Mankato – Captain Munnerlyn hates being categorized, but he used to fit neatly into a box.
“A shoe box,” he said.
Munnerlyn, the new Vikings cornerback, was born three months early. “My momma was like, ‘I’ve got to get this last kid out of me,’ so I was a preemie,’ ” he said.
He weighed a little more than 3 pounds. His mother used a shoe box as his crib.
That was convenient, because his family was hardly wealthy.
His father was murdered when he was 6. One of his brothers was convicted of murder and remains in prison. He grew up in the ironically named Happy Hill area of Mobile, Ala.
“It was tough,” Munnerlyn said Saturday while resting a strained hamstring during the second day of Vikings training camp. “I have always been told that I would never be nothing, never amount to nothing, never make it out. I was too small to play some sports. I wasn’t fast enough.
“Growing up in the projects made me the person I am today.”
A year or two after his father’s death, Captain’s mother, attending a funeral, heard the pastor ask if anyone wanted to “give their life to God.” His mother approached, and, Munnerlyn said, “it changed her life, and all of our lives.”
His mother began insisting that Captain attend Wednesday night Bible study, Sunday school and worship service.
“I was rebellious at first,” he said. “But I loved sports, and she said, ‘I’m not going to let you play football if you’re not going to listen to me.’ And I loved the game of football.”
One brother became a preacher. The other has a parole hearing in 10 months.
“A guy robbed him, and he went back three or four weeks later and shot and killed him,” Munnerlyn said. “Premeditated murder. I think he’s learned his lesson. I know I learned from it.
“He went in when he was 20. Now he’s 38.”
Family strife aside, Munnerlyn had to prove that a 5-8 defensive back could match up with tall receivers. He signed with South Carolina, and wound up rooming with current Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley. At one of his first practices, he noticed that few cornerbacks wanted to match up with future Vikings star Sidney Rice, a tall receiver with great leaping ability.
“Sidney was the man,” Munnerlyn said. “Nobody wanted to cover him. Me, a little freshman, said, ‘Why is everybody scared?’ With the heart I have, I challenged him, and made a couple of plays on him. I think I shocked a lot of people. I think I shocked Jasper. He came up to me and said, ‘You’re a little dawg, ain’t you?’ ”
The Vikings took Rice in the second round in 2007. The Vikings selected Brinkley in the fifth round in 2009. Two rounds later, the Carolina Panthers drafted Munnerlyn.
Rice recently retired. Brinkley is fighting for a job in Vikings camp. In March, the Vikings signed Munnerlyn to a three-year, $14.25 million contract.
He will be asked to improve one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses.
“He brings a different mentality in our defensive backfield,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “He doesn’t just want to make a play on the ball and knock it down. He wants to catch it and score.”
Munnerlyn has seven career interceptions. He has returned five of them for touchdowns, and that’s not the only way he brings it all the way back. In April 2013, Munnerlyn returned to Mobile to speak at the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Alabama Youth of the Year luncheon. He told the kids, “The only reason I’m telling you the bad stories is to let you know you can make it.”
Even after Munnerlyn made it to the NFL, he raged at the perception that he was too small, raged at every perceived slight.
“I had a defensive backs coach in Carolina two years ago, Steve Wilks, who told me, ‘Captain, it’s time to stop playing with so much anger, stop trying to show people they were wrong,” Munnerlyn said. “Just show them that you were right about yourself.”
From shoe box to penthouse, Munnerlyn was right all along.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. @SouhanStrib firstname.lastname@example.org