It has been a busy week for Mickey Shuler, who is fighting for a roster spot among the Minnesota Vikings tight end corps that no longer has Jim Kleinsasser or Visanthe Shiancoe. With John Carlson out one to two weeks after injuring his right MCL, Shuler has been seeing a lot more action as one of just four healthy tight ends on the roster.
It has given Shuler, who played for Joe Paterno from 2006-09, a chance to take his mind off the problems that have beset his Penn State alma mater, which was also the alma mater of his father, former NFL tight end Mickey Shuler Sr.
"To be honest, one of the best parts about being down here (in Mankato) and being so busy is that there hasn't been much time to dwell on it," Shuler said. "It's a sad situation all around. Tragic. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone that's involved."
The Penn State football program has been rocked by the child sex abuse scandal centered around former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty of horrific crimes against young boys – some taking place on the Penn State campus – and, after an independent study found that Paterno and high-ranking school officials had knowledge of the allegations as early as 1999 and covered up the severity of the crimes, the NCAA brought the hammer down on the program.
While the NCAA didn't bring enforce the "death penalty" on the program – completely shutting it down as it did with Southern Methodist University in 1987 – the sanctions given the PSU program were severe and could prevent the school from being a national power again for years to come.
The penalties included a record $60 million fine to the school, placing the football program on a five-year probation, imposing a four-year ban from playing in postseason bowl games and a reduction of 20 scholarships for players (from 85 to 65). In addition, Penn State removed a statue of Paterno that used to grace the entrance of the Nittany Lions home stadium and the NCAA vacated all Penn State wins from 1998-2011, meaning that, for the sake of history, Shuler and his teammates never won a game during his career – a decision Shuler doesn't understand as being rational.
"They can take them away, but we all know who won those games," Shuler said.
Shuler said he is proud of the athletes who chose to remain with the program after the NCAA made a special dispensation to allow any current scholarship athletes to leave Penn State, transfer to another school and not be forced to sit out a season – as is the standard custom when players transfer out of a school as a scholarship athlete. Only five of the 85 players under scholarship opted to transfer. He said that is a tribute to the principles and ideals of the school as a whole and to the young men who will try to keep the program afloat during the difficult times ahead.
"You have to have strong-willed people and those guys have showed that," Shuler said. "They believe in Penn State and they're there for the right reasons. They want to get a quality education and become better men after college and after football. It takes a strong team to do that. I think it's pretty impressive what those kids – they just 18- or 19-year-old kids – sticking together and make that decision."
While his heart remains with his fellow players at Penn State, Shuler is in the middle of his own professional battle, trying to win a roster spot with the Vikings. It hasn't been easy. A seventh-round pick of the Vikings in 2010, he made the final roster only to be released after two weeks of being on the inactive list. He signed with Miami and finished out his rookie season there, but was among the Dolphins' final cuts in 2011 and re-signed with the Vikings to their practice squad last November.
With the injury to Carlson, the opportunities for young talents like Shuler, Allen Reisner and Rhett Ellison have increased and they're all trying to take advantage of the short-handed nature of the position to make an impression on the coaches and enhance their own chances of surviving the final cuts.
"There's only four of us right now, so it's a chance to get more reps, get better each day and show the coaching staff what we can do," Shuler said. "We're all young and can use the reps, so it will be good for all of us. (Carlson) will be back in a week or so. Then things will get back more to normal and we can get back to where we were prior to him going down."
It's been a difficult time for Shuler and hundreds of other former Penn State players these last few months, but he believes the best way he can honor his university and Paterno is to continue to work hard and make an NFL roster to continue the longstanding tradition of PSU players going on to the NFL and succeeding. There is no place he would rather be than in Mankato, because he's convinced the Vikings are on the verge of being one of the more tight end-friendly offenses in the NFL and he wants to make sure he's a part of it.
"The plan is to use the tight ends more in the offense and there are a lot of plays that have two tight ends on the field," Shuler said. "We have a lot to work on and a lot to learn, so there is a reason to be excited about what we have going here. You don't always get a chance to take reps for plays that will be used in games, so we're all looking to take advantage of every opportunity we get."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Camp helps Shuler deal with Penn St. scandal
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