SI Vault
Jill Lieber
October 23, 1989
Art Shell of the Raiders is not just the NFL's first blank head couch in 64 years. He's silver and black through and through
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October 23, 1989

Dreams Do Come True

Art Shell of the Raiders is not just the NFL's first blank head couch in 64 years. He's silver and black through and through

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Gene Upshaw has been fond of Art Shell since the day they met in July 1968, at the opening of the Oakland Raiders' training camp. Upshaw, who at the time was a second-year guard known for being bold and boisterous, wondered out loud about the mammoth rookie tackle sauntering across the field. "Where the hell is Maryland State?" he yelled to Shell.

Shy and soft-spoken, but not easily intimidated, Shell ignored Upshaw's question and instead asked one of his own. "Where the hell is Texas A & I?" he yelled in Upshaw's direction. With that, Shell had performed the impossible: He had left Upshaw speechless.

Through the years, the friendship between the outspoken guard and the quiet, gentle tackle grew. They played next to each other on the left side of the Raiders' offensive line for more than 200 games, forming such a formidable tandem that Doug Sutherland, a Minnesota Viking defensive tackle, once said, "They could block out the sun." They were also close off the field, making excursions for barbecued ribs on road trips and regularly whipping their teammates at cards the night before games. They demanded adjoining rooms at training camps and teased each other endlessly.

"The only time I ever get hurt is when you fall or step on me," Shell would tell Upshaw. "Damn it, Gene, I don't know what's worse, you or the defense."

"Shell," Upshaw would say with a devilish grin, "how much do you really weigh?"

In private moments over cold beers, Upshaw and Shell shared secrets and private dreams. Upshaw hoped one day to be a politician; Shell wanted to be a football coach. And they both longed to be elected to the Football Hall of Fame. By 1987, their dreams started becoming reality. Upshaw, who by then was the executive director of the NFL Players Association, was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This summer it was Shell's turn. Then, on Oct. 3, Shell became the NFL's first black head coach in 64 years when he was named coach of the Los Angeles Raiders. The league's only other black head coach was Fritz Pollard, who handled the Hammond ( Ind.) Pros from 1923 through'25.

"I've been pinching myself ever since I heard," Upshaw told Shell over the telephone after the news was announced. "I'm so happy."

Shell was choked with emotion. "I can't believe it, Gene," he said, softly. "All those plans we made years ago have actually come true."

In his 15 seasons as a Raider player, from 1968 through '82, Shell was named All-Pro three times and played in eight Pro Bowls, more than any other Raider ever. He played in 207 games, which puts him third on the team's alltime list, behind Upshaw and center Jim Otto, and he was an integral part of two Super Bowl championship teams. His most remarkable performance came in Super Bowl XI, in which the Raiders routed the Minnesota Vikings 32-14. Defensive end Jim Marshall, the Vikings' Pro Bowler, was Shell's primary blocking target that day. The Raiders gained 266 yards rushing, mostly behind Shell and Upshaw on the left side, and that was a Super Bowl record at the time. Marshall didn't make a tackle or get an assist or a sack.

Standing 6'5" and weighing more than 300 pounds, Shell could intimidate opponents with his size alone. Although he rarely spoke on the field, he had no trouble getting his point across. "Art used to eat [ Pittsburgh Steeler end] Dwight White alive," says former Raider tight end Dave Casper. "He'd run him downfield, backwards. One afternoon in 1976, Dwight punched me in the ribs and knocked the wind out of me. He hurt me bad, but I didn't let him know. At the end of the season, in the AFC Championship Game, Dwight gave me a little extra effort after the whistle. That was it. I said, 'I'm gonna kick your ass. You aren't worth a damn.' As Dwight lunged forward, he noticed Art standing right behind me. Dwight never touched me again."

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