- Molly Knight
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SHE KNEW HER BOY WAS SPECIAL when he lived to see his 2nd birthday. A year earlier, Rushel Shell III had spent seven days in the ICU after a common respiratory bug morphed into a nightmare that almost took his life. That's the first story Toni Zuccaro tells people when they ask her what it's like to have a star running back for a son, as if she's still trying to wrap her brain around the idea that her sick infant inexplicably grew into an 18-year-old athletic phenom.
She knew her boy was special to others after the letters from strangers began pouring in from across the country when he was 15 years old.
He endured horrible asthma from those early days in the hospital -- until he turned 13. Almost overnight, the elastic fibers in his airways mercifully relaxed, and he grew out of the condition like it was an old pair of blue jeans. He'd always been a decent tailback in Pee Wee leagues, but now, as a
seventh-grader with a fully operational pulmonary system, Rushel was off and running. He appeared to grow in feet while his peers grew in inches. Entering ninth grade, he already weighed 210 pounds, most of it muscle.
The coaches at Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, Pa., were no dummies when it came to running backs. They saw Rushel and wanted him bad. But there are philosophies coaches live by. One of these is that a freshman does not belong on the varsity. You don't win football games in western Pennsylvania by doing stupid things like giving the ball to a kid two years
away from driving. He could not possibly be ready, they thought.
But he was.
On his first play from scrimmage in his first game of his ninth-grade season, Rushel (pronounced Russell) came into the huddle with his team facing third and long and promptly ran for a 50-yard touchdown. Next series: another handoff, another touchdown. Three of the six times Rushel got the ball that day he took it into the end zone. It was clear to Hopewell coach Dave Vestal that Rushel was better, faster and stronger than every upperclassman ahead of him. Still, he thought it best to bring the boy along slowly. That plan lasted all of five games. As a freshman who didn't start until Week 6, Rushel ran for 1,516 yards in 10 games. The University of Pittsburgh, 30 minutes down the road, wasted no time offering him a scholarship.
The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League has been around since 1906 and comprises 138 high schools. Before Rushel came along, only twice in league history had
a kid rushed for 2,000 yards in a regular season. Rushel did it twice, running for 2,043 yards his sophomore year and 2,102 the next. And with every yard came seemingly another letter from another college coach. Rushel's great-aunt Terri, who worked in Hopewell's athletic department, set up a special mailbox in her office for all his suitors' missives. On the craziest days, the box would overflow with letters, Rushel's
popularity visible in the paper cuts on his fingers. Everyone wanted the 5'11", 225-pound running back. Penn State and Florida were in. Saban Skyped him. Gene Chizik called during Auburn's national championship season. Brian Kelly and Jim Tressel dropped by to visit. Rushel's sophomore year coincided with Lane Kiffin's lone season at Tennessee. Rushel's mother estimates that
UT mailed him 500 letters alone and chuckles recalling how Kiffin had each of his players send her boy handwritten notes selling him on the school. "Some even wrote twice," says Zuccaro.
The breadth of wooing was understandable. When the final whistle sounded after his final prep game, Rushel had run for a state-record 9,078 yards and amassed 4,600 Facebook friends. He had a decision to make. He was a top-25 recruit, and nearly every major college program was ready to offer him a full athletic scholarship.
But last fall, while other kids weighed their prospective schools and the traditions and the weather and the depth chart and the coaching staff and where their friends were going, Rushel's recruiting process became trumped by one thing. Well, two: His girlfriend was pregnant with twin girls.
HE KNEW HE loved her by the third grade. Marissa Pursley had always been beautiful, with olive skin, raven hair and a smile that slayed the room. She invited him to her 9th birthday, a swim party, and that's where Rushel planned to make his move. He gathered the money he'd saved and bought Marissa a lava lamp. He planned to present it to her at the party. But he got in trouble at school, and his mother wouldn't let him go. When he tried giving it to her in class the following Monday, Marissa was so hurt that he hadn't showed up to her party that she wouldn't accept it. Rushel was devastated.
He made amends months later by giving Marissa a gold heart necklace he bought from
a Santa's workshop at school. This time, she took the gift. She liked him too -- although it wasn't until the eighth grade that they officially
became a couple. There has been no shortage of devastation and amends in the four years since. "We've broken up about 2,000 times over stupid high school things," says Marissa. "But never for real. Never for more than a couple of days."
What happened in July made typical high school drama look easy by comparison. Marissa knew something was up with her body; she just didn't feel right. Her mother was with her when she took the home pregnancy test. When it came back positive, she immediately called Rushel. He was shocked. She was terrified. He asked what she wanted to do. "He could tell how upset I was, so he got real calm in a hurry," says Marissa. "He told me that no matter what, we would get through it." She begged him to tell his mother, warning that it would be awful if she were to hear it from someone else. Still, Rushel couldn't bring himself to disappoint the most important person in his life, the
woman whose initials were tattooed on his triceps. He hid the truth from her for two months before one of her friends spilled the beans on the phone. Toni ran upstairs to Rushel's room and asked what he planned to do. That's when he told her he was going to Pitt.
He told her something else too. "He said he was never going to do to Marissa and the babies what his dad did to us," Zuccaro says.
These days, Rushel's father, Rushel Shell II, is close with his son and on good terms with Toni. But he wasn't around much the first dozen years of Rushel's life. "Me and his mom didn't get along when he was younger," says the elder Rushel. "I'd been with her since the eighth grade, but after Rushel was born, there was just a lot of fighting and we split up." For Rushel, that meant only one thing: no dad. These days, Rushel stiffens when asked about his father's absence. He has no interest in reopening that wound. It's the only thing Rushel won't discuss with Marissa.
Rushel's mother has another son, Darrian, who's 12. She's been with Darrian's father ever since the boy was born. Before that, Rushel and his mom struggled to get by on their own, bouncing from bad apartment to bad apartment. Toni worked long hours for a caterer, and when she was gone, Rushel was watched by whoever was around. "It wasn't an easy time," says Zuccaro. "He's always been strong, always looked out for me."
Prospective college recruits are allowed five official visits. Many kids take advantage of these paid vacations even if they know where they want to go before the process begins. Not Rushel. He took only one visit -- to Pitt. His mother says it's because he worried he'd fall in love with another school and be forced to decide between family and football. Still, with perennial powers such as Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Ohio State all offering him a full ride, those making comments on college football message boards across the country in the fall wondered why the hell the No. 3 running back prospect in
the country was rumored to be choosing Pittsburgh. "Good luck to him," one wrote. "But Pitt over Bama???!!! Seriously???!!!"
None of them, of course, knew what Rushel knew. Marissa was eating for three. Rushel was deciding for four. And on Dec. 9, Shell held a news conference to formally announce his intention to attend Pitt.
But a funny thing happened on the way to national signing day. After just one year as
head coach, Pitt's Todd Graham announced he was leaving the school to take the same job
at Arizona State.
"That was definitely a shock," says Rushel.
"Kind of like a slap in the face," says his mom.
Coach Vestal was at the mall with his daughter shopping for Christmas gifts when
his cellphone nearly exploded. Coaches were ready to pounce. "I got 10 calls in about 30 minutes," he says. Oregon was circling in the waters. So were Alabama, Florida and
Auburn. Everyone hoped they could snatch him away. Meanwhile, the remaining coaches on Pitt's staff scrambled to Hopewell High to meet with Shell and try to persuade him to stay.
WE ALL KNOW teenage boys sometimes get their teenage girlfriends pregnant. This is not exactly news. An estimated 750,000 females under the age of 20 become pregnant in the United States every year. And Rushel was far from the first high school recruit with a baby (or two) on the way. Alabama's star running back, Trent Richardson, has two daughters; the first was born in his sophomore year of high school. (Richardson split with the girls' mother, and his daughters live with his mom in Alabama.) Former Oklahoma running back Brandon Williams -- the school's top recruit last year -- transferred to Texas A&M to be closer to the daughter he fathered before college. Former West Virginia star running back Noel Devine fathered two children in high school.
When it comes to the intel of college coaches, there are no secrets. Rushel's family doesn't know how word of Marissa's pregnancy reached recruiters -- or the message boards, which went viral in December with the news. Regardless, it was little surprise that when Alabama called to see just how firm Rushel's commitment to Pitt was, babysitting services were part of the pitch. "Schools were aware of the situation," says Zuccaro, "and a lot of them were like, 'You can bring the girlfriend. We have day care. We can help with that.'"
On Jan. 6, after he returned from playing in an All-America game in Phoenix, Rushel called Marissa at midnight and begged to see her. They'd had a fight -- about what neither could remember -- and hadn't talked much the week he was gone. Marissa was exhausted and seven months pregnant and asked if it could wait until the morning. Rushel said it could not. She relented. They sat and talked about what they wanted for themselves and for their babies, and at 3:30 in the morning, on bended knee in her parents' living room, Rushel presented Marissa with a ring. He had made up his mind; it had never really wavered. Being away from his girls was not something he could bear. Marissa said yes. Yes to staying in Aliquippa with the babies. Yes to Rushel playing football 30 miles down the road. Yes to the hope that his degree or his play could lead them all to better lives.
"Twins on the way makes you grow up and look at life a little different," says Rushel. "I just want to give them the life I never had."
Would Pitt have gotten Rushel Shell if he wasn't about to become a father? Rushel doesn't want to go there. He's smart enough to resist torturing himself with what-ifs. Would he have gotten more exposure at an SEC school? Or what if homesickness and missing his daughters had derailed him? Are his twins better off in the long run if their dad goes to a school where most of his games are nationally televised or if he's there for the first four years of their lives?
Zuccaro considers these questions as she watches her boy dribble up the court in Hopewell's gym in mid-January. In addition to everything else, Rushel moonlights as the school's varsity point guard. She stops herself midsentence and cheers on her son from the bleachers as he beats his man on a fast break and lays in the ball, putting his squad up by two in the fourth quarter. She says it's no coincidence that the boy who struggled for so long to breathe is now the strongest person in the room. She always knew her son was special. Then she pauses and chuckles, as if shaking off a private joke. "As much as I'm happy he's staying home, I would have wanted him to choose Alabama," says Zuccaro. "I thought he would have fit perfectly into that system."
In ESPN The Mag, Molly Knight writes about Rushel Shell, the third-ranked high school RB, who faced the biggest decision of his life when schools across the country started courting him. Then his girlfriend got pregnant, and the decision got even bigger.