Their names didn’t appear on the Vikings’ official roster distributed Friday because they’re not officially part of the team.
They’re given a jersey with a number but without a name on the back. Their last names are written on a piece of tape attached to the front of their helmets.
That’s one way to identify two dozen players hoping to make enough of an impression on Vikings coaches and management that they earn a chance to stick around beyond the rookie minicamp this weekend.
The camp includes all 11 draft picks, 14 undrafted rookies signed immediately after the draft and those other guys without names on their jerseys who are at Winter Park strictly on a tryout basis.
Some come from small schools, others from power conferences. Former Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong earned an invite as a running back, a position he hasn’t played since his freshman year of high school.
The tryout players don’t get paid. The Vikings put them in a hotel, provide transportation and feed them but guarantee nothing more than a chance to prove they deserve their name on their jersey for OTAs.
Their odds fall somewhere between long shot and waste of time. The corporate world beckons after this final fling with football.
And yet we’re reminded that Marcus Sherels and Adam Thielen began their careers in this very spot. So they’re telling them there’s a chance.
“You never know,” Sherels said. “If you don’t do it and just say forget it, you’ll never know.”
Sherels and Thielen embody that anything-is-possible mantra so perfectly that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer included their highlights in a video he showed the rookie class Thursday night.
Entering his eighth NFL season, Sherels has established himself as the best punt returner in team history. Thielen recently signed a three-year, $17 million contract after leading the team in receiving last season.
Both of them got here the hard way.
“Looking back,” Thielen said, “I’m more nervous for myself now than I was then.”
Thielen had an internship with a dental practice lined up before his tryout in 2013. A career in sales seemed likely. He arrived at Winter Park figuring he had nothing to lose.
“Why not give it a shot?” he said. “You know it’s not a sure thing and your chances aren’t that great. But if you have a backup plan, give it a shot.”
Sherels’ backup plan was law school, which seemed like a good idea when he showed up for his tryout in 2010. He saw one depth chart that had his last name misspelled. A sheet listed eight to 10 players who would work as punt returners. Sherels’ name wasn’t on it. He got two reps on defense the first practice.
Sherels approached an assistant coach the second day, told him that he can catch punts and asked to give it a try.
What would have happened if he hadn’t asked to return punts?
“I wouldn’t be in the NFL today, I know that,” said Sherels, who remains interested in law school after his playing career ends.
Their advice to rookie tryouts seems obvious: Make the most of the opportunity because even the worst odds don’t mean the door is completely shut.
“I figured why not give football one more chance and see what happens,” Sherels said.
That seems to be Armstrong’s mentality in trying to earn a job at a new position. He knew quarterback wasn’t an option because he doesn’t fit the prototype. Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman knows Armstrong well because Spielman’s son, JD, is a wide receiver at Nebraska.
“He thought that I was a natural athlete,” Armstrong said. “He just said he’s going to give me a chance to come up here and do something.”
He’s trying his hand at running back and also special teams, which requires blocking and running downfield to tackle. That’s a foreign concept for a former quarterback.
“I’m enjoying it,” Armstrong said, smiling.
Why not? It’s football, something he loves. If he and the other rookie tryouts are not good enough, a job in the real world awaits.
But as Sherels and Thielen attest, the bottom rung also can be the first step toward something unexpectedly higher.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org