Fall 2021 SS Magazine

New Hall of Famer Donnie Shell served as mentor to fellow Hall of Famer Tony Dungy

Five years ago, Donnie Shell was standing next to his friend, Tony Dungy, as he unveiled Dungy’s statue at the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony.

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Nearly 40 years prior, the two struck a friendship while roommates during Pittsburgh Steelers training camp that would change the trajectory of both of their lives. A young Dungy needed guidance and Shell was there to provide it.

On Saturday, it was Shell’s turn to see his name forever immortalized in Canton’s hallowed halls. Right there next to the stage cheering him on was his old friend, Tony Dungy.

“Donnie Shell was not only my roommate but my mentor,” Dungy tweeted. “He taught me about playing safety but also taught me how to live as a Christian man. He didn’t tell me — he showed me. A true Hall of Famer on and off the field, I am so proud of Donnie. Congratulations on this special honor.”

Shell spoke for nearly eight minutes about gratitude, work ethic, his love for the Steelers organization and his family, and how his faith in God propelled him through his 14-year career, which he spent entirely with the Steelers.

He began by thanking Jesus.

“First, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for this award,” Shell said. He then thanked numerous people before adding, “It’s been a long journey, but a good one. I arrived in Pittsburgh in 1974 as an undrafted free agent, and now I’m in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Only God can do that.”

His friendship with Dungy started that summer in 1978. As Dungy recalled to The Undefeated in 2016 ahead of his induction, for which Shell served as his presenter, Dungy entered training camp feeling like he needed to prove himself to keep his spot on the roster. Despite playing quarterback his whole life, including a successful career at the University of Minnesota, Dungy was moved to safety when he signed with the Steelers. Training camp was an opportunity for him to study film and learn the playbook.

There was one wrench in the plans: Dungy came down with mononucleosis, and doctors ordered him to rest.

“I’m coming into training camp fired up, ready to go, and then that happened,” Dungy told The Undefeated. “The doctors were saying [rest] was the only treatment, but I was kinda going crazy. I’m not there doing anything. I’m not getting to practice.”

Dungy didn’t listen. The itch to be on the field was too much to bear, and he couldn’t keep himself tied down to his bed.

Shell saw himself as somewhat of an older brother to Dungy. They were both undrafted free agents, and Steelers coach Chuck Noll also had a hunch that the two would make good roommates. They bonded over their shared faith in God, their desire to operate out of high character, and their quest to be the best they could be. They trusted each other, which meant they could have hard conversations with each other.

“I knew he was supposed to be resting, and I come back [to the dorm room] one day after practice and he’s got papers everywhere, going over things we’re doing [in practice],” Shell told The Undefeated. “He was always looking at an inordinate amount of film. He told me he wanted to be a coach, so I expected the film. But instead of resting to try to get better, he’s studying to try to keep up. But sometimes we get our priorities mixed up.”

It was time for Shell to impart some wisdom on the younger Dungy about rest and priorities, that perhaps his illness was a chance for him to slow down some and not run himself into the ground.

“Donnie was so helpful to me, just by putting things in perspective,” Dungy told The Undefeated. “He said to me, ‘Yes, you can work out, study and do all that in practice and develop a career.’ But he also said that who you are as a person, what you’re going to do with your life, how you handle adversity, the ups and downs, that would determine my future, much more so than those two or three weeks when I couldn’t practice.

“And he just kept getting that across. He kept making the point because he knew that’s what I really needed to hear from him at that time in my life. It was important to get that perspective, because sometimes we don’t see what we need to see for ourselves; someone else has to show us. Donnie kept showing me Bible verses. He kept encouraging me.”

That character and sense of priorities guided Shell during his career, and he harkened back to it during his speech on Saturday. He closed by citing several parts of Scripture — 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 and Romans 5:3-5 — and advocating for those in leadership to lead with servant hearts.

The kind of heart that led him to make an impact on a teammate all those years ago. The kind that forged a friendship and paved the way for two undrafted free agents to link up and embark on Hall of Fame careers together.

“In closing, we in the United States must become servant leaders,” Shell said Saturday. “A great example of that all my 14 years, and still today, is the Steelers organization — of being a servant leader. A servant leader is one who is motivated by love and humility, but demonstrated by example. That’s what we need to do. May God bless you. May God continue to bless the United States of America.”

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