South Carolina State’s football program has always been a producer of professionals ready to make big plays. Defensive stalwarts such as Colts Pro-Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard and Rams defensive back DeCoie Durant are Bulldogs succeeding in the NFL today. But, four former South Carolina State football players are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. They were known for their immense talent and passion for the game and revered for how they proved that HBCU athletes can succeed in the professional ranks.
In honor of the 2023 MEAC/SWAC Challenge, let’s highlight the four South Carolina State football alumni that are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall-Of-Fame.
While at South Carolina State, Donnie Shell was a defensive star. Under legendary head Coach Willie Jefferies, he started his career playing linebacker and then switched to strong safety his senior year. That season he tallied 77 tackles and 8 interceptions for the Bulldogs, leading the team to the Orange Blossom Classic against the Florida A&M Rattlers to determine the defacto Black College National Champion. However, the Bulldogs lost 23-12.
The position switch led him to a successful NFL career as he was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974 after going undrafted. He played his whole 14-year career for the Steelers, winning four Super Bowls and being selected five times as a Pro-Bowler. In his career, he tallied 51 interceptions and returned them for 490 total yards, 19 fumble recoveries, and 4 defensive touchdowns. Shell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame in 2020.
Harry Carson played alongside Donnie Shell at South Carolina State under Willie Jefferies. Carson played middle linebacker while with the Bulldogs and was a defensive anchor for the team. He led South Carolina State to consecutive MEAC championships and was the first MEAC player to win consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. In his senior season in 1975, he was named a first-team selection on the AFCA College-Division All-America team, setting a school record totaling 117 tackles and 17 sacks on the year. He also never missed a game in his four seasons with the Bulldogs.
His stellar play for South Carolina State led him to be drafted with the 105th pick in the NFL draft by the New York Giants. He played his whole career with the Giants, winning a Super Bowl with the team in 1987. He appeared in the Pro Bowl 9 times including consecutive selections from 1981-1987. He finished his career with 19 sacks, 11 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, and 1 defensive touchdown. Carson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame in 2006.
2. Marion Motley
Motley played one season for South Carolina State before transferring to the University of Nevada. Although his statistics for his freshman season with the Bulldogs aren’t available, he’s deemed as a physically imposing 200-pound fullback that teams always had to gameplan for. Still, Motley holds significance for black players in college and professional football as he broke the color barrier and became, alongside teammate Bill Willis, the first black football player to play football in the modern era.
Motley had a storied carer for the Cleveland Browns, playing with the team from 1946-1953 and finishing his career with the Steelers in 1955. He averaged 4,720 rushing yards in his career and 31 rushing touchdowns, earning one Pro Bowl selection in 1950 and two first-team All-Pro selections. He also won an NFL Championship in 1950. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame in 1968, the second black player ever to receive the honor.
1. Deacon Jones
Decon Jones played one season for South Carolina State before transferring to Mississippi Valley State after sitting out a year. Jones, 6’4″ and 272 pounds, was known as an adept pass rusher that was just as quick as the running backs he lined up against. His skill got him noticed by the Los Angeles Rams and they selected him with the 186th pick in the 1961 NFL Draft. Jones played ten years for the Rams before short stints with the Chargers and Washington Redskins.
He achieved many honors in his career, including being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice, being selected as first-team All-Pro five times and second-team All-Pro three times, and being named a Pro-Bowler eight times. He led the league in sacks five times, totaling 173.5 sacks in his career and 15 fumble recoveries. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame in 1980 in his first year of eligibility.
Jones is also known as one of the best players to play FCS football and the Decon Jones Award was introduced in 2016 and is given to the most outstanding all-around player in HBCU football. Shedeur Sanders was the latest player to win the award in 2022.