I didn’t know it then, but on Thursday October 28, 2010, I was covering my first high school football game for the Beaver County Times. It only took me 11 years to write it.
That night, along with nearly a dozen of my teammates from the Burgettstown High School football team, I drove to West Allegheny High School to watch the Indians take on Hopewell in a highly coveted game on Thursday night. There were a lot of great players on the pitch that night, but we – along with a lot of others in attendance – were there to see a guy: Rushel Shell.
Earlier this month my feature article on Shell was published in The Times, as well as many other outlets under the Gannett umbrella. A few days before the story aired, I was asked to write a column in which I would reflect on the whole process, from reporting to reaction. After spending the last few weeks covering several PIAA Football Championships, I finally had the chance to sit down and write my thoughts.
I have had the opportunity to tell many great stories throughout my career and my post on Shell ranks among the best. Because I am proud of the result? Sure, but to be honest I think I’ve told more compelling stories. The reason my story on Rushel Shell will always be the one I look back on with fond memories is because it provided answers on a topic that so many people were wondering about.
It’s hard not to feel like I’m at the forefront of the first part of Shell’s journey. I grew up 20 minutes away from him, played against him several times in youth league sports – he scored 35 points against me once in the South Side basketball tournament when I was in fifth grade – and apparently I’ve seen it everywhere.
I mentioned in the story that for other high school kids in the early 2010s, Shell was a legend. I know because I was one of those kids.
I remember my good friend Graham Lescallette asking me if I had heard of “that Hopewell runner who could bench 300 pounds” as we walked to practice one day in our freshman year. This question, which inexplicably stuck in my memory, helped inspire how I have portrayed Shell as a high school star in history.
To many, Shell was a celebrity, someone you immediately knew when you saw him. I remember chatting with him when we picked up our prom tuxedos from one place in the Robinson Mall. There were also many others at the store who rang the bell as well, but I can’t remember their names or their faces. They probably don’t remember me either. However, I can almost assure you that they too remember cutting it with the state’s greatest all-time rusher.
Over the years, I have followed Shell’s career from a distance. I come from a family of die-hard Pitt fans, so his commitment to the Panthers was exciting for my dad and his brothers, who were all season ticket holders at the time. This joy obviously did not last long.
I remember seeing him play against players like Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes while he was at WVU. Every once in a while I would point my finger at one of my college buddies and explain to him that the number 7 Mountaineers was one of the best players WPIAL has ever seen.
Ironically enough, after college when I started working in sports media, that’s when I lost track of what Shell was doing. I was more concerned with finding my place in my own field of work. The name Shell did come up every now and then, of course, but it hadn’t crossed my mind in years until my colleague Parth Upadhyaya asked me about it.
While at Tony Dorsett Stadium for another story, Parth noticed some of Shell’s memorabilia on display. He then found out that the former Hopewell star still lived in the area. When he told me about the news, I knew there was a great story just waiting to be told. With Parth’s help, I tracked down Shell and asked him to meet me so I could present my idea to him. He was skeptical, but agreed.
To be frank, I was nervous to find out what today’s version of Rushel Shell would look like. I assumed it would be bitter not to have the long professional career that many thought he was destined for. I heard the rumors about his party in Pitt and wondered if he was battling drug addiction. I was worried he might resent his hometown, and maybe even his own family for the way things turned out.
I was nervous about having to report a story that didn’t have a happy ending. Fortunately, he calmed those nerves.
After a short lunch, Shell agreed to let me follow him. He gave me full access to his life. No question was forbidden. It was an open book, which is a journalist’s dream.
I did my best to take notes every second. Many knew Shell the football player, but my job was to write about who he was as a man. I spoke to over a dozen sources, went with him to work, his favorite bar, and hung out at Shell with him and his family for over four hours.
He talked about things everyone knew, like the 2009 WPIAL Class 3A Championship game against West Allegheny or the fact that he broke the state record. He also talked about things I could tell he didn’t like to discuss, like his relationship with his father or his time in Pitt. From the moment my finger hit the record button on my iPhone, I could tell he was waiting to remove everything from his chest. He finally got the chance to say his story.
After inheriting so much great content, then it became my job to put it all together. With the help of many editors, we were able to create a story that I was proud of. I think the end product showed who Shell was in the past, but more importantly, who it is today, which was the goal from day one.
Several times this fall I have heard Shell’s name appear in the Beaver County news outlets. People often asked him what he was doing now. History gives them this answer.
I hope that one day his children can read it and understand how good a football player he was. This guy I watched on October 28, 2010 at West Allegheny High School was really special. More importantly, I hope that by the end of the story they will understand even better how much their father loves them – the main message he was hoping to display.