There are underdog stories, and then there’s the story of Adam Thielen’s road to the NFL. Thielen grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minn., rooting for the Vikings and playing wide receiver, the same position as his favorite Vikings, Randy Moss and Cris Carter. He attended Minnesota State on a $500 football scholarship, borrowed money from his father to attend a regional combine, went undrafted in 2013 but earned an invite to Vikings camp, spent that season on the practice squad, and eventually worked his way onto the roster as a special teams ace.
In 2016, in his fourth year in the league, Thielen had a breakout season: 69 catches, 967 receiving yards and five touchdowns. This year his numbers are even better—through nine games he has 56 receptions and is third in the league in receiving yards, with 793, behind only Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins.
So, has Adam Thielen arrived? The MMQB explored that question in this week’s Talking Football:
Tim Rohan: You grew up in Minnesota as a Vikings fan. You’ve said you idolized Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Take me to your backyard—did you grow up trying to emulate those guys?
Thielen: Yeah, for sure. You can even throw Jake Reed in there. Those were the guys that really made me want to play receiver, made me want to play football. I’d be in the backyard wearing my Randy Moss jersey, my Cris Carter jersey, trying to make those catches those guys were making on Sundays.
Rohan: During your childhood, the Vikings gave their fans a lot of disappointment. The 1998 season, 2000, the Favre interception against the Saints. What do you remember about those moments?
Thielen: I definitely remember those moments. I remember those being really, really good teams and really fun to watch. Obviously, in this league, getting to the NFC Championship Game is very difficult. And in both [1998 and 2009] they had a pretty good opportunity of winning and going to the Super Bowl. It was definitely a bummer, especially with those teams being so dynamic and fun to watch.
Watching every game and being a big fan, it was kind of frustrating. But it’s kind of cool now, because I get to see the other side of things. I get to see how difficult it is to make it that far and how good a team you really have to have.
Rohan: You went to Mankato State, and the Vikings had their training camp in Mankato for years. Did you ever go watch them train?
Thielen: That was a cool thing for me. When we were out there doing seven-on-sevens and things like that, we’d be out there on the same fields the Vikings were practicing on. I got a firsthand look at what those guys were doing. After practice I’d go and watch what the receivers are doing for their drills, just focusing on what those guys were doing to be successful. Then I’d try to implement that into my game.
I’ve always been a very observant person, a visual person. That’s my way of learning. Things on paper, notes and things like that, don’t help me the same way as watching things live. I was just able to pick up on things visually.
Rohan: After college, you didn’t get invited to the combine. You had to go to a Regional combine, and then a Super Regional. You wrote in your story on The Players’ Tribune about how you had to pay your own way to those events. How did you scrape together that money?
Thielen: I started off with my loan money that I had for that semester. Then once I was invited to the Super Regional, I had to get a flight out to Dallas. Once I was there, everything was pretty much paid for. But with the flight—my dad was happy for me, and he was able to help me out with the flight.
Rohan: Before you tried out for the Vikings, someone got you an interview for a dental equipment sales internship, right? What do you remember about that interview? How close were you to doing that?
Thielen: I accepted the job, because at that time I didn’t know what was going to happen. At that time I hadn’t gone to the Super Regional yet. The draft hadn’t happened yet. I accepted the internship, and it was going to start after school was done. I was just kind of playing it out.
The one thing I do remember from that interview was one of the questions. You know, they ask a lot of different questions, random questions. One of them was, what would your dream job be? What would you do if you could have any job in the world? I said, play in the NFL. We both kind of laughed after I said it. It’s kind of funny, looking back at that.
Rohan: So then you go to the rookie tryout, get invited to training camp. And then you get cut and then placed on the practice squad. What was that moment like for you, knowing I don’t have to go sell dental equipment, I can be on the practice squad for at least one year?
Thielen: Well, it’s kind of weird. In the NFL, there’s never really that moment where you’re like, Hey, I made the team. Or: Hey, you made the practice squad. You just kind of show up the next day and go to work. Nobody really says anything. You just kind of go to work. Honestly, I was just so in the moment. I was just trying to make sure I stayed on the team. In this league you just never know week to week. Somebody gets injured, something happens to you, and they have to cut you. I was just so focused on getting better and proving that I belonged every day. Because if you have a couple bad weeks in a row, you never know, you could be cut and never have an opportunity to get in the league again.
Rohan: You spent a year on the practice squad and then two more years as a backup, on special teams duty. In those three years, what were you doing to improve your game and prove you deserved more playing time?
Thielen: I was trying to compete every single day. Try to beat those starters every day in practice, when I was on the practice squad. Just prove that I belong, that I can play with the starters. That was a great opportunity for me to gain confidence from the coaching staff. Like, hey, this guy is consistently beating our starters, so why can’t he be a player in this league?
Every day I was able to learn what works in the NFL, what doesn’t work. Learn how to beat bigger, stronger corners, how to get off the press. And then the biggest thing for me was special teams. If I hadn’t been able to prove that I could play on special teams, there’s no way I would’ve been given an opportunity.
Rohan: You had nearly 1,000 yards last season, and it looks like you’ll eclipse that number this year. Have you had a moment yet where you said, Hey, I’ve arrived?
Thielen: No, there’s never been a moment like that for me. I’m still just trying to take it one week at a time, one day at a time. I mean, I think in this league, if you relax and say, Hey, I made it, I think you can get lost in the shuffle pretty easy, because there’s a lot of guys who can play at a high level, and there’s always someone coming for your job. There’s a new draft every year, a new free agent who wants to be a starter and come for your job. You’ve got to prove it every day.
Rohan: You got a new contract this offseason. Going from undrafted to having a multimillion dollar contract (four years, $19.2 million, $4 million guaranteed), what was that like? What did you splurge on?
Thielen: Honestly, my wife and I just kind of live the same lifestyle that we’ve always lived. We were able to buy a home and get that taken care of. And then, having a little man, we spent a lot of money on diapers and kid stuff.
Rohan: You played high school football in Minnesota, you played college football in Minnesota, you’re playing professionally in Minnesota. What’s that like? Do you get a lot of ticket requests on Sundays?
Thielen: I do get a lot of requests. Whether it be for jerseys, signing things, trying to get people tickets. But it’s all good. We’re very blessed and thankful.
Rohan: Looking back, was there any point along your journey here when someone told you that you should give up on football and do something else?
Thielen: Every step of my journey. I had a coach when I was getting recruited say maybe you should play basketball at a Division III level, because you’re not good enough to play football in college. Same with the NFL. When I said I was going to train for the NFL and try to make it, I had coaches say, hey maybe you should find a [real] job or try to play in the Arena League or something like that.
I’ve always had that, which is great for me. I love that. I love when people doubt me. I love when people don’t think that I’m good enough to play at a certain level, not good enough to be a starter, things like that. That’s the stuff that drives me. That’s the stuff that I think about constantly when I’m out there working at practice.
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