MINNEAPOLIS — At some point during his prodigious night Thursday, Marcus Sherels allowed himself to look up.
If there’s any expert in the ways of eyes-ahead, unwavering workmanship on the Vikings ever-shrinking roster, it’s Sherels. The 25-year-old Land of 10,000 Lakes lifer doesn’t know how to operate any other way, having gone from University of Minnesota walk-on to Big Ten star to practice squad dreg to everyday NFL contributor.
And that was before the man that helped bring him into the world lost a long battle with cancer.
After missing Minnesota’s preseason game Sunday to attend his father’s funeral, Sherels returned completely intent on battling his way onto the team for the third fall in a row. Thursday marked his and every other fringe Vikings hopeful’s final chance to impress, and he solidified his spot with a 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a key second-half interception.
Whether it was bursting through a wide-open chasm and tearing down the left sideline or sliding in underneath coverage to snag a dart from Tennessee Titans quarterback Rusty Smith, Sherels kept his gaze fixed on the necessary target.
But at some point — maybe on the sidelines between plays, maybe as he dressed in the Vikings locker room to shouts of “MVP” from safety Jamarca Sanford, maybe alone on the way back to his vehicle — Sherels turned his mind’s eye skyward, knowing the football club that’s been behind him during a heart-wrenching time weren’t his only support.
“I know he’s watching,” Sherels said of his father, “and he’s happy.”
Once again, Sherels gave Minnesota all the evidence it needs to leave his name off the list of final cuts. The quiet, undersized undrafted free agent has done it every year since 2011, his second as an active pro following a season with the Vikings’ scout team.
Before that, he convinced the Gophers’ coaching staff he was worth a scholarship and started two years at cornerback in addition to morphing into a dangerous return man.
But the 2013 chapter of the Marcus Sherels survival story was the loudest to date.
He took the second half’s opening kickoff nearly the entire length of Mall of America Field, showing off the pure speed that afforded him exclusive punt return duties the past two seasons. It was the longest kickoff return in Vikings preseason history by 10 yards.
Less than three minutes of game clock later, Sherels stayed stride-for-stride with Titans wideout Michael Preston on a skinny post route then lunged and intercepted Smith’s toss, becoming the first player in team history to return a kickoff for a touchdown and intercept a pass in the same preseason game.
Having encouraged Sherels to skip Minnesota’s contest in San Francisco to be with his family, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier beamed at the sight.
“We all were pulling for him,” said Frazier, who has until Saturday afternoon to trim the roster to 53 players. “You play with a heavy heart, losing his father and then the funeral last week. It’s been tough for him. We’ve got some other guys who have lost parents on our team, so they know what he’s been going through. To see him make those plays tonight, our whole sideline was jubilant to see him come out and play the way he did, knowing what’s on his mind and what this week has been like for him.”
It sounds like they’ll have more chances to get behind him.
Sherels’ gig wasn’t in as much jeopardy as some entering Thursday, given his relative consistency as the Vikings’ punt returner in 2011 and 2012. During those two campaigns, he averaged 8.7 yards on 65 returns and added 16 kickoff returns each season for a career average of 27.1 yards.
But Minnesota’s front office hasn’t allowed him to grow comfortable. He’s never earned a long-term contract, and every training camp has brought a new challenger — or two — to his position.
Not a problem, Sherels said.
“I like it that way,” said Sherels, who grew up in Rochester, Minn. “It makes me a better player. It makes me get extra work in, and I embrace it.”
Bobby Felder, also a defensive back, emerged as the biggest threat to Sherels’ continued stay this fall. There’s a good chance both make it past the final whittling, but the latter is virtually a lock after Thursday.
“Today was my chance, and I took advantage of it,” the soft-spoken, 5-foot-10, 175-pound Sherels said.
Said Frazier: “He finds ways to make plays in the preseason and training camp, and he ends up making our ball club.”
No matter the obstacles, it would seem.
“He’s a strong person,” rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “He’s a playmaker no matter where he’s at. Punt return, corner, anywhere. He’s gonna find a way to make a play.”