One of the nation's top running back recruits, Shell has ripped through the Pennsylvania record books. He raced for 1,764 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011, upping his career totals to 8,530 yards and 103 scores. The all-time WPIAL rushing leader, he committed to Pitt in October.Read More Below
Football is to Aliquippa what jazz is to New Orleans, filmmaking to Los Angeles. It's ingrained in the history of the region, forever entwined with its identity. Since the steel industry's collapse in the 1960s and '70s, games have served as rallying points, communal Friday night gatherings. The truly special talents -- Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Darrelle Revis -- have elevated to a status as cultural icons.
There may soon be another member of that elite group. Rushel Shell, Hopewell's 6-1, 210-pound tailback, became the all-time WPIAL rushing leader on Sept. 23. He's just 497 yards shy of the Pennsylvania state mark.
"He's a between-the-tackle type guy but he's also an edge-runner," said Dave Vestal, Hopewell's head coach since 2001. "He's a great blend of speed and power."
It's hard to pinpoint the best feature of Shell's game. There's his lateral quickness, his effortless sidestepping of headlong defenders. There's his versatility, his comfort lining up in the slot on third down. Perhaps most striking, there's his remarkable durability, his willingness to take on more than 40 carries per game. In an era of backfield platoons, he's a one-man horse.
"He's been getting that same load for four years now," said Hopewell fullback Zach Romah. "He's definitely showing that he can last in any offensive system."
As a freshman, he scored touchdowns on his first three carries. Through last week, he rushed for 100 yards in 37 consecutive games, one shy of the national record set by Billy Sims in 1974. He has totaled 8,530 career yards and 103 touchdowns, blazing his way through the record books.
"God gave me a talent," Shell said, "I'm not gonna waste it."
That was never more evident than Oct. 28 against West Allegheny (Pa.), Shell's senior night. After being introduced with his father, Rushel Sr., and mother, Toni Zuccaro, at midfield, he proceeded to pile up 37 carries, 216 yards and four touchdowns, including a 65-yard scamper around the right end. He received the handoff, hesitated in the backfield and stiff-armed a would-be tackler before exploding toward the end zone. His performance -- among fans, teammates and opponents alike -- was electrifying.
"Everyone is into it," he said, "from the water boys to the players to the people up in the box."
In an area where football is king, Shell has fast become royalty. And with his assault on decade-old rushing records, he has etched his name alongside legends. Namely, Tony Dorsett.
Comparisons between the two come readily. A graduate of Hopewell in 1972, Dorsett also sprinted into Aliquippa lore, compiling consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and leading the Vikings to two straight 9-1 campaigns. The field now is now named in his honor (Tony Dorsett Stadium), a reminder of his transcendence.
Like Dorsett, Shell committed to Pitt, ending a lengthy and nationally monitored recruitment process. He was targeted by Alabama, LSU and Oregon, among others. He chose to remain local.
"Their last three running backs -- Shady McCoy, Dion Lewis, Ray Graham -- two of them are already in the NFL, and one is about to be in the NFL," he said. "Why not try to be the fourth?"
It's a valid assessment, a reflection of Shell's lofty ambitions. But it goes beyond that. It also depicts the depth of a bond between player and hometown, one that continues to permeate the region.
"It's tough to pull a kid out of Western Pennsylvania," said Vestal. "Those kids usually want to stay because of their roots."
Following the Vikings' 31-14 victory, Shell's final regular season home game at Hopewell, history hung thick in the cool, night air. Fans, many donning his jersey, reveled in his performance. It clinched a playoff berth, extending the team's quest for its first WPIAL title since 2002. Several diehards, including one rosy-cheeked little boy, lingered long after the last whistle to vie for his attention.
The moment was bittersweet. It also offered a glimpse into Shell's future.
As he graduates to the ACC-bound Panthers, his media exposure will grow. A larger fan base will celebrate his successes, memorize his sparkling statistics. For the soft-spoken Shell, it'll take some getting used to.
Between the sidelines, though, he'll continue to add to the fabric of the region. With every showcase of speed, every stunning cut and broken tackle, he'll further secure his spot among Aliquippa's most renowned alumni.
"I'm confident he'll do just as well at the next level," said Romah. "Ten years from now, I see Rushel Shell as a star running back in the National Football League."
Just don't expect him to forget where he came from.