Each year after the NFL Draft and before the start of training camp, fans speculate on which of the Steelers’ free-agent picks might have the best chances to prove their mettle and secure those precious, final roster spots. Seldom in team history has Steelers Nation had quite so much fun with this perennial parlor game as it did back in 2009 when undrafted free-agent rookie Isaac Redman made his debut with the Black-and-Gold. Although Redman’s NFL career was cut short in 2014 when he made the chilling announcement that he had suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury, Pittsburgh’s former No. 33 played just enough football during his brief NFL sojourn to leave behind an enduring legacy known as the Redman Award.
This coveted award is bestowed on the Steelers’ undrafted rookie free agent who creates the greatest level of fan excitement and emotional attachment during the preseason—whether legitimate or unfounded. In reviewing the Steelers’ list of undrafted rookies currently under contract, I hereby nominate running back Rushel Shell for the 2017 Redman Award.
I know some of you are thinking, “Rushel who?” But during the same period when Redman was playing for the Steelers, the 5-foot-10, 225-pound Shell was busy cementing his standing as the leading high-school running back in Pennsylvania history. At Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, PA, Shell set a new national record, rushing for 100 yards or more in 39 consecutive games and piling up 200 yards or more 25 times during his high school career. In November 2011, Shell broke the high school record for most rushing yards in Pennsylvania state history, finishing with 9,078 yards.
In 12 games as a Pitt Panther during his freshman season in college, Shell rushed for 641 yards on 141 carries and scored four touchdowns. He also caught nine passes for 103 yards. Then, prior to the start of his sophomore season, Shell quit Pitt’s football team with the intention of transferring to another school. He initially decided to transfer to UCLA before reconsidering and attempting to return to Pitt. But Pitt’s head coach at the time, Paul Chryst, rejected Shell’s overture. Narrowing his remaining choices to the University of Kentucky and West Virginia University, Shell opted for WVU. In three seasons with the Mountaineers, Shell played in 35 games and had 450 carries for 2,010 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also caught 49 passes for 341 yards.
Because Shell wasn’t drafted, and also because he doesn’t have prototypical size or speed for an NFL back, a successful career in pro football seems like the longest of long-shots. But that’s precisely why Shell gets my nod as an intriguing nominee for the Redman Award. Like Redman, he’ll be widely panned by the fan base as a pretender and nobody will believe he can ever scale this mountain.
On the other hand, Shell’s WVU highlights reel reveals a tough, determined runner with a nonstop motor and surprising athleticism packed into his relatively short, stocky frame. Also like Redman, you must first buy into Shell’s intangibles as a player if you’re going to believe he’s got any chance to survive the Steelers’ roster cuts. But keep in mind that Shell also is a player who has excelled at every level of competition in which he’s ever played.
Of course, much the same was true of the young Isaac Redman and, for that matter, of any number of young NFL hopefuls that never quite reached the Promised Land. Because Shell is adorned with the extra halo of being a hard-nosed kid from the Steel City area, he’s the player I believe best epitomizes the qualities you look for when choosing a Redman Award nominee. And no matter how this saga turns out, it should be amusing to watch and discuss.