It’s hard to believe Rushel Shell ever sat the bench in football.
But that is where the Hopewell (Aliquippa, Pa.) star running back started his football career: On the bench.
“I started played football when I was 5,” Shell, the 11th ranked prospect in the country in the
MaxPreps Top 100, said. “I played for the Ambridge (Pa.) Bridgers. Well, I didn’t really play. I sat the bench. I moved to Hopewell when I was 6. That was when I started to actually play.
"I’ve always played running back. I was just always fast and strong so my coaches said running back was a good spot.”
Running back has been a great spot for Shell.
In three years as a high school football player, the soon-to-be-senior has rushed for more than 6,700 career yards, including 2,713 yards and 30 rushing touchdowns (36 total touchdowns) last year. Shell is less than 1,000 yards from the WPIAL all-time rushing record of 7,646 yards set by Fort Cherry’s Mike Vernillo in 1999 and also has a shot at the Pennsylvania all-time mark of 9,027 set by Steelton-Highspire’s Jeremiah Young in 2008. Shell has drawn comparisons to another running back out of Hopewell High School, Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett.
“It’s an honor to be compared to him,” Shell said. “It’s something that motivates me and makes me realize you have to work at what you do.”
Tony Dorsett certainly had a flair for the big play and the spotlight, and according to Hopewell coach Dave Vestal, Shell does as well.
"He has that unique combination of power between the tackles and that
burst to get to the edge. He also has the instincts to set up his
blockers and he also wants to hit the home run every time he touches the
ball," Vestal said. "He thrives on big moments and the more times he gets the ball the
better he is. When times are tough he takes over."
Shell had six games of rushing for more than 200 yards in 2010 including three 300-yard games with a season-high 392 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-26 win over New Castle Oct. 8. He also ran for five touchdowns, to go with 204 yards, in a 42-20 win over Ambridge Oct. 22.
“I get better as the game goes on,” Shell said. “Once I get into a rhythm I stay in that rhythm.”
The New Castle game was really the turning point in the season for Hopewell. The team started the year 1-5, including a four-game losing streak, before rebounding to win its final four regular-season games to squeak into the WPIAL playoffs. The Vikings then beat Franklin Regional in the first round of the postseason before falling to Thomas Jefferson in the quarterfinals to finish at 6-6, a year after going 12-1 and making it to the WPIAL title game – Shell ran for 2,465 yards and 31 touchdowns (32 total scores) that season.
“Last year showed us that anyone can beat anyone,” Shell said. “We had to find out where people fit in and everyone had to play their role.”
A powerful back at 5-11, 215 pounds, big-time college recruiters have been knocking on Shell’s door since he was in ninth grade, a process that he says has been annoying at times but also one that he believes helps motivate him as well.
While many in the Pittsburgh area would like to see him chose hometown favorites Pitt and some reports have linked him to Pitt, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Oregon, Shell said Wednesday he hasn’t really narrowed his college choices yet.
“The process is still wide open,” Shell said. “I don’t have a time table set (for picking a college). I’m just going to let it play out.”
Shell’s final college decision could come down to how strong the college’s program is — academic program, that is.
“Education is the most important thing with me when it comes to choosing a school,” Shell said. “So is my comfort with the school. I want to major in business. I’m not sure what kind of business yet but something to do with business.”
Education is also important to Shell at Hopewell, where his favorite classes are French, history and gym. He said he particularly enjoys the period where people fought with swords and also the Greek period.
And he also makes an impression on campus with younger students who will eventually be going to high school.
"The thing that really impresses me
is at basketball games and other events (where he isn't playing) little
kids are running up to him asking him to sign things for them. He always
takes the time to do that," Hopewell athletic director Don Short said. "His interaction with those kids who look up
to him have been impressive."
While Shell has goals to play football for as long as he can, he also has goals if football would cease to exist.
“I would want to get a good job and have a nice life,” Shell said.
Shell’s emphasis on education and providing a good life probably stems from his mom, whom he calls his hero.
“She’s like my best friend,” Shell said. “She’s a single parent raising two kids, and she has always been there.”
This spring, Shell has undertaken a new challenge: playing baseball. It's something he hasn’t done since Little League. While he may not be the best baseball player, Shell has already shown he can play a little bit for the Vikings, hitting a grand slam in an early-season game.
“I was bored one day and they asked me if I wanted to play,” Shell said. “It’s pretty fun. It’s something I’m not the best at so I have to work to get better. It’s a different experience.”
Tom Lemming talks about Rushel Shell