Sometime during those three days in April, as Rushel Shell and his mother breathed in the dreamy Southern California air, they began to envision their future:
A new life for their family, nearly 2,500 miles away from their Beaver County roots; a football lifeline for Shell, who starred at Hopewell High School and set a state record for career rushing yards before playing at the University of Pittsburgh; and, most importantly, the NFL career he'd always imagined, forged on the sun-drenched campus of the University of California at Los Angeles.
Only Shell and Pitt officials knew what had caused the Panthers' projected starting tailback to leave the program after one year, but the reason wasn't important now. Pitt was no longer the place for him, and it was time to move west, to a school in the Pacific-12 Conference.
Pitt blocked Shell from talking to Arizona State (former Pitt head coach Todd Graham now coached there) and Arizona (former Pitt assistants now coached there), so UCLA had emerged as his favorite. Shell left Pittsburgh April 12 for his visit, and, the next day, sent a tweet from his Twitter account that said "All I gotta say is I love it."
"You're not going to find a campus like UCLA around here, that's for sure!" Shell's mother, Toni Zuccaro, would later say.
Zuccaro knew it would be expensive for her, Shell's girlfriend and Shell's 1-year-old twin daughters to move to Los Angeles, but she believed it could happen eventually.
One of the reasons that her son became so enamored with the Bruins was a friendship he'd formed with UCLA redshirt freshman cornerback Justin Combs. Shell and Combs met while playing in a high-school all-star game in Phoenix during their senior year, and Combs wasn't just any recruit. He was hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' son, a high schooler with 244,000 Twitter followers and a $360,000 Maybach luxury car he'd received from his father for his 16th birthday.
Combs was Shell's host on his visit to UCLA's Westwood campus. Upon his return, Shell would thank Combs on Twitter "for showing mad love out in Cali."
"Honestly, what's there not to like about Southern California?" said Brad Landis, a former Hopewell volunteer assistant coach who made the trip to Los Angeles with Shell and Zuccaro. "The glitz, the glamour, the weather. I mean you can kind of see how he'll fall into that."
Landis wasn't caught up in the moment, though. He had gotten involved in Shell's recruitment when Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell had asked Landis about Shell's situation at Pitt in a March 25 email. Landis kept in touch with Norvell by text message in the coming weeks and was guiding Shell through an appeals process at Pitt that could allow him to attend Arizona State or Arizona.
Landis wanted Shell to keep his options open. With fall camp starting in August -- and Shell already required to sit out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules -- there was no rush.
"He came back, and the last thing I said to him is 'Don't commit. Give it some time,' " Landis said.
The next day, Landis got a phone call informing him that Shell had committed to the Bruins on Twitter.
In the coming months, as Shell's journey would take more surprising turns, Landis would not hear from him.
On April 18, two days after Shell chose UCLA, he tweeted, "you should always be given a second chance."
Rushel Shell's second chance to be a college football star began much like his first.
Despite receiving flirtations from some of the nation's top programs, he made just one visit and committed to that school.
It didn't matter that University of Alabama coach Nick Saban took the time to talk with Shell via Skype, or that a University of Florida assistant coach paid him a visit in Hopewell, or that Ohio State showed interest. Shell was going to be a Pitt Panther, and he gave his pledge to Todd Graham in October 2011.
Still, doubts lingered about whether Shell was actually following his heart. Of course, with twin girls on the way, nobody could blame him for feeling an exceptional burden of responsibility.
"I put myself in his shoes, and I'd be scared as hell," said Nolan Harmotto, the Hopewell quarterback and a friend of Shell's. "No one else knows what he's feeling.
"I think he did have a pretty determined mind-set. I saw the maturity in him to go to Pitt, putting his daughters in front of him. But, on the other side, he stayed so close to home, and everyone knows him. The media is going to be all over him if he doesn't do the right thing. He was such a big figure in the Pittsburgh area."
By mid-December, when Graham bolted to become head coach at Arizona State after just one season in Oakland, Shell would have another opening to look around but stayed put under new Pitt coach Paul Chryst.
On Feb. 18, 2012, Shell's daughters, Arionna and Amiyah, were born, changing his life forever.
"I just look at it as I'm out there running for them," Shell would say later.
Shell's Pitt career didn't start on the right tone. He was suspended for the season opener against Youngstown State -- which the Panthers would lose 31-17 -- because of a violation of team rules. But, two weeks later in his first home game at Heinz Field, the 6-foot, 215-pound Shell emphatically announced his arrival with 23 carries for 157 yards in a 35-17 Pitt upset of Virginia Tech.
Splitting time with senior Ray Graham, Shell would finish the season with 141 carries for 641 yards and four touchdowns. His decision to attend Pitt appeared sound. With the backfield all to himself in Chryst's run-heavy offense, 2013 and 2014 would be the Rushel Shell Show.
Spring practice began, and, with the dawn of a new season, came mystery. It started when Chryst announced that Shell was taking some time away from the team. Not long after, he quit.
As usual, Shell's Twitter feed was ripe with his observations.
"They can't understand the life that I chose."
"I don't owe this city anything period ya'll make accusations but don't know the facts but keep doing what you do best!!"
With two daughters nearby and the starting job his to lose, his critics wondered, why would he leave Pitt and sit out a year?
A source told the Post-Gazette that, had he stayed at Pitt, Shell was going to face more internal discipline for a violation of team rules.
Stuck in a corner, Rushel Shell elected to do what he does best: Run.
No more California love
This summer, when Pat Tarquinio's wife died, Rushel Shell visited his former coach at the funeral home.
Tarquinio, a Hopewell assistant coach, was happy to see the kid. But, while Tarquinio had many questions about what had happened at Pitt, the two did not broach the topic.
On that subject, Shell has remained quiet. He declined several interview requests from the Post-Gazette. Chryst also declined comment.
Tarquinio assumes that there was an outside trigger for the action, because the Rushel (pronounced Russell) Shell that Tarquinio knew at Hopewell was coachable, a good teammate.
Shell and Tarquinio developed a "special relationship," Tarquinio says. Before each game, the player would approach Tarquinio and put a religious gold medal around the coach's neck for good luck.
"There was just a warm feeling," Tarquinio said. "Maybe he appreciated the way I treated him."
With Shell, Tarquinio learned, a certain tone was needed.
"Negative feedback won't work with him," Tarquinio said. "He just bolts at that. With a star, sometimes coaches feel they need to take him down a peg, but he didn't prance around like he was a star. He was a kid, just an immature high school kid, and he responded to positive coaching."
Tarquinio said he was not trying to imply anything about the way Shell was coached at Pitt. But it's a fact that college coaches are more intense and demanding.
Harmotto, who currently plays at Dayton (Ohio) University, said there was no way the coaching style at Hopewell could have prepared Shell for Pitt.
"He got coached, but I don't know if he got screamed at," Harmotto said. "The coaches weren't as hard on him in high school because he was so much better than everyone else."
On Shell's first varsity carry during the first game of his freshman year, he galloped 55 yards for a touchdown. By midseason, he was Hopewell's lead back.
Shell would rush for a record 9,078 yards during his career -- a number highlighted on his Twitter profile @MrRushelShell -- and along the way, he became the biggest name on the Pittsburgh prep sports scene.
"I think he enjoyed it, but Russ is literally one of the most humble kids I know," Harmotto said. "He didn't walk through the halls like he was all that. I think he was a great role model to kids.
"Obviously he was very, very blessed with God-given athleticism and strength and speed. Was he putting in as many hours as some of our other friends and teammates? No. But did he have to? He did what he had to do to help the team."
Everything that happened once Shell stepped foot on Pitt's campus can be viewed through the prism of a teenager learning life's lessons with the added pressure of rearing two young girls. He told the Post-Gazette in November 2012 that he was trying to balance all of his responsibilities but that he wasn't spending as much time as he'd like in Hopewell. Those who know him well staunchly defend his character.
"People think Rushel's a dog, but he's never been arrested, never committed a crime, never hit anybody," said Candice Zuccaro, Shell's grandmother. "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."
Despite the suspension and the drama surrounding his decision to leave Pitt, college coaches were ready to pounce. The University of Southern California and University of Oklahoma called Hopewell coach Dave Vestal. Arizona State, Arizona and West Virginia wanted to recruit him but couldn't because Pitt wouldn't grant them permission. UCLA became the most attractive destination.
As the weeks went by, though, even the courtship with the Bruins would fizzle. Shell was supposed to move to Los Angeles in late June, but as of that time, UCLA still had not officially announced his transfer (school officials only confirmed his recruitment).
On June 26, in a brief interview outside her Hopewell apartment, Toni Zuccaro told the Post-Gazette that her son had undergone a change of heart, wanting now to find a school closer to his daughters. She said he was considering West Virginia, Ohio State and Kentucky.
In the days prior, though, Shell had reached out to Chryst about returning to Pitt.
"He tried to contact Paul Chryst," Candice Zuccaro said, "sent him a four-page text, called him 20 times on the phone. Chryst never answered."
According to Toni Zuccaro, her son found out that Pitt wasn't going to take him back through the nightly news.
Shell's once-boundless football career was now floundering, but one wouldn't have known it from viewing his Twitter account. He posted an Instagram video featuring him lip-synching to a hip-hop song called "Ain't Worried About Nothin" by rapper French Montana.
And maybe he had every reason not to be worried. In the world of big-time college football, there would always be room for a talent like Rushel Shell.
Turn toward country roads
In media reports and on Rushel Shell's Twitter page, the last stage of his recruitment was being billed as a decision between West Virginia and Kentucky. On July 26, he tweeted a picture of the West Virginia logo and said "My new home!!!"
On Aug. 7, a Kentucky official responded to a Post-Gazette inquiry and said Shell was not recruited by the Wildcats.
There was only one choice in the end for Shell, and that was spending at least the next two years in Morgantown. The picture had changed from those April days in Los Angeles to July, but Shell still got what he desired -- a fresh start at a program with the resources to help steer him toward his NFL dream.
"How could you know what could happen if you don't take a chance and wish for the best?!?" Shell tweeted Aug. 3.
Shell arrived in Morgantown Aug. 18 to begin what could very well be the most important year of his football career. When he stepped on campus after a summer off, he was overweight and out of shape. He'd have 12 months to get rid of the rust before the Mountaineers' opener in 2014 against Alabama.
"Right now, he understands this is it for him," said West Virginia assistant coach Tony Gibson, who recruited Shell as a Pitt assistant and again for the Mountaineers. "What he has to do is make sure he accepts his role, and his role right now is to go down on the scout team. Sometimes guys who are highly recruited guys, it's hard for them to swallow, and he's done a tremendous job just going down there and working, giving us a good look."
Gibson describes Shell as "all in." Then again, what choice does the 20-year-old have?
"This is his chance," Harmotto said, "to prove everyone wrong and get back on track. People just need to let him go at this point."
But can Rushel Shell let the past six months go?
On the night of Aug. 30, as his new teammates rested before their season-opening game against William & Mary, Shell found himself on Twitter, battling his old demons. Pitt fans razzed him, West Virginia fans praised him, and Shell had something to say to all of them:
"I can't even tweet facts without [people] hating [shake my head] #theystillmad"
"Yal see what it is Mountaineer Nation got my back!!!"
"Facts on the table sorry that I'm not sorry."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. Sam Werner and Mike White of the Post-Gazette contributed. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM