MORGANTOWN — Compared to his journey through life, getting to the goal line when he was carrying the football was always an easy thing for Rushel Shell, West Virginia’s new running back.
Blessed with size and speed and an uncanny ability to find an open path to the end zone, Shell was born to have a football tucked under his arm, shedding tacklers like rain running off the windshield of a car.
Life was something different, and on Tuesday — after he debuted for the Mountaineers on Saturday against Alabama — Shell met with the media for the first time since joining WVU since hopscotching the country from Pitt to UCLA to Morgantown in order to find the home he once wasn’t sure he’d have.
Things never were easy for Shell, not from the time he was born. As it was recounted in an ESPN The Magazine story a couple of years back, about the time Shell had his first birthday he found himself in ICU suffering from what the magazine called a common respiratory bug that morphed into a nightmare that almost took his life.
That story came from his mother, Toni Zuccaro, who is one of three ladies who have shaped his life, the other two being twin daughters Arionna and Amiyah, now 2.
The early hospital experience left him with asthma, that restricted much that he did until he was 13. It was then when somehow he outgrew the disease, just as he would outgrow being a teenager, at least on the football field, where by the time he was 15 he was 200 pounds plus and impossible to tackle.
But that came after the early years, the asthma and his father, Rushel Shell II, leaving the family, which turned out to be a long-term temporary thing for he has since found a way to get back into his son and Toni’s life.
The early years were difficult, though.
“My mom is a single parent, raising me, my little brother. We were on welfare. We weren’t living anywhere at one point. We were on the streets,” he explained the other night, saying they had no permanent home from 3 to 6 years old.
But that just drew them closer together.
“Wherever we were, she made sure that I was fine. She made sure I had the things I needed. It wasn’t electric games, but it was food and clothes and making sure I’d do things right. We’d wind up wherever my mom found a place for us to go. She always found a place inside. No matter what,” Shell said.
This was in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles west of the Pittsburgh Airport.
That is football country. Joe Namath country, Mike Ditka country, Tony Dorsett country.
Shell went to Hopewell High and was a sensation from the moment he was first handed the football, going 55 yards for a touchdown on his first carry, much as WVU’s Amos Zereoue had done with his first collegiate carry against Pitt.
That got everyone’s attention. See the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League had been formed in 1906 and at 138 schools it was one of the nation’s biggest leagues. Only twice in its history had anyone rushed for 2,000 yards in a season — Shell did it both times.
Everyone wanted him, from Alabama to Ohio State but he made only one visit and that was to Pitt, where he stayed.
The guy who had recruited him there was assistant coach Tony Gibson, then a former WVU assistant. Remember that for now.
Todd Graham, another former WVU assistant, was head coach at Pitt but before Shell had played a game, Graham jumped ship and went to Arizona State.
Shell opted to stay under new coach Paul Chryst.
It was not a good fit.
Shell missed his first game while on suspension for breaking team rules — probably a freshman thing but it put the idea in a lot of people’s minds that he was a trouble maker, something his grandmother Candice Zuccaro disputed in a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story.
“People think Rushel’s a dog, but he's never been arrested, never committed a crime, never hit anybody,” Zuccaro said. “How about the rest of the Pitt team, can they say that? He’s gotten so much bad press for nothing. For nothing. They don’t even know Rushel.”
Following the one-game suspension, Shell made his home debut and quite a debut it was, carrying 23 times for 157 yards as Pitt upset Virginia Tech, 35-17.
He would go on to put together a season of 141 carries for 641 yards and four touchdowns while splitting time with senior Ray Graham.
Everything was set for him to be Pitt’s starting tailback in a run-first offense over the next two years …
Then he announced he was leaving. He hasn’t really said why but certainly something happened, especially since by this time he had fathered the twin daughters that would change his entire outlook on life.
“My family they are my world. My daughters are my everything,” he said. “Everything I do every day, from the minute I get out of bed, everything is for them. When they came along, everything that was important in my life wasn’t important any more. If it wasn’t important to them, it didn’t have any value to me.”
He isn’t just speaking, either.
“Just a couple of days ago I heard a man say ‘Work like a slave so your kids can live like a king.’ I took that to heart. That’s how I’m living my life now. I’m working like a slave so my daughters don’t have to live the type of life that I lived,” he said.
And, in no small way, it was his daughters who brought him to West Virginia.
When he left Pitt, he visited UCLA with his mother and fell in love with the campus and the California weather.
What’s more, he was friends with one of UCLA’s redshirt freshmen cornerbacks, Justin Combs, whom he had met at a high school all-star game in Phoenix.
Combs was not only a good player, but the kind of kid who could turn your head, considering he was driving a $360,000 Maybach luxury car, a gift from his father for his 16th birthday.
Daddy, you see, was hip-hop mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.
But the love affair with all the glitz and glamour of the West Coast son turned to reality as he wanted to be back home, closer to the twins, announcing quickly he would not play at UCLA.
Enter West Virginia.
Re-enter Gibson, now back in his home state of West Virginia as an assistant for Dana Holgorsen.
“Throughout the recruiting process in high school, coach Gibson was the guy I trusted the most,” Shell said. “He was a real family-oriented guy. He always looked me in my eyes and told me how it is, whether I like it or not. I could always trust him.”
Gibson had gotten him to Pittsburgh and now he was going to bring him to WVU.
It wouldn’t be easy, for Shell was confused by now.
“At one point there I did give up on football,” he said.
That was when Gibson contacted him.
“He had a big part in what’s happened with me. He helped me find the love I had when I first started when I was 4 years old,” Shell said. “He did it by just talking to me like a father figure and making me realize this is something God planned for me to do and I couldn’t give up on it.
“I knew I could trust him, even if I didn’t play for him. I could call him and we could talk about life in general, not just football,” Shell said.
And so it was that he choose West Virginia, arriving out of shape, his weight up to 240 pounds
But he worked, having a year to put himself together. Here he was, this big-time recruit, working with the scout team and taking it seriously.
Of course, that opened the door for the “haters”, as he calls them, to get on him, the kid who not only walked out on hometown Pitt but wound up at West Virginia. He would often Tweet about them.
“Family members were telling me things like ‘Hey, this lady at the grocery store was talking down about you’ or I’d go somewhere and someone would say ‘You should be disgraced for wearing that shirt,’” he said.
“I’m not looking for it, but it definitely gets around to me. I guess that’s my fuel, just to prove everyone wrong, to show everyone that wants me to fail that I’m not going to fail.”
He certainly got off to a solid start against Alabama, carrying for 7 yards the first two times he touched the ball. He ran hard early, but for some reason WVU opted not to give him the ball much in the second half, finishing the game with just 38 yards on 10 carries.
It may not sound like much, but it was enough to have Nick Saban say in his postgame comments:
“That Shell, that guy’s a good runner and you’re going to know it by the time the season is over.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel