The greatest running back from the WPIAL watched from the stands. The previous WPIAL record-holder watched from the sideline.
Rushel Shell gave Tony Dorsett and Mike Vernillo something to see.
Shell, Hopewell High School's marvelous running back, ran his way into Western Pennsylvania high school football glory Friday night, breaking the WPIAL career rushing record -- and doing it in big-play fashion.
Shell sprinted 54 yards on Hopewell's first play of the second half to break the record set 12 years ago by Vernillo when he was at Fort Cherry High School. Shell finished with 205 yards on 32 attempts in a 27-20 victory against visiting Mt. Lebanon in a non-conference game. He scored the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run with 3:13 left.
"It's a great feeling, but really it wasn't my No. 1 priority this year," Shell said of the record. "Winning a championship is."
Shell has 7,718 yards, breaking Vernillo's mark of 7,646. Vernillo lives in Bridgeville. But Dorsett, Hopewell High's favorite son, was in town for ceremonies today at Heinz Field, celebrating the 35th anniversary of Pitt's 1976 national championship team. Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy that season, and a number of his old teammates got together Friday night and wanted him to tag along. But he came to the Hopewell stadium that bears his name.
"I told them I was going to my high school to see one of the best running backs in the country," said Dorsett. "I wanted to come see Rushel Shell. I wanted to see him in person. I haven't seen him in person."
Dorsett was impressed with the 6-foot, 210-pound senior, who also moved into sixth on the state's all-time rushing list.
"I like what I see," Dorsett said. "I see he has a good burst. Obviously, he's a strong kid. He just has to learn some of the nuances of being a running back. In high school, he's taking a lot of hits. That can take a toll on you later on."
Dorsett's eyes opened when Shell took off on a 38-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Shell, who has narrowed his college choices to Pitt and Alabama, cut to the outside and sped past a number of defenders.
"I was waiting to see him get out in space and see what he was like," Dorsett said. "I saw that burst on that touchdown run, and I just said, 'OK. OK.' "
Entering the game, Shell needed 133 yards to tie Vernillo's record. Vernillo has said he is honored to have a player like Shell break his record, and he has a sense of humor about it. It showed when he came into the press box with his girlfriend a few minutes after the game started.
"I figured I might only have another couple hours with the record, so that's why I brought her," Vernillo said. "As soon as he breaks the record, she'll probably ditch me. So, can I have a ride home?"
Vernillo and Shell have stayed in touch since meeting earlier this summer.
"He reminds me of Jersey Shore," Shell said, with a laugh.
Shell's record night overshadowed a terrific performance by Mt. Lebanon running back Luke Hagy, who ran for 266 yards on 31 attempts.
Shell's record-breaking run was an off-tackle play that he broke to the outside. He was knocked out of bounds at the 4. With 10:51 left in the third quarter, Shell had the record.
But there was no wild or special presentation. Shell's record was announced to the crowd, the ball was taken out of the game and play continued. Hopewell coach Dave Vestal wanted it that way -- and so did Shell.
"That would've stopped our momentum," Shell said. "Stopping the game was not really necessary."
When talking to reporters after the game, Shell found it necessary to thank his teammates often.
"I don't know how many times I have to say this," Shell said, "but my teammates are the No. 1 reason why I'm here talking to all of you."