A.Q. Shipley can feel people counting him out, again.
The Cardinals center is making his way back from a torn ACL at an age – 33 – in which most NFL players are already retired. Mason Cole replaced him in the starting lineup a year ago, and considering the age difference, the 23-year-old Cole would make more sense as a long-term answer at the position.
But common sense said the 6-foot-1, 307-pound Shipley was not big enough to make it to the NFL; it said he would be nothing more than a career backup; it said the Cardinals’ previous center of the future candidate, Evan Boehm, would take Shipley’s starting spot after Shipley had finally secured it.
Shipley defied all of those expectations. His competition with Cole in 2019 is the latest chapter in a book packed with adversity.
“I’ve always thrived with my back against the wall,” Shipley said. “When you come into the league and you’re told you’re too short and your arms (are too short), you always have a chip on your shoulder, right? That’s the mindset that drives me. That may be the mindset that crumbles others. Whether or not everybody reacts that way, I don’t know, but I react very strongly to competition, adversity, things of that nature.”
Shipley started all 32 games in 2016 and 2017. He was penciled in as the starter last year. The season-ending knee injury in training camp on Aug. 4 crushed him.
“It’s hard when you put all the work in and do things right, and then with a snap of a finger,” Shipley said, “it’s over.”
On his way home from State Farm Stadium that fateful day, Shipley talked with former quarterback Carson Palmer on the phone. Palmer suffered two torn ACLs in his career and rattled off some silver linings: Shipley was hurt early enough that it would only affect one season. It was an injury to his left leg, which meant he could still drive with his right.
“There were four of five things he kind of laid out which took my mindset from a very dark spot to at least above water,” Shipley said.
Ten months after the injury, Shipley is back on the field with his teammates for offseason work, where coach Kliff Kingsbury said the competition for the starting center spot is an open one.
Shipley watched the game from a coach’s perspective last season, and that could be an asset in this battle. The Cardinals are expected to have plays that could change depending on the defensive alignment, and Kingsbury said his center will help dictate those calls based on what he sees.
“Particularly for a young quarterback, if you can take some things off him as he’s figuring things out and allow him to play and let those guys get us in the right situation at times, I think that’s a big plus,” Kingsbury said.
Cole learned a lot on the job last year, and he is one of several second-year players on offense with intriguing futures. With a first-year head coach, a rookie quarterback and three rookie receivers, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Cole wins the job and grows as part of a youthful foundation.
Shipley understands that train of thought, but count him out at your own peril.
“That’s just part of what it is (to overcome), right?” Shipley said. “I’ve played in over 100 games. I think I bring a lot of knowledge to the game to help out a young quarterback. If that’s not seen, I don’t know what to say. It’s not like I didn’t start a lot of games over the last seven seasons. So I feel good about it, and I’ll do everything I can to be the guy. I think I am. I hope I am.”
Images of the Cardinals taking part in their 2019 offseason practices