MINNEAPOLIS -- Late Sunday night, after Minnesota returned from a game in Detroit, Vikings special teams standout Marcus Sherels went out to dinner with his older brother, Mike, and Mike's wife, Emily, at an Italian restaurant in the suburbs. Their waiter did not recognize Marcus -- hardly anyone does -- but sensing the group's upbeat mood, asked, "Are we celebrating anything special tonight?"
Well, where to start? A few hours earlier, Marcus broke four tackles on a 77-yard punt return for his first NFL touchdown. It proved the decisive score in a 20-13 victory that put Minnesota in first-place tie with the Chicago Bears in the NFC North. Oh, and it came on Marcus' 25th birthday.
Mike said nothing, aiting to see what Marcus would do, pretty much guessing what was coming.
"He kind of kept his head down and said, 'Nah, we're just out to dinner,'" said Mike, a defensive graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota and a former Gophers linebacker.
"Anyone who knows Marcus knows he's not a limelight guy," Mike said. "He doesn't like attention. He likes to just go about his business. He told me they sang 'Happy Birthday' to him on the plane coming home, and he said it was pretty embarrassing."
That's interesting, since as an athlete, Marcus Sherels has worked hard to be noticed.
One of the smallest Vikings at 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds, in the locker room Sherels can easily be mistaken for a visitor or somebody's little brother until he changes into his gear. His smarts, reliability and work ethic served him well at the University of Minnesota, where he rose from recruited walk-on to starting cornerback, and with the Vikings, after first attracting attention as an undrafted free agent at a rookie minicamp.
"I've always believed in myself," said Sherels, who earned a political science degree at Minnesota and planned to go to law school if the Vikings cut him. "People have had my back all the way through."
Sherels spent 15 weeks on the practice squad in 2010 before making his NFL debut in Detroit on the final weekend of the season. Last year he averaged 8.4 yards as Minnesota's primary punt returner, returned 16 kickoffs as well (one for 78 yards against Carolina) and started three games at cornerback due to injuries. He dropped Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers for his first career sack on Oct. 23.
In the offseason, the Vikings sought to upgrade their shaky pass coverage by drafting three defensive backs and signing cornerback A.J. Jefferson as an unrestricted free agent. That's usually bad news for the folks at the bottom of the depth chart, but Sherels persevered through versatility. Besides his return skills, the speedy Sherels serves as a punt-coverage "gunner," sprinting down the farthest outside lane, and also covers kicks.
"He's a guy that you can trust," said Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer. "At the end of the game against San Francisco and against Jacksonville [with the Vikings protecting leads], we told him, 'Hey, just fair catch the ball,' and we know he's going to catch it. I have a lot of confidence in him if we need a big play or a big return.
"I know the defensive coaches really like him because everything he does is at a high level. You're going to get everything out of him. I know he's not the most talented and certainly not the biggest guy, but he overcomes a lot of that because of what he brings to table with his character, his work ethic and our ability to trust him."
Besides his big return Sunday, Sherels made an equally important but less flashy play with 1:42 remaining, racing to down a 47-yard Chris Kluwe punt on the Detroit 2-yard line with the Vikings protecting a seven-point lead and Detroit out of timeouts.
"For a lot of guys, special teams is how you're going to make it and stay in the league," Kluwe said. "Marcus is a great guy to have out there. And you need guys like that on your team, because if you have special teams breakdowns, or you can't break a punt return, then it puts you at a competitive disadvantage. He's done a great job for us over the years."
Marcus lives with Mike and Emily, giving them a first-hand understanding of how an undersized player survives in the NFL. To keep his weight up, Mike said Marcus often sets his alarm for 2 a.m. to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some other protein-rich food that he prepares before going to bed. Often, Mike and Marcus talk football at night and break down video.
In the offseason, Marcus returns to their hometown of Rochester, Minn., to live with his mother and work out with eight high school buddies. As a rookie, Marcus trained with a Minneapolis-based group headed by Arizona wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who grew up there, and renowned trainer Bill Welle. Mike said Marcus is so conscientious and self-motivated now that he can train in a lower-key environment without sacrificing conditioning or drive.
"I think his biggest asset is he knows what kind of player he is," Mike said. "You get some players who can slough off a day of practice or take some plays off from time to time. He knows he can't afford to do that. To play at the level he's at, he's got to be 100 percent all the time, or he won't stay where he's at."