Marcus Sherels has always been told he was too small to excel on the football field — let alone play in the NFL.
But now he’s the starting punt returner and occasional fill-in on defense for the Minnesota Vikings.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” Sherels said. “I’ve always been told I’m too small, but you’ve just got to keep fighting and working hard.”
Sherels is listed at 5-foot-10-inches, 175 pounds on the Vikings roster and is easily one of the smallest players on the team.
He stands nearly a foot shorter and weighs 170 pounds less than right tackle Phil Loadholt, the team’s biggest player.
Throughout his NFL career, Sherels has silenced his critics with his determination. His journey to the pros did not come easy, though.
A native of Rochester, Minn., Sherels played high school football at John Marshall High School, where he led his team to the state tournament in 2004.
“He probably weighed 155 pounds his junior year and he led us to the state tournament,” Sherels’ high school football coach John Drews said.
Drews said he used Sherels on both sides of the ball because of his playmaking ability. Drews used him at tailback and changed the offense so they could also use him as a receiver. He also played defensive back.
“He had pure athletic ability,” Drews said. “As a defensive back, one-on-one, he was a shutdown guy, and when [former University of Minnesota head coach] Glen Mason came down and said they were looking for a good defensive back, I said, ‘Well, we’ve got the best defensive back in the state.’”
Minnesota never officially recruited Sherels, but they had an upper hand in the recruitment process because his brother Mike played linebacker for the Gophers.
“I remember kind of planting the bug in his ear,” Mike Sherels said. “One day, toward the end of his senior year, I remember him asking me point blank if I thought he could play [for the Gophers] and I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
“I said, ‘Not only could you play, I feel like you could start and play very well at a high level.’”
Ultimately, Marcus Sherels decided to play for the Gophers, but was not offered a scholarship right away.
“I decided to walk on because I really wanted to play with my brother Michael, and it was great,” Marcus Sherels said. “I loved my time with the Gophers and wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
His older brother said he thinks the motivation of proving detractors wrong has fueled his younger brother’s drive.
“He’s a little bit smaller than most, but I think the chip on his shoulder is bigger than most,” Mike Sherels said. “His willingness to try and prove people wrong allows him to play much larger than he is. He’s got a lot of fight in him.”
In his first season with the Gophers, Marcus Sherels was moved from his natural defensive back position to play wide receiver.
He didn’t see much action on offense and only played in three games in 2007. He tallied three receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown that season.
“I did a lot of special teams in my second year with the team, but it wasn’t until I got switched back to corner[back] my junior year when I actually started,” Sherels said.
Sherels made the most of his opportunity once he was moved back to defense. He recorded four career interceptions with the Gophers and returned a fumble 88 yards for a touchdown during the 2009-2010 season.
His stats didn’t catch the attention of many NFL scouts.
Sherels said he knew he had to perform well at his Pro Day with the Gophers to have any chance at the NFL and started working with highly acclaimed NFL trainer Bill Welle to prepare.
Welle has trained notable NFL superstars like Isaac Bruce, Greg Jennings, Plaxico Burress and Larry Fitzgerald.
“Marcus knew he had to put up really good numbers for anybody to even take a look at him, so when he started working out with me he was a man on a mission,” Welle said. “I watched this kid grow and grow and grow because of his athletic ability — he really put it to work and at the end when he did his Pro Day he lit it up.”
Sherels ran a 4.37- and 4.39-second 40-yard dash and recorded a 40-inch vertical jump at his Pro Day, but still went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft.
He continued to work out with Welle in the summer in hopes of making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent.
The NFL lockout exacerbated his state of limbo after his Gophers football career ended.
“I saw him kind of transform a little bit,” Mike Sherels said. “I think working out with Bill Welle was a big piece of that because he got to work out with the Brandon Marshalls and Larry Fitzgeralds of the world. I think going up against those guys and seeing he could compete was a huge confidence booster for him.”
Welle said the challenge of playing with top NFL receivers forced Sherels to elevate his game.
“Trying to defend Larry Fitzgerald is no small task,” Welle said, “so he knew that he had to step up and meet the challenge or he was going to be done.”
Welle said Sherels’ work ethic made him easier to train.
“Every day he came he definitely wanted to put the work in. … He wants to be first every single time and the only way you’re going to get there is you have to put the work in.”
Drews said Marcus Sherels didn’t have that same drive in high school.
“He played hard, but I wouldn’t say he had a great weight room ethic in high school,” Drews said. “He got by in high school more on his natural ability than the fact that he built himself up in the weight room.
“If you would have [seen] him in high school you would have thought, ‘How could he ever play pro?’ but that’s a tribute to Marcus, that he dedicated himself to becoming the type of athlete that could play at the professional level.”
Sherels was signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in September 2010.
He spent 15 weeks on the Vikings’ practice squad and was activated for the final game of the 2010-11 season.
“Being on the practice squad is like a redshirt year in college, and that’s how I looked at it,” Sherels said. “I got to develop. I got to learn from the veterans and the coaches. I got in the weight room a little bit more. It was a great experience.”
Sherels said he gained confidence after being activated, but said he knew he would have to work hard to make the team in 2011.
“I put on some weight this offseason,” Marcus Sherels said. “I knew I had to get stronger if I wanted to play with these guys this year.”
Sherels impressed Vikings coaches throughout the abbreviated training camp with his work ethic, but his most notable play came in a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks.
He intercepted a tipped pass thrown by Tarvaris Jackson on a third-and-long play midway through the first quarter and raced 64 yards down the sideline for the touchdown.
Combined with his strong play, the pick-six seemed to secure his roster spot, but Sherels said he wasn’t confident he would make the roster until final cuts were made.
“There are so many guys fighting for positions, so you really never know what is going to happen,” Sherels said. “I was excited, though.”
Sherels has transitioned well to the NFL and found his role on the team.
He serves as the starting punt returner for the Vikings and boasts a 13.9-yards-per-return average, good for fourth-best in the league.
“I love being the punt returner,” Marcus Sherels said. “It’s just fun. Anytime you get put out there you’ve got to make plays and that’s what I try to do.”
Sherels’ longest return on the year was a 53-yard punt return in Minnesota’s home loss to the Detroit Lions.
He also has seen occasional snaps in the Vikings’ secondary, which has been plagued by injuries all season.