor he had to put Kool-Aid on layaway,” said Jeffries, who coached Shell for one year at South Carolina State.

“He didn’t have a whole nickel,” Jeffries continued. “He’d give ’em two cents on Wednesday and come back with three cents later.”

OK, so Shell wasn’t that poor, but you get the point. The man who eventually went on to win four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers came to S.C. State in 1970 with little more than the clothes on his back — a suit bought for him by his high school coach, Lefty Johnson.

Today, Shell is the director of player personnel for the Carolina Panthers. Still, despite his current job and outstanding playing career with the Steelers, he continues to wear his love for Whitmire and S.C. State on his sleeve.

“Whitmire, we just won our conference for the first time in 26 years,” Shell said with a smile in the middle of the Panthers’ locker room in Charlotte last month. “I might have to go back and see them play in the playoffs.

“South Carolina State University means the world for me,” he continued. “If it had not been for the university, I would not have gotten a college degree.”

Shell attended S.C. State on two half-scholarships for baseball and football. His only other college offer came from Belmont-Abbey for basketball. It was S.C. State’s football tradition that tipped the balance for Shell.

Playing alongside future Hall of Famer Harry Carson, Shell was a dominant safety with the Bulldogs, earning multiple All-America honors. However, he went undrafted in 1973 following his senior season.

In those days, NFL scouts offered free agent contracts by going through a player’s college coach. Often, the coach received part of a player’s bonus. Jeffries said one team offered Shell $6,000 with another $2,000 to go to Jeffries. Meanwhile, another team offered $3,000 to Shell and none to Jeffries, but was a better fit in Jeffries’ mind.

That team was the Steelers.

“Donnie didn’t know what to do,” Jeffries said. “I told him to take the $3,000 and go to Pittsburgh because it was a blue-collar team that just wanted someone who could knock somebody out.”

There was another reason.

“Donnie didn’t run but a 4.6 in the 40,” Jeffries said with a laugh. “He couldn’t keep up with those (NFL) wideouts. At Pittsburgh, they’d have him cover tight ends. He could handle that.”

As the years passed and the accolades accumulated, Shell always remained in touch with the Orangeburg and S.C. State communities. He had met his wife, Paulette, at college and eventually sent all three of his children — April, Dawn and Donnie — to the school.

Of the entire family, Shell joked that April might have had the best collegiate career of all, since she became the first female drum major in the history of the famous Marching 101.

Shell himself graduated in 1974 and went back to school while playing in the NFL to earn a master’s degree in 1977. He is in his 13th year with the Panthers, lives in Rock Hill and finds plenty of occasions to visit Orangeburg.

“I try to get down there as much as possible,” Shell said. “We’ve been season ticket-holders forever, since the 1980s. I try to help them wherever I can.”

Shell said he hoped the centennial celebration of the school’s football program will shed light on how good the Bulldogs have been and how solid the school itself is from an educational standpoint.

“It’s a great school; we’ve got a lot of different majors,” he said. “I think celebrating the 100 years of history in football will bring a lot of that out in addition to how many NFL players we’ve produced.”

By PATRICK OBLEY ( Reach Obley at (803) 771-8473.