Duke Shelley is the Vikings’ shortest player but has made his share of big plays lately

Four-year veteran broke up passes in the end zone in wins over Buffalo and New England

New York Jets wide receiver Corey Davis (84) makes a catch while Minnesota Vikings cornerback Duke Shelley (20) defends on Dec. 4, 2022, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
New York Jets wide receiver Corey Davis (84) makes a catch while Minnesota Vikings cornerback Duke Shelley (20) defends on Dec. 4, 2022, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Matt Krohn / USA Today Sports
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EAGAN, Minn. — When YaQuis Shelley Sr. was coming out of high school in Atlanta in 1994, he was offered a football scholarship to Tennessee. But rather than join a decorated freshman class that included Peyton Manning, he elected to give up playing the sport to become a minister.

Shelley is now senior pastor at The Hand of the Lord International, the church he runs in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Georgia. Yet it’s not as if he completely left football behind.

“My dad was my first coach,’’ said YaQuis Shelley Jr. “He taught me how to backpedal when I was 5 years old.”

The minister’s son is better known now as Duke Shelley. The 5-foot-9 Shelley, 26, is in his first season as a Minnesota Vikings cornerback, and some of these lessons he began learning two decades ago have been paying off lately.

Shelley, a four-year veteran who began November on the practice squad, broke up a pass in the end zone in overtime in Minnesota’s 33-30 win at Buffalo on Nov. 13. Then in a 33-26 win over New England on Nov. 24, he broke up a pass in the end zone late in the first half, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal. And in last Sunday’s 27-22 win over the New York Jets, he had two passes defended, including one near the goal line.


“He continues to show up snap in and snap out with that competitive drive to help our team win,’’ Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said Friday.

Because the Vikings have had numerous injuries at cornerback, Shelley has been called upon to play snaps from scrimmage in each of the past four games, including getting the start against the Patriots.

Duke Shelley

For Sunday’s game at Detroit, the Vikings are likely to activate Cameron Dantzler off injured reserve and have him start at right cornerback after he missed four games with a high ankle sprain. But with Akayleb Evans placed on injured reserve this week due to a concussion and Andrew Booth Jr. out for the season with a knee injury, Shelley is in line to at least be a top reserve for awhile.

After being a sixth-round pick by Chicago out of Kansas State in 2019, Shelley played his first three seasons with the Bears, and did have six starts. But it’s not as if Shelley, who was signed to Minnesota’s practice squad Sept. 6 after being waived by Chicago, is a well-known player. He doesn’t deny that sometimes receivers ask during a game, “Who are you?”

“Yeah, but I always tell them, ‘You’re going to find out who I am today,’ ’’ he said.

Shelley has been beaten his share of times, but does have a slightly above average Pro Football Focus rating of 64.8. And he has shown the propensity to bounce back and make big plays after being beaten.

Shelley is the shortest player on Minnesota’s 53-man roster. But he says he makes up for it in other ways.

“I feel like my heart, just my will to win, gives me an advantage over most guys,’’ he said. “With the confidence I have, no matter who is (the opposing receiver), I trust myself. I don’t shy away from any moment.”


Shelley Sr. said his son long has been like that.

“He’s always had that inner fight that he’s got to prove himself,’’ said Shelley Sr., who was a youth coach in the Atlanta area for more than 20 years, and 15 years ago had both his son and Vikings edge rusher D.J. Wonnum on the Central DeKalb Jaguars. “It’s something he’s been doing for the last 20 years.”

Shelley Sr. said YaQuis is a Nigerian name that means “strength, boldness, leader.” When his son was less than 1, his grandmother Delores started to call him Duke to differentiate the two.

“The fact that he was the second, instead of just calling both of us the same name, she just thought of Duke being like a prince,” Shelley Sr. said.

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Now, Shelley has a son named YaQuis Shelley III, who turns 2 in March.

Shelley Sr. is proud of his son having made the NFL. Shelley Sr. said he once had that aspiration.

“I had the opportunity to go to Tennessee and play, but I chose the ministry instead,’’ he said. “I’d been playing football since I was 5 and my dream was to go to the NFL, but then my passion shifted to something else and I’ve been a minister for almost 30 years and I’ve been a senior pastor for the church I’m over at now for 21 years.”

When Shelley was young, he worked as an usher at the church and sang in the choir, although his father said with a laugh that he “can’t sing a lick.” Shelley agreed with that but doesn’t sell himself short in anything he does on the football field.


“I definitely embrace every matchup,” Shelley said. “I like me versus anybody. It doesn’t matter who it is, I’m going to bet on myself every time. … I want the ball to come my way, and I want to make a play. That’s kind of my mentality.”


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