'A once-in-a-lifetime athlete'
Art Shell's imposing size instantly made him a memorable figure when he arrived on campus in 1964 to play football. What could not be known that fall day would be his impact on the game -- and his alma mater.
The son of a railroad worker, Arthur L. Shell was a two-sport, all-state athlete at Bonds-Wilson High School in North Charleston, S.C. At 6-feet-5, his height made him a natural on the basketball court; his quickness and strength as a two-way player on the gridiron made him one of his era’s most formidable linemen.
He contemplated playing for legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, but instead chose Maryland State, another historically black institution with a winning football tradition. He was part of a pipeline of Palmetto state prep players who headed north to Princess Anne – joining Bill Belk, Jim Duncan and Billy Thompson, all recruited by fellow South Carolinian Roosevelt “Sandy” Gilliam, Jr.
Gilliam, who coached football, basketball and baseball at Maryland State, considered Shell a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Shell had an immediate impact at Maryland State as a four-year starter on the football and basketball teams.
During his college football career, Shell earned All-America honors twice, was a three-time All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association selection and caught the eye of professional scouts. It would be the Oakland Raiders who selected him in the third round of the 1968 professional draft.
“The primary thing we saw in Art was his great size … but we were also excited that he was an accomplished basketball player,” former Raiders coach and TV analyst John Madden said. “With that size, combined with his ability to move his feet and the agility he showed on the basketball court, we knew we had a quality prospect.”
Shell proved Madden a shrewd judge of talent. He excelled on special teams his first two years as a pro and then got a chance to start when an injury sidelined veteran left tackle Bob Svihus in 1970. For the next 13 seasons, the 265-pound Shell consistently ranked as one of the National Football League’s premier offensive lineman.
Paired with left guard and Hall-of-Famer Gene Upshaw, the two formed an imposing blocking tandem throughout the 1970s and led the Raiders to Super Bowl victories in 1976 and 1980.
During his 15 years, all with Raiders, Shell participated in eight Pro Bowls, was selected All-Pro twice and played in 23 post-season games. His stellar career led to his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989, the only Hawk so honored.
That same year also marked another important professional milestone for Shell. His old team had a disappointing 1988 season and won just one of its first four games in 1989. The late Al Davis, Oakland’s mercurial team owner, replaced head coach Mike Shanahan with someone imbued in the “Raider Way,” long-time player and coach Art Shell.
Halls of Fame
Black College Football - 2011
CIAA - 2006
UMES - 1984
Not since Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, who coached during the leather-helmet days of the “Roaring Twenties," had there been an African-American leading a professional football team. Shell’s ascension to the Raiders’ head coaching job was the first in the modern era.
During UMES' 125th academic year, six of the NFL’s 32 teams were lead by African-Americans. Shell maintains a presence at UMES, routinely attending alumni events and lending his name to a fund-raising celebrity golf tournament.
- ERIC JODLBAUER and BILL ROBINSON