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Marcus Sherels is the NFL's most rootable player

Marcus Sherels, the Vikings pint-sized punt returner, honed his speed and skills growing up in Rochester.

Marcus Sherels, the Vikings pint-sized punt returner, honed his speed and skills growing up in Rochester.

The average NFL punt hangs in the air for 4.4 seconds. For the Sherels family, that time stands still.

"I close my eyes and I get really nervous," says Kanysha Sherels, sister of Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels.

She waits it out, gauging the play by the crowd's response, hoping for an ecstatic roar instead of the crunch of pads.

Her brother takes a more clinical approach.

As the ball booms into the autumn sky, Marcus' internal clock starts ticking. With 50,000 people screaming, he can only concentrate on catching it, trusting instinct, preparation, and his teammates to keep him from getting leveled by the 11 hulking men sprinting toward him.

The NFL is known for its larger-than-life figures, measured in both personality and girth. Sherels is neither. He stands at 5-foot-10 and weighs 175 pounds, which makes him the size of an average U.S. male. His personality is equally lacking in distinction. He is soft-spoken and quiet, reserved but intelligent.

He may have led John Marshall to a state title game, but big colleges weren’t interested.

He may have led John Marshall to a state title game, but big colleges weren’t interested.

Yet in the same way he catches punts — eyes upward and ignoring outside forces — he's been able to dash up Hwy. 52, from the John Marshall Rockets to the Minnesota Vikings. Along the way, this undersized everyman has likely become the NFL's most rootable player.

Marcus' upbringing in Rochester, Minnesota, provided his first competition. "We were never given anything," says Marcus of himself and his four brothers and sisters. It had to be earned.

Theirs was a full household: Marcus, his older brother Mike, younger sister Kanysha, and two step-siblings. Mother Linda Lager, who works with special needs children in the Rochester schools, "was quick to put us in competitive situations to make sure that we succeeded," says older brother Mike, a linebackers coach at the University of Minnesota. Even making gingerbread houses was a contest to see who could open Christmas presents first.

"It's a family thing," Mike says. "We don't like to lose."

The Sherels boys were constantly going at one another, playing football in the snow and basketball in the street. Marcus was the youngest and smallest. This was his apprenticeship for taking on giants.

He would emerge as an athlete at John Marshall High, playing all over the field: running back, receiver, cornerback, and kick returner. At 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds at the time, he was a pint-sized torpedo who led his team to a Minnesota state title game in 2004, before losing to Minnetonka.

"He had phenomenal speed," says his defensive coordinator, Kevin Kirkeby. "He had great hands, a great knack for the ball both offensively and on defense."

But 150 pounds tends to preclude you from the A-list of big college recruits. By that point, former Gopher star Darrell Thompson was the only John Marshall grad to play in the NFL.

Vic Adamle, a former running backs coach with the Gophers, spent a decade searching the plains of southern Minnesota for players. Thompson was the U's only major signee in that time.

Division II schools came calling. North Dakota, South Dakota, and Augustana offered scholarships, but Marcus turned them down. They were too small, too far from home.

The Gophers wanted Marcus, Adamle stresses, but they weren't willing to bet on his success, urging him to walk on without a scholarship.

To Marcus, this wasn't an insult. It was a challenge.

His brother Mike had already accepted this test, beginning as a walk-on and rising to starting middle linebacker. He would become the only walk-on ever to be named a two-time captain.

Marcus called to ask, straight-up, whether Mike thought he was good enough to play Division I.

"Absolutely," Mike responded.

Each year the rumors cycle: This is the year Marcus won’t make it.

Each year the rumors cycle: This is the year Marcus won’t make it.

"I didn't really think about not making the team or giving it up," says Marcus. "That stuff never crossed my mind."

The Sherelses, after all, are resilient people.

Marcus made the team as a wide receiver. He played his first game as a true freshman, a 44-0 blowout against Kent State. But he would rarely see the field again, registering just three catches in his first two years.

He saw time on special teams and practiced with the scout squad. His career as a receiver appeared to be going nowhere.

Shortly before his junior season, Coach Tim Brewster called him to his office to suggest a move to defense. "Whatever's best for the team," Marcus replied.

He was named a starter before the season opener in 2008, just weeks after the switch. Jerry Kill, then the coach of Northern Illinois, was quick to test him.

Marcus recalls the first deep shot Kill took his way. He was covering a taller receiver. "I remember breaking up the pass and that kind of set everything in motion," he says.

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He would start 22 games in two years, snatching four interceptions and returning a fumble 88 yards. The Gophers twice reached — and lost — the Insight Bowl.

There was no talk of football after college. Marcus remained a too-small cornerback on an exceedingly average team. Besides, he'd achieved what he wanted: holding his own in Division I football and landing a political science degree. "I didn't even think about the NFL until after the season," he says.

He'd been a respectable cornerback, but his stats were average. When an agent called, however, he listened. He wouldn't be drafted, the agent said, but someone might be interested in a tryout.

Marcus was intrigued. He wanted to see how he'd stack up against the best. Law school could wait. He only had one chance at the NFL.

His agent hooked him up with Bill Welle, a trainer who helps with Larry Fitzgerald's professional camps, where some of the NFL's top players train together in the offseason.

Fitzgerald, a Minneapolis native and All-Pro receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, didn't attend that pre-draft program. It was a session for ambitious players unlikely to be drafted. Welle put Sherels on a workout regimen geared around the NFL Combine: starts, stops, explosion, and sprint times.

"Marcus worked his butt off," brother Mike says. He added 15 pounds of muscle and registered a 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash. His 40-inch vertical jump captured attention where his college stats had not.

He wasn't drafted, but the Vikings invited him to a tryout.

“He’s one of the most humble young men I’ve ever met.”

“He’s one of the most humble young men I’ve ever met.”

"The first day I got one rep during the entire team period," Marcus says. "I was like, 'I don't know why I'm here. I don't have a chance.' Then the next day [Assistant General Manager] George Paton came up and said, 'We're thinking about signing you.' I was shocked."

An undrafted player faces an almost insurmountable wall. For a team to toss aside a drafted player, it means throwing away his signing bonus and admitting an embarrassing error in judgment. Dumping Marcus would cost the Vikings nothing.

"The team is investing in drafted players and I think they give them more opportunities to succeed," says Eric Decker, a Gopher teammate turned New York Jets receiver.

"Drafted players can be free" in training camp, Marcus says. "They can joke around, whereas with free agent guys like myself or Thielen [another undrafted Minnesota native], there's always pressure to perform. Every day we have to come and play well or the next day we could be gone."

The Vikings liked what they saw in this work-first approach. But his would remain an uphill fight.

Marcus was cut after that 2010 training camp, then signed to the practice squad — where he was cut and signed again, before finally being promoted for the final game of the season.

Marcus was grateful for the experience. It taught him how the pros work, giving him a taste of the NFL that only pushed him harder.

He met with Welle again after the season, this time in Fitzgerald's program alongside pros like Jerry Rice and Cris Carter.

Entering 2011, the Vikings were retooling their special teams unit. Sherels was one of many with another chance. The battle for the punt returner's slot came down to him and 2008 draft pick Jaymar Johnson. Johnson was waived.

He'll never forget the first punt he fielded.

"It was a fair catch and I went to both knees right away: Don't drop it!" he laughs. "I caught the ball and after that I was good."

By Week 3, he broke off a 53-yarder against Detroit. He also shared kick returning duties with Percy Harvin, playing second fiddle when teams would kick away from his partner. The two combined to set a team record of 26.9 yards per return. Sherels was starting to make his mark.

But he was also becoming pigeonholed, still vulnerable at his listed position of cornerback. Injuries thrust him into the lineup late in the season. Opponents targeted Marcus, throwing over him to veteran receivers who easily broke away from the rookie corner.

He was exposed. Many figured the Vikings would find someone else to back-up the position.

Yet he would make the team again the following year, and his returns grew more explosive, including a 77-yarder against Detroit.

Marcus handled every punt that season, gaining confidence with each catch. He also showed improvement on defense, though not excelling beyond his rank.

Six years into his career, he now owns the highest punt return average in Vikings history. He also holds team records for touchdown returns and returns of over 50 yards.

In most jobs, such accomplishments would buy stability. In the NFL, they only purchase a chance to reapply for your job next year.

The key word is "back-up." Sherels tends to be the last man standing on the depth chart — typically fifth or sixth at cornerback. He played just 12 snaps at the position last year.

Teammates commend his technique and instinct, but he's tiny compared to giants like Calvin Johnson, the Lions' 6-foot-5 freak of nature. And that leads opposing teams to target him.

Decker is 6-foot-3. He lined up against Marcus in practice. "Obviously height isn't his big advantage," Decker says. "He is savvy with his speed and quickness and he understands leverage. As a receiver, you want to be physical with him and use your size against him."

Through six years in the NFL, Marcus has never climbed the cornerback chart, which puts him on the roster bubble.

In a league where turnover is rampant, specialized players like him are often the first to go when someone bigger, younger, or cheaper comes along. Every season Marcus finds himself on the bubble, trying to walk-on all over again.

Labor Day Sundays are tense for players. Beneath the glimmering excitement of a new season is a locker room's most Darwinian moment: the final roster cut down.

The week before the opener, teams are reduced by nearly one-third. "Over 1,100 players on NFL rosters won't be by this time next Sunday," tweeted Vikes' fan Ted Glover on August 30.

The atmosphere is comparable to an office during layoffs, minus the cubicles. "You either get a call or you don't," Marcus says. Nerves flutter as the clock ticks toward the 3 p.m. deadline. If your phone doesn't ring, you can play another game. If it does, you turn in your playbook and hit the road.

Of the Vikings' 2010 rookie class, only Sherels and Everson Griffen remain. Most are out of the league entirely. At 28, Marcus is already middle-aged by NFL standards. The seasons feel longer and it's harder to get out of bed after a rough game. His workouts have shifted from strength training toward speed, acceleration, and agility.

Each year the Vikings draft a new cornerback or returner and the rumors recycle: This is the year Marcus won't make it, the year the hometown kid will be sent packing.

Even starters lose their jobs. The Vikings cut receiver Greg Jennings in the offseason. Former first-round pick Christian Ponder bounced between teams into unemployment this season.

The average NFL career is 3.3 years. These days, the pressure is less severe for Marcus. But it's never gone.

Complacency amounts to a down payment on walking papers. "You have to treat every year like it's your rookie year," the Vikings' senior player, Cullen Loeffler, said during training camp in August. Two weeks later he was cut.

Marcus lives with the same fate hovering above his head. "Every time they draft another cornerback it pushes him a little harder," Kirkeby explains. "He handles stress a heck of a lot better than I would if I was in that situation."

Whenever the blogosphere predicts he's on the cusp, Marcus sticks to the script: Work hard and put your best foot forward. Should the cut eventually come, he knows he'd latch on somewhere.

"You're not only trying out for that team," he says. "You're trying out for every other team in the NFL because every team watches your tape."

When people doubt him, he internalizes that frustration. Of course it pisses him off, his family says, even if he'll never admit it.

When the Vikings drafted potential punt returner Stefon Diggs this spring, Marcus didn't send an angry tweet or demand a trade. He hit the gym.

"As far as being frustrated every year, I think he's happy to have an opportunity to prove himself again," his mother says. "He doesn't just say that, he believes that. The competition drives him to do better."

Outwardly, he shrugs his shoulders. Internally, it fires him up.

"He's probably had people his whole life telling him that he's not good enough to play in the NFL. He just smiles and says, 'We'll see,'" surmises Mike Priefer, the Vikes' special teams coach. "He's motivated by people not believing in him.

"He never feels sorry for himself. He just goes out and does the job that you ask him to do. His humility has come through. That's what helps drive him. He's a very, very good person. Some guys play with a chip on their shoulders. With him, it may be there, but you never see it."

Those who've known him since youth are impressed by his achievements, but not surprised. Deep down, says his old coach Kirkeby, "I think he knows how good he is, but he would never talk about it."

"The thing I really like about Marcus is that he's one of the hardest-working young men that I know," Priefer explains. "He's one of the most humble young men I've ever met in my life."

It can sound like hyperbole when others talk about Marcus: his humility, his kindness, his dedication to self-improvement and other people as a whole. But they're recurrent notes for anyone who knows him.

He "doesn't say much, but his work ethic and his play on the field earn him a lot of respect," says fellow cornerback Jabari Price. "It's understood; it doesn't have to be said."

It's a testament to his character that teammates speak of a bubble player with such admiration. To hear other Vikings tell it, Marcus has gone from the practice squad to consummate pro.

"All he does is do things right," says safety Harrison Smith. "He's the guy that's always going to do his job."

Quite simply: "He's the guy you always want on your team."

Marcus is a celebrity in the Mayo city. "I don't get recognized up here too often," he says of his home in Apple Valley. "In Rochester I'll get recognized wherever I go."

In his hometown, he does charity work for autism and improving kids' access to arts and athletics. At John Marshall games, the crowd chants his name.

He moved to his own home just a year ago. "Before that he rented out my basement. Before that we had an apartment," says Mike. "He's got a small townhouse that's very bachelor like, very under-furnished with a ping pong table and video games galore. I don't know that he has plates."

Despite signing a two-year, $2.2 million contract before the 2014 season, Marcus remains a portrait of frugality, says Kanysha. "He doesn't have a smartphone."

Her brother drove Mike's hand-me-down Geo Prism — vintage 1996 — to his first training camp in Mankato.

"The first two days he was parked in between maybe Pat Williams and Bryant McKinnie, and they had big, huge Hummers and Escalades," Mike says. "He came in with a rusty Geo Prism." It didn't take long before Marcus started parking in an adjacent lot and walking to practice instead.

"He doesn't get embarrassed about that stuff," Mike says. "He's comfortable in whatever setting he's in. We don't come from much and he's now lived both sides of it."

At home he's less harnessed. "He's a great uncle, a great brother," Kanysha says. Following a Tuesday afternoon interview, he left for his niece's soccer game on his one day off for the week.

He'll happily talk football, but his replies grow guarded as the questions get more personal.

"The lifestyle fits him to a T," Mike says. "A negative headline you will not read."

Image and off-field antics can affect a roster more than game day performance, proven over countless scandals like the Love Boat fiasco and Adrian Peterson's suspension.

To a general manager, it's just public relations 101, says Mike. "Okay, we've got this guy who's got a DUI and this guy who is a hometown kid who won't do anything wrong. Ten times out of 10 we're going to go with that guy."

Despite the omnipresent vultures overhead, Marcus no longer carries the stress of his first few seasons. "I know what I can do," he says.

It's a modest, convincing confidence. Playing is more fun now. He no longer looks over his shoulder with each minor slip.

His 65-yard touchdown against Chicago this season, followed by a big return to set up the game-winning field goal against St. Louis the next week, speak loud enough so Marcus doesn't have to. With the Vikings making the playoffs, he's a big piece of the roster.

And after six years on the bubble, this winter will invite a new experience. Marcus will enter unrestricted free agency.

For now, he lives in the moment. Whatever his next step, Marcus will prove his worth.

"History serves itself," Mike says. "If he wants something, he'll set his mind to it and get it done."