Even the biggest, toughest NFL players find themselves shaking their heads and questioning the sanity of those little punt returners.

"First of all, just catching the ball with no one charging at you is hard enough," said Phil Loadholt, the Vikings' 6-8, 343-pound right tackle. "My rookie year in 2009, coach [Brad Childress] had me and Big Mac [6-8, 346-pound left tackle Bryant McKinnie] catch punts before a practice."

How'd that go?

"I went 0-for-1," Loadholt said. "I can't even imagine doing it in an NFL game."

Marcus Sherels can because, well, he does. All 5-foot-10, 175 pounds of him.

For the second year in a row, Sherels made the team for basically one reason: He can catch a punt no matter what. Well, "no matter what" arrived on Sunday in the 233-pound form of Redskins tight end Niles Paul.

"That hit ranks up there with one of the hardest hits I've ever seen in my life," said rookie safety Harrison Smith, who hasn't lived long, but knows a thing or two about hard hits.

"For Marcus to take that hit and still hang onto the ball? I returned punts in high school and in practice at Notre Dame. Whether he's got a screw loose or what, he's fearless."

The hit was the culmination of poor blocking and perfect timing. Paul was the gunner on the right side. He was supposed to be blocked by safety Andrew Sendejo, but Sendejo lost contact with him at the Washington 47-yard line.

That left Paul with an 18-yard direct path to Sherels. Paul, the ball and Sherels arrived at the Vikings 35-yard line at the same time. Paul never slowed down, blasting Sherels. Their helmets made contact, but the officials huddled and decided not to call a penalty, announcing to the crowd that it was a legal hit.

Whatever it was, it knocked Sherels' helmet and his pink skull cap clean off. The helmet didn't stop rolling until it came to rest 9 yards behind Sherels.

Sherels lost 2 yards on the impact, but teammates were still asking themselves how in the world he held onto the ball through it all.

"Because that's my job," Sherels said when asked. "And I think the hit looked worse than it actually was because my helmet came off. It wasn't that bad. We're all grown men. You get hit, you bounce back up and play the next play."

Running back Toby Gerhart was impressed with what happened after the hit.

"That was helmet-to-helmet as blatant as I think you can get," Gerhart said. "But Marcus never got upset. Never said anything. Just got up, picked up his helmet and tossed the ball to the ref. That's the way you do it."

Although Sherels is known as a sure-handed returner who won't provide much excitement, he ranks fourth in the league in punt return average (13.4) and his one touchdown is one more than Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, the Pro Bowl returners from last season.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has an appreciation for punt returners. After all, his career ended with a knee injury suffered returning a punt for the Bears in Super Bowl XX.

"What happened to Marcus [Sunday] can happen a lot, even more so than kickoff returns because you got the hang time, and the guys barreling at you are closer to you," Frazier said. "So you have to be able to make guys miss and all that. But a lack of fear is a real big deal on punt returns. Especially now because the speed and size of these guys makes it so different than it was 20 years ago."

Cornerback Antoine Winfield still loves and plays the game at a high level at age 35. But there's at least one thing on a football field that doesn't interest him.

"I returned punts in high school," Winfield said. "At the NFL level? It's not a job I would want."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com