Pitt RB Rushel Shell balances class, football and fatherhood in freshman year

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On the field, Rushel Shell is Pitt's dynamic freshman running back. He's Pennsylvania's all-time leading high school rusher and looks poised to be the next great running back at a school that has produced more than a few.

Off the field, though, away from the games and practices, Shell has a role he takes even more seriously. It's a challenge that's more important than his goals at Pitt or even any NFL aspirations. He is the father of 9-month-old twin girls.

Not only is Shell a freshman adjusting to college life, but he's doing it playing Division I-A football, coming in as one of Pitt's most celebrated recruits in recent memory. On top of all that, he makes sure to see his two girls every chance he gets.

"It's a lot of balancing," Shell said. "You've got to balance a lot of things out. Come to football everyday, having class throughout the day, then I have two kids, so trying to be part of their lives."

The love Shell has for his daughters -- Arionna and Amiyah -- is clear as day when he holds them. Normally quiet and reserved, Shell lights up when the girls come into the room wearing matching outfits.

He lifts Arionna over his head and touches his nose to hers, a bright smile across his face.

"He's going to be a good dad," Shell's mother, Toni Zuccaro, said, looking on. "He will."

For the Panthers, Shell burst on the scene this season with a 157-yard performance in Pitt's upset win against Virginia Tech, and he did so with a bruising, battering style uncommon for a freshman who has been in college only for a few months.

His motivation for fearlessly plowing into defenders bigger and more experienced than him? Arionna and Amiyah, sometimes miles away but always on Shell's mind.

"I've got two daughters at home and, eventually, I've got to support them," he said. "I just look at it as I'm out here running for them."

Shell admitted that the past 18 months haven't been easy. When his girlfriend, Marissa Pursley, came to him the summer before his senior season at Hopewell High School and told him she was pregnant, it took Shell some time to digest the news.

The two have been dating since 2007, but this was a whole new challenge, especially when they got another surprise when an ultrasound was done a few months later.

"At that time, I was really stressed out," Shell said. "Then we found out there were two, so it got even more hectic."

Once Shell realized he had support system around him to help, including his mother and Pursley's mother, he began to realize that he was ready to take on the duties of fatherhood.

"At first, I thought, 'How am I going to do this?' " he said. "After a while, I saw that I had a lot of people around me supporting me, like my family members, her family members. I knew that we could make it happen.

"As time went on, I just accepted it, manned up and took on the responsibilities."

During his senior year at Hopewell, Shell led the Vikings to the WPIAL quarterfinals while fielding scholarship offers from the nation's top Division I programs. His mother said that, during that year, he grew up and matured.

Shell noticed it, too.

"High school, 12th grade, the only thing that was on my mind was probably partying, football and just having fun my senior year," Shell said. "Knowing that I had kids, it just switched everything up. Partying was my last priority. [My goal was] just bettering myself, knowing that they're going to depend on me and I didn't want to let them down."

The twins were born Feb. 18, 2012. Arionna first, then Amiyah. Shell was the first one to change their diapers, and he remembers the first time he held his daughters.

"It was a different feeling that I've never felt before," he said. "It just made you realize a lot of things that you didn't see were important but really are.

"[It makes you think about] life, in general. How blessed I was. I felt like everything happened for a reason and they were my extra motivator."

Shell said his primary parental inspiration is his mother, who he described as "the ultimate parent."

Zuccaro said she didn't give her son any specific advice for being a parent.

"Just be the best dad you can be," she said. "That's all. He's got his hands full right there."

The girls live with Pursley, who watches Shell's game with them every Saturday. They're a little too young to understand a zone blitz, but Zuccaro said she has a video of Arionna waving her arms, cheering on one of Shell's carries.

Shell lives on Pitt's campus in Oakland but sees Arionna and Amiyah every Sunday and any chance he can get during the week, especially during Pitt's off week this week.

"It's like a stress reliever," he said. "It takes me away from everything that's really on my mind most of the time. It relaxes me."

Still, he said he's not around as often as he would like to be, with his class and football commitments. When Amiyah said her first word, "Dada," Pursley recorded it and sent the video to Shell, who was at his dorm in Oakland. Shell didn't admit it, but Zuccaro said he cried when he saw it.

It's important for Shell to be with his girls as much as his schedule allows.

"I just want to be a part of their lives," he said. "I want them to know who I am early in their lives. I want them to know when they grow up that I was there from the beginning. Even when I was busiest, I always made time for them."

Right now, life with twin girls holds precious father-daughter moments, along with some temper tantrums and diaper changing. Eventually, though, the two are going to grow up and one day want to bring boys home to meet their father. Shell said he's already started thinking about that day.

"I'm going to be the dad where if the guy texts the daughter and says, 'Is your dad home?' and she says, 'Yeah,' he says, 'I'm not coming over then,' " Shell joked.

The days of his daughters dating and having teenage problems are years away, though.

Right now Shell is just running. Running for Pitt, and maybe, one day, running to the NFL.

Always, though, running for Arionna and Amiyah.


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com or on Twitter: @SWernerPG.


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