A new college football season starts Thursday night, always an exciting time of anticipation for those involved and who love the sport.
If Gophers players are searching for inspiration or wondering how their season and careers might unfold, they need look no further than their linebackers coach.
Mike Sherels symbolizes everything that’s attainable in college football.
Unfortunately, Sherels won’t be on the sideline coaching in the season opener. He is recovering from an undisclosed medical situation that required multiple surgeries. His family and the athletic department have requested that details remain private.
Sherels, 31, feels strong enough to visit the football complex for a few hours each day. He attended practice this past weekend. Recent reports are encouraging, but coach Tracy Claeys cautioned that Sherels faces a long road before he’s able to resume coaching.
Nobody who knows Sherels dares bet against him.
The best way his players can honor him is to play like him and embrace, as Sherels has, all that college football offers young men.
Sherels wears his love of Gophers football like a badge of honor, first as a player, now as coach. He’s never treated the Minnesota Rouser as background music.
No doubt that college football has its share of problems. The story of Mike Sherels provides a glimpse of the other side, the reason we cheer.
He came to campus guaranteed nothing, not even a scholarship. He wasn’t blessed with superior athleticism. He made his mark by playing with heart and toughness and being a great teammate.
He is the only walk-on in Gophers football history to be selected team captain two years. He won a team award that honored his courage and love of the game, and another award that recognized his unselfishness and concern for the university.
A letter arrived at the Gophers football office after Sherels’ final college game, after a one-win season, after one of the worst performances by a defense in recent NCAA history.
An executive of a Fortune 500 company wrote to say that he admired what he witnessed from Sherels. Not in victory, in defeat.
The Gophers defense was beyond awful in 2007, Sherels’ senior season at linebacker. Like historically bad.
Sherels never lost faith, though, and never lost his dignity. Every Tuesday, he came into the interview room and faced the music.
The questions became repetitive, if not uncomfortable. They were mostly a variation of, so why does the defense stink, Mike?
He answered every question with sincerity and accountability. Sometimes even with humor.
He never skipped an interview session. Not once. He considered it his duty as captain.
The executive from the company took note from afar. He offered Sherels a job opportunity before he ever met him.
Those are lessons to be highlighted. A starting point is merely a dot, not a full account of what can happen along the way.
Sherels took a job in corporate America after graduation. He probably would’ve forged a successful career in his field, except college football tugged at him.
He wanted to coach. He wanted to coach college football specifically, the Gophers in a perfect world.
Sherels spent time coaching defense at Prior Lake High but saw his opening after the U hired Jerry Kill. The Gophers introduced Kill during a basketball game at Williams Arena in a public welcome.
Sherels approached Kill in the stands that night, introduced himself and told him he’d love to join his staff.
“This kid loves Minnesota,” Kill remembers thinking.
Kill hired Sherels as a “special assistant to the head coach.” In other words, an intern who worked long hours and probably made peanuts, but he was where he belonged, immersed in college football at his alma mater.
Sherels was elevated to graduate assistant in 2013 and added some recruiting responsibilities soon after. Kill promoted him again the next season, naming him linebackers coach. A full-time gig with a nice salary at a place he adores.
“Man this is a dream come true,” Sherels told former teammate John Shevlin in a phone conversation that day. “I get to do this for a living.”
Sherels has earned a reputation as a go-getter coach and fierce recruiter. Some people just fit naturally with their chosen profession. That’s Sherels with coaching.
The guess here is he’ll return to his job at some point. Until then, his players should honor him by following the example he set. Love the game, take nothing for granted, be a great teammate.
That will make him proud.