A.Q. Shipley knew the speculation was out there, so he plugged his ears and screamed ‘la la la’ like Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber.”
Just over a year ago, the Cardinals’ veteran center suffered a torn ACL during the Red-White Practice at State Farm Stadium. It ended Shipley’s 2018 season and seemingly put his career in peril.
“I thought he was done,” guard Justin Pugh said. “When I talked to him, I was like, ‘Dude, you’ve done 10 years. You hit the decade mark. Why would you want to come back for another season?’”
The early 30s are a tenuous time for any professional football player. Some lose the desire to keep playing. Others aren’t given the chance, as teams go younger and cheaper.
For the briefest of moments – as the torn ACL diagnosis was confirmed -- Shipley worried he had played his final down in the NFL.
And then he got back to work.
“There were probably lot of people saying, ‘Oh, he’s 33 and he’s coming off a knee, there’s no way,’” Shipley said. “It just drove me. … If I had (any concern), I couldn’t let it creep in. There were days that were harder than others going through that thing. My wife will tell you, it was probably just as hard on her the last year because I was so one-track minded. I knew where I wanted to go and where I wanted to be. I attacked it, and here I am.”
The “here” was back in the locker room at State Farm Stadium, a couple hundred feet from the MRI tube that delivered the horrible news last August.
Now, Shipley is healthy again and a virtual lock to be the starting center when the regular season begins. He is still listed as a co-starter with Mason Cole on the team’s unofficial depth chart, but Cole has been filling in at left guard for an injured Pugh, giving Shipley all of the center snaps with the starters.
Even though his rehabilitation was a roller coaster, there was an extreme high early in the process when the Cardinals signed Shipley, an impending free agent, to a one-year extension. It caught many people by surprise, as teams generally wait to see how players rebound from serious injuries.
“I’ve never seen a team extend a guy after an ACL injury, especially in Year 10,” Pugh said. “I’m sure there are examples out there, but in my seven years, I’ve never seen a team do that. It just speaks to the character of A.Q. and how he is respected in this building.”
There had been preliminary talks about a deal before the injury, and Shipley was touched that the team still offered him the contract afterwards.
“It was one of the most genuine things an organization could do,” Shipley said. “It was awesome. I will forever hold them in a high place for that.”
The 1-year, $1.6 million contract seemed a risk at the time but could end up being a bargain. Shipley ingratiated himself quickly to new coach Kliff Kingsbury and seems likely to play a pivotal role in 2019.
“As soon as I got here, he was one of the first people I met,” Kingsbury said. “He was in that training room rehabbing every single day. I don’t think he took a vacation. He was up there every single day that I saw. So you could tell he was hungry. He came back more fit, in better shape, than he’s ever been, and it’s been on display out here during camp.”
The Cardinals are bringing a fresh look to the NFL behind Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray, but the experience of Shipley shouldn’t be discounted. He can help Murray identify blitzes and notice tendencies the rookie may otherwise miss.
“Working with him has been great,” Murray said. “Having a veteran center has definitely helped me out a lot.”
There was a silver lining to the knee injury, as the year off from football let all of Shipley’s accumulated aches and pains fully heal. He takes rest days like the other veterans in camp, but has otherwise been a fixture on the field.
“The first padded practice, I said, ‘You deserve this,’” Pugh said. “‘You worked your butt off to get back out there and play.’ I was so happy for him.”
Murray figures to be the Cardinals’ quarterback for years to come. Pugh is under contract for four more seasons. Shipley, meanwhile, is on an expiring deal and not getting any younger, so critics might say he’s on borrowed time in the NFL.
Look closely, and you’ll see Shipley putting his index fingers in his ears again.
“I’ll go as long as they want to keep paying me,” Shipley said. “If I can still bring something to an organization, and they feel that way, too, I’ll play as long as I can.”
Images from Monday's training camp practice at State Farm Stadium