The day before the Vikings' first preseason game, Marcus Sherels' father, Ben, lost his long battle with cancer. Marcus Sherels played for the Vikings the next night.
He played again the following Friday in Buffalo, continuing his seemingly annual battle to claim one of the Vikings' final roster spots. But when it finally came time to say his final goodbyes to his father in Rochester, Minn., Sherels had to step away from the team for its third preseason game against San Francisco. He found a source of support in coach Leslie Frazier.
"You try to put yourself in his shoes, knowing what he might be going through," Frazier said. "We have some other guys on our team who lost a parent. It's hard to focus on your job. Last week, when he talked to me about going to the funeral, I wanted to be very clear to him that there was no hesitation on my part, or our organization's part, about him going to that funeral. He thought he might need to play because of the situation, but there's nothing more important than being there with your mother, your brother and your sisters at that time."
Sherels will find out in the next 36 hours whether he'll continue his time with his home-state team. But what he did Thursday night, in his first game after his father's funeral, might have ensured he will stay around with the Vikings for a fourth season.
He ran the opening kickoff of the second half back 109 yards for a touchdown, and cut in front of a crossing route to intercept Titans quarterback Rusty Smith just over three minutes later. That all came on a night when Bobby Felder, whom Sherels has been battling for one of the Vikings' final cornerback spots, sprained his ankle while defending a 50-yard completion. The plot surrounding Sherels might have changed drastically, and if it did, it happened with a roster full of teammates cheering for him.
"Our whole sideline was just jubilant to see him come out and play the way he did," Frazier said. "I'm really happy for him."
This is far from Sherels' first time on the fringes of the Vikings' roster, but the 25-year-old, who signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota, had an interesting response when he was asked about his tenuous spot. "I always feel like that, and I like it that way," he said. "Competition always makes us better."
For whatever reason, he's developed a knack for sticking on the Vikings' roster. He had an interception in the team's third preseason game in 2010, and ran an interception back 64 yards for a touchdown in the second preseason game of 2011. It took a step of faith on Sherels' part to miss the third preseason game, especially when Felder had played well at cornerback and impressed as a punt returner. But Sherels saved his best for last Thursday night.
"(Coach Frazier) was the one that basically told me I need to be with my family, (and said) he would have done the same thing," Sherels said. "I am glad I made that decision."
He's got enough collateral with the Vikings that he might be able to stick once again. The undersized Sherels has struggled in pass coverage -- witness Aaron Rodgers' 73-yard pass to Jordy Nelson over him in the final game of the regular season last year -- and aside from a 77-yard punt-return touchdown a year ago, Sherels averaged just 6.77 yards a return, irking some fans with his tendency to fair-catch punts rather than taking a shot to return them.
But special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Sherels made the right decision to fair-catch a punt on all but one occasion last season, and aside from his fumble last November against Seattle, he's shown sure hands.
"It's the right idea, because it's either high and short, or it's a plus-50 punt (in Vikings territory) and he had to come up and catch it," Priefer said. "We only had one touchback against us, but that's because of the quality of the punts against us last year. Marcus, I thought, did a great job for us."
Sherels certainly has his fair share of fans in the Vikings organization, and just when he seems in danger of losing his spot, he's found a way to get the job done. This year, he's been able to do it with a heavy heart.
"For him to come out and play the way he played tonight, just tells you a lot about Marcus' heart and his character," Frazier said. "As an organization, we try to be supportive of all of our guys when they're in that situation. ... Those are real human moments. Our players need to know that we're concerned about them beyond what they do between the white lines."