Steelers’ legendary 1974 rookie class becomes more legendary

Mike Florio
ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports

The 1974 class of Steelers rookies already was extremely impressive. It’s now even more impressive, with the addition of safety Donnie Shell to the Hall of Fame.

Shell becomes the fifth Hall of Famer who arrived in Pittsburgh that year, joining receiver Lynn Swann (first round), linebacker Jack Lambert (second round), receiver John Stallworth (fourth round), and center Mike Webster (fifth round). The difference is that Shell wasn’t drafted at all — at a time when the draft had 17 rounds. At 26 teams, that’s 442 players who were chosen without Shell being among them.

As explained by Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the late Bill Nunn (who should be in Canton, too) discovered Shell at South Carolina State. He picked the Steelers over the Broncos and Oilers.

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Shell didn’t instantly become a star for the Steelers. As explained by Rutter, former Steelers cornerbacks Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas were monitoring the team during the 1974 preseason strike.

“Mel and I were watching and said, ‘Who’s that in the secondary?'” Thomas told Rutter. “We can strike another two months here. He’s not going to make the ballclub. He’s gone.”

Shell’s hard-hitting style helped him contribute on special teams, and he worked hard to improve his ball skills. And he went from not being able to catch very well to setting the NFL’s interception record for strong safeties, with 51.

He also won the first of four Super Bowl rings as a rookie, remaining in Pittsburgh through 1987 and, 33 years later, finally getting a bronze bust in Canton, along with the four other 1974 rookies whose roster spots were far more secure from the get-go than Shell’s.

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