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‘He always had a plan’ - Adam Thielen’s unlikely rise to NFL stardom

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) looks on following the game against the Los Angeles Rams at U.S. Bank Stadium. Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

On the outskirts of Detroit Lakes, the Johnson family made a dirt path through the woods to the nearest home, a quarter of a mile away. Seven-year-old Janaye Johnson and her younger brother, Davis, needed a way to get to the house of the boy that moved in a couple years previous. He was in the same grade as Janaye, which felt like a miracle to her, as she was in the market for someone to play with, and the market was slim in those parts.

It didn’t hurt the boy had a backyard perfect for football. And he didn’t mess around, mowing lines into the lawn, and laying out string and cones for boundaries.

Janaye was pretty sure she was given the title of all-time quarterback because the two boys were afraid to tackle a girl. She didn’t mind. She loved sports and was proud of the spiral she could throw. The boy next door, wearing either a worn-out Cris Carter or Randy Moss jersey, always asked her to throw where he had to dive or near the sidelines, so he could practice his toe drag.   

“He was insane at backyard football,” she said. “He took it seriously.”

Thielen as a Laker. Submitted photo

To Janaye, the boy next door will always be Adam. To the rest of the country, he’s Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen.

“I never really thought about (the NFL),” Thielen said of those backyard football games. “I was just playing football, just being out there with my friends, trying to emulate what (Carter and Moss) were doing out there on Sundays.”

Two decades later, one of the top selling NFL jerseys is Thielen’s No. 19. He’s fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and was announced as a Pro Bowl starter Tuesday. There’s a good chance kids are emulating him in the backyard. Alex and David Schuh most certainly will be in Tracy, Minn.

Every year Alex and David went to Vikings training camp in Mankato, Minn., with their dad and grandpa. In 2015, grandpa scored some field passes, so 9-year-old Alex and 8-year-old David could be close to the action. The boys were thrilled to see how big the players were and the sounds the pads made when they collided.

The highlight of their day was when Thielen, who they didn’t know at the time, came up and talked to them for 10 minutes. Alex and David are smaller boys, but Thielen told them it didn’t matter what size they were and to keep playing with their hearts.

Thielen knew all about being underestimated, graduating from Detroit Lakes (Minn.) High School at 165 pounds and having the University of North Dakota say he was too slow to play football at UND.

What Thielen didn’t know was Alex and David’s father had died a few months previous.

“It was so much fun to see them smile, something we didn’t see often in the previous five months, as they recounted the story afterwards,” said Stacy, Alex and David’s mother.

In his letter to Santa this year, David, who used to be a Green Bay Packers fan, wrote he wanted a Thielen jersey. Stacy said Santa told her the Scheels in Mankato, Minn., was sold out, but Santa says he has it covered.

There’s this guy Adam Thielen

It wasn’t just football played in the backyard at the Thielen household. His favorite sport would depend on the season.

“One thing that always sticks with me is whatever sport he was playing was his favorite sport,” said former Concordia football player Josh Herzog, Thielen’s best friend. “During golf season golf was his favorite sport. He would focus on that and then it’d be football season and he was all about football and then basketball. He would see a future in every sport because that’s which one was in season. It’s pretty incredible how much success he had in any sport even playing volleyball with his sisters.”

His mom ran the junior golf program in Detroit Lakes, so when Thielen was 5 years old he’d sit on the green and listen to pros give lessons all day. When he got older, his mom would drop him off at the golf course and he’d spend all day playing golf. Jayne Thielen, Adam’s mom, used to have elderly men come up to her at the grocery story and say they had just played golf with her son.

“He would golf with men who were by themselves,” Jayne said. “He’s always been able to talk to people. He’s really social.”

Adam Thielen walks off the field with childhood friend Janaye Johnson after an NFL game in 2015. Submitted photo

Thielen left Detroit Lakes the school’s all-time leading scorer in basketball. As a senior, he decided to play golf instead of baseball and the Lakers won a state championship.

Former Detroit Lakes head football coach Flint Motschenbacher was a big proponent of football for Thielen. Motschenbacher joked maybe he should’ve thrown the ball more even though the Lakers went 9-1 in Thielen’s senior season, losing in the section championship.

“I think he had like 50 or 60 receptions in high school, but probably half went for touchdowns. When we got in trouble we went to him,” Motschenbacher said. “He wasn’t really physically impressive when he was younger, maybe 150 pounds dripping wet, but he could jump, he could go up and he had great hands. It was a like a highlight film in practice. Every day was like, ‘How the heck did he catch that?’”

He was an August birthday, so Thielen was always the youngest in his class. Herzog said their group of friends was always hard on him for being the youngest, and not being able to drive and what not. When Herzog turned 19, Thielen was 17. Thielen’s parents said they thought his class is what pushed him. Despite his age and size, he was recruited by Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Minnesota-Duluth and the UND for football.

Bubba Schweigert, the current head coach at UND, heavily recruited Thielen, but left UMD for Southern Illinois during Thielen’s senior year of high school. Jeff Jamrog left Mankato for an administrative job at the University of Nebraska during Thielen’s senior season as well.

Thielen celebrates a touchdown during his playing days at Minnesota State in Mankato, Minn.

As of late June, Thielen was set to go to Concordia to play Division III basketball and football. In his first week as Concordia head men’s basketball coach, Rich Glas had made a trip to Thielen’s house to recruit him.

“That was pretty much what I was going to do because I didn’t have any other options,” Thielen said. “I really did like the school and had a lot of friends going there.”

During the week of practice for the 2008 Minnesota All-Star football game, which features the best seniors in Minnesota, Thielen caught the eye of current Mankato East head coach Eric Davis, who was helping MSU-Mankato at the time. Motschenbacher was selected to coach one of the all-star teams that season, and Davis asked him about Thielen. The two went out for a drink and Motschenbacher told him all about Thielen.

“He said to us, ‘Hey, there’s this guy Adam Thielen. We should take a look at him,’” MSU-Mankato coach Todd Hoffner said. “We didn’t have any money. We had just moved from the NCC to NSIC, so we had to cut scholarships. All we had was $500. We now call it the Maverick 500. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we knew Adam would be a pro player, but what I am saying is if we had more money we would’ve given him more money.”

The $500 was enough for Thielen. He called his mom during the week of the all-star game and told her he was going to MSU-Mankato. A week later, he was off to Mankato to play Division II football.

“I never really thought, ‘Hey, I want to play this level. I want to play at that level,’” Thielen said. “I just took it one day at a time and try to do my best every day and let everything just play itself out.”

Adam, how fast are you?

A week after Thielen had completed his college football career at Mankato, his dad visited to have lunch with him. He had finished his collegiate career with 198 catches for 2,802 yards and 20 touchdowns in 46 games with the Mavericks. He had thought about playing football in Germany. A professor encouraged him to go to Germany, but Pete figured he’d ask his son what the plan was. Thielen told his dad he might try this regional combine in Chicago, since he wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. Pete was shocked.

“Oh, really? That’d be cool,” Pete said to his youngest child, pausing for a brief moment to try to figure out how to ask him something important. “Adam, how fast are you?”

Pete Thielen pages through one of the family scrapbooks. David Samson / Forum News Service

He was doing what any good parent would do. He was supporting his son’s dream, while at the same time bracing him for reality. Thielen didn’t have an answer for his dad. No one had recorded his 40-yard dash in a while.

“They only did 20s in Division II,” Pete said. “I knew if you were going to the NFL you got to be fast. He told me he was one of the fastest on the team, so that made me feel better.”

No one around him thought 4.45-second fast. But Thielen gambled the $275 for the combine plus hotel, food and gas to get to Chicago. Thielen knew he had the hands, could run routes, but he needed NFL speed. That’s what he got, running a 4.45 and getting an invite to the super regional combine in Dallas. Thielen jumped out of his chair in the hotel room when 4.45 came across the computer screen. He had been refreshing the site all night waiting for the results.

His dad helped pay for the trip to Dallas and even went with. Pete, a salesman for Foltz Building for the last 33 years, was able to talk some people into letting him in Cowboys Stadium to watch his son. He saw coaches for the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers talk to him.

The NFL draft came and went, as did free agency, and Thielen had no job in the NFL. In May of 2013, he was interviewing for an internship at Patterson Dental, which sells dental supplies. He was asked in the interview what job he would pick if he could pick anything in the world. He said, “To play in the NFL.”

Later that week, he went to Vikings rookie camp with an offer to intern at Patterson Dental in his back pocket. He was released by the Vikings on Aug. 31, 2013, but immediately signed to the practice squad. He’d never go back to Patterson Dental again.

He’s going to try to block this punt  

Pete said there’s been many moments that have brought tears to his eyes during his son’s football career. He got 45 tickets for his first preseason game, tearing up when Thielen ran through the tunnel for the first time wearing a Vikings uniform. He remembers watching his son go toe-to-toe playing defensive back against Cordarrelle Patterson at rookie camp when Thielen was nothing but an athletic body there to help improve draft picks.

He laughs when talking about the only time his son has been starstruck during this whole journey; when he was soaking in ice and Brett Favre walked in the training room. Thielen called his dad immediately.

Jayne still loves to hear her son’s name announced as a starter and watch him run out on the field. Like any mother, she can’t help but think of the four years worrying whether he’d make the team or not. Her youngest child consoled her, telling her at the very least he’d make contacts if this all came to an end. On March 15, 2017, she could take a breath, as he signed a three-year extension with the Vikings worth $27 million, 11 of which is guaranteed.

Both Pete and Jayne love the story of Thielen throwing his first touchdown reception into the crowd to his wife, Caitlin, who actually didn’t catch it. She had to walk up to the guy who snagged it and say, “I think that’s for me.”

She was Caitlin Graboski then, having said yes almost exactly a year previous when Thielen got down on one knee on the ice at Rice Park in St. Paul, Minn., and asked the girl who gave him a second chance in college to marry him. Caitlin, who both Pete and Jayne say keep Thielen grounded, was a soccer player at Iowa State. A friend of hers, who played soccer at Mankato, introduced her and Thielen on Skype. The two visited each other that summer, but went back to their schools and separate ways.

Adam and Caitlin Thielen. Photo courtesy Thielen Family

They weren’t speaking when Caitlin decided to transfer to Mankato to play soccer for her senior year. Thielen got another chance, and like so many of his chances he made it count. The two had a tradition of skating at Rice Park every year because Caitlin loves Christmas. It was cold that December day in 2013, so Thielen had trouble getting the box out of his jacket, and dropped it on the ice. She still said yes.

“She still gives me crap for that,” Thielen said.

On Nov. 11, 2016, they welcomed their son, Asher, to the world.

“It just made me realize how important family is and how much being good role model is,” Thielen said. “It showed me how important it is to have a great wife because she has a lot on her shoulders and does such a great job, and it makes you realize the important things in life.”

One moment Pete and Jayne gasp reliving is when Thielen scored his first touchdown.

Pete was in the stands watching his son bounce back and forth on the line as the

Carolina Panthers were set to punt on Nov. 30, 2014.

“He’s going to try to block this punt,” Pete said to anyone in the crowd around him who would listen.

Thielen did and returned the ball 30 yards for a touchdown.

“I’ll never forget that,” Jayne said. “We were screaming.”

Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings grabbed Thielen and started shaking him, yelling at him asking what he did with the ball because he knew he would want to keep it. Thielen wasn’t sure. Luckily, an equipment manager ran and got it. That ball is in a case at Thielen’s home.

The folklore of the kid from Detroit Lakes began.

“That was one of most memorable things in my football career,” Thielen said. “And the way it happened was pretty cool. I just remember pretty much blacking out and I remember blocking the punt and the ball being right there next to me. Just grabbed it and ran it in. If someone had told me that was how I was going to score my first touchdown in the NFL I would have said you’re crazy, but it was pretty cool.”

Full circle

His parents admit he never really looked head and shoulders above other kids on the field. They say people constantly ask them for the big secret to his success.

“I don’t think there is any secret,” Jayne said. “I really think that he always would set goals and stay focused and didn’t give up. He had a lot of people tell him he was too small, too slow and he wasn’t going to let people stop him. He’s always been little compared to the other kids and it probably made him work harder. He just wants to be a good role model for kids, and he wants kids to go for their dreams.

 Pete and Jayne Thielen - Dave Samson / Forum News Service

Even his best friend had his doubts. Herzog jokes that he drafted him around the 18th round in his fantasy football league this season. The pick is paying off.

“It was funny to see his picture there and I was like, ‘Well, it’s my best buddy, so I better pick him up,’” Herzog said. “He thought it was funny.”

His high school coach had a run-first offense and his college coach said he never would have guessed this. Now, his high school coach is headed to Florida for three months and pondering a trip to the Pro Bowl to see Thielen if he isn’t playing in the Super Bowl. His college coach is preaching his story to his players.

“He didn’t get a look from the NFL,” Hoffner said. “He forced his way on the scene by going to a combine and not taking no for an answer. You should never give up, even though people tell you you can’t do something. If you really want to do something bad enough you’ll do it. You are your own man. Adam has been an amazing story.”

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer chuckled when asked if he ever imagined Thielen would be picked for a Pro Bowl. Zimmer said it wasn’t until he discovered Thielen’s heart that he realized there was a chance.

As for his first quarterback from those backyard days, Janaye Johnson is a freelance photographer in Minneapolis. She took pictures at Rice Park, as Thielen asked Caitlin to marry him, their engagement photos, some of their family photos and on Dec. 6, 2015, she was at TCF Bank Stadium shooting photos for the Seahawks-Vikings game, featuring her favorite target in the backyard.

She’s taken photos of his NFL career happening and still doesn’t believe it.

“That was kind of a cool, full-circle moment for me,” Johnson said. “Being on the field, and being able to shoot him in his element was a surreal moment.”

There was one person who saw this coming.

“He always had a plan,” Jayne said. “He knew what he wanted.”

The legend of the kid from Detroit Lakes continues.

“Every day is an opportunity to get better,” Thielen said. “A lot of times I get frustrated with poor performances or poor play, so I’m just using the previous day to learn from and try to apply that to get better the next day. That doesn’t just come with football. That comes with life. You’re trying to be the best husband, trying to be the best father, things like that. Learning from mistakes and getting better the next day.”

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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