By: Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS—Upon initial glance, the first feature you notice about Duke Shelley is his beaming smile. It isn’t a (listed) 5-foot-8, 181 pound stature that sooner looks like it belongs in any other professional setting except football. Nor is it a personal vibe somehow oozing confidence and anxiousness—the kind that inspires the highest of achievements, and lets you know you’re alive. A healthy fear in the pit of your stomach, where there are tirring “butterflies” that push people out of their comfort zone. It’s a smile from ear to ear. And it’s nothing but hope and light in Shelley’s eyes while he undergoes his first NFL training camp that is most distinguishable from any of his physical characteristics. There are no second chances at first impressions. Fortunately, Shelley doesn’t need a do-over.
Shelley’s smile isn’t perfect by any means. He may light up at the idea of making something of himself in Chicago. The small cornerback should be excited at proving he belongs with the NFL’s premier defense. But a smile complete with those freshly-minted braces is a work-in-progress, the ideal metaphor for the burgeoning stage of the 22-year-old’s career. In due time, Shelley’s grin will likely be picturesque after each individual supportive metal bracket is removed from his pearly whites. The only reasonable aspiration is that his playing days with the Bears matches a similar rapid trajectory.
Until his maturing chompers are finely-tuned enough to be revealed to the world, Shelley knows he has sufficient time to ingratiate himself to the oft-intimidating reality that is the NFL. But not too much time; the Bears are prepared to win a lot and they’re prepared to win now. Shelley and every blossoming aspect about him, be it aesthetic or acutely related to football, can come along for that roller coaster ride. Or he sit on the sidelines.
Something stands out about a man forced to make a positional switch from the outside to the slot. He’s already punched his ticket for wherever the Bears are heading. Whenever they plan to leave the station, his bags are packed and he’s sipping a ginger ale in his seat.
“All of this has been a pretty smooth transition for me,” Shelley said. “I feel like my skill set allows me to play everywhere interchangeably, and it’s clicking fast.”
The Bears are returning nine of 11 starters from the reigning No. 1 defense. They should once more be a devastating force offenses struggle to game-plan for. But that doesn’t come with its question marks. The since-departed Bryce Callahan left a sizable gap in the middle of Chuck Pagano’s voice. A hole the Bears will, for the time being, attempt to fill with veteran Buster Skrine. But any good team, any contender, always has an ace-in-the-hole. A sleeper lying in the wings for his moment. In this instance, that’s Shelley. The Bears are bullish on their primary 2019 sixth-round pick’s propensity to adjust quickly and take over for Skrine. If affirmation their belief is necessary, try and sell a rookie starter to a defense and team on the cusp of a Super Bowl. That often takes patience, a grating patience where you have to resist pulling your hair out. In a leap of faith involving the ability of a player who has never taken an NFL field, let alone seen any meaningful snaps, there has to be an element of courage involved.
The Bears, Shelley especially, aren’t lacking either characteristic.
“This is a little different for me, but it’s nothing I’m not used to,” Shelley said, alluding to both his position switch and adaptation to the league. “Being on the outside my whole career in college had me go up against the best of the best every week. Moving inside takes time, but it’s nothing compared to what I used to do.”
A huge reason Shelley’s felt so welcome with the Bears is the tutelage of Pagano. The 58-year-old coach has been around the highest level of football for the better part of almost two decades. He’s renown as a secondary guru. From Cleveland and Oakland, to Baltimore, Indianapolis, and now Chicago, Pagano’s gathered an encyclopedic perspective on every size, style, and label one can feasibly adorn to cornerbacks. He can and has coached them all. He can and has helped them become exceptional.
The wide-eyed Shelley is just the latest raw ball of clay Pagano’s enjoying molding and fiddling with.
“He’s been amazing, I feel like I can ask him anything,” Shelley said of his exposure to Pagano’s experience. “He’s a coach who has been around who puts guys like me in good positions. And I’m in a good place because of it. It works out.”
Pagano doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the recognition for getting Shelley to acclimate to his new role and new environment. Novices like the rookie nickel cornerback would be caught with their heads barely above water if not for trusted and accomplished veterans. This is a group effort between coaches and players. On this Bears team, Shelley’s confidants have been First-Team All-Pro Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. Any rookie would be hard-pressed to seek out a more capable duo to digest any bit of information from. Two savvy teachers eagerly passing wisdom onto their green companions considering every edge.
“They’ve been in this league and they’ve been successful in this league,” said Shelley of his Bears mentors. “They just tell me make plays and not think about anything else. It’s always good to see guys like this who have been Pro Bowlers and you can pick up on it. It just means you have so much to learn from them and you can always get better because of them.”
What inflates Shelley’s lofty designs at making something of himself is a healthy self-assurance in his individual prowess. The Bears’ coaches and stars can give him the keys to the car, but he still has to drive it. At a certain stage, they won’t be able to ride shotgun. They can’t map out every step of his drive. He’ll have to fend for himself and travel the road alone whenever necessary. He has to carve out a path for himself eventually.
It’s here where Shelley is not only built for success, but hard-wired for every advantage that comes in the package deal.
“Oh man, I’m on a Tour de France bring-into-shape mission,” Shelley said, describing his play style. “I’m always in the right place at the right time, and can get my hands on the ball. If that becomes a turnover, great. If not, I know I still made something happen.”
Shelley knows this vision of his football dexterity grades out as incomplete without a distinguished resume to sell. A ledger of accolades and awards proclaiming him to be peerless among fellow rookies and adept veterans alike. That’s why he refuses to do anything but aim his metaphorical crosshairs high. Embracing ambition has a calming effect. So does keeping it as a consistent reminder of the future. The benefits that can come from fully immersing one’s self are unfathomable.
Chances are Shelley will be breaking away and making his name known to teammates and rivals sooner rather than later. Like the braces on his teeth, the restrictive metal on his inexperience will peel off when ready. And out will come something, or someone, shining.
“I want to accomplish everything as a rookie. All-Rookie Team, Pro Bowl, First-Team All-Pro,” Shelley said. “I really don’t have limitations on myself. I feel like everything will work itself out as long as I’m working hard and coming to work every day and competing. But I know there will be obstacles. I’m prepared for it all.”
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.