Former Cobbers receiver Zylstra trying to create his 'own story' with the Vikings
The comparisons have already been made numerous times.
Former Concordia Cobbers wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, from Spicer, Minn., is a small college football player who is trying to make the NFL and earn a spot with the Minnesota Vikings, a story that is similar to a current Vikings Pro Bowl wide receiver.
Zylstra isn't surprised he's been likened to Adam Thielen, who is from Detroit Lakes, Minn. Like Zylstra, Thielen is a Minnesota kid who went to a non-NCAA Division I college before he pursued a pro career. Both Thielen and Zylstra went undrafted.
"As much as our stories are the same, there are some differences," Zylstra said. "I'm trying to create my own story now."
Zylstra's story included two seasons in the Canadian Football League where he led the league in receiving in 2017. In 16 games, he had 100 catches for 1,687 yards and five touchdowns.
"Everybody is their own player," Thielen said in June on the final day of a Vikings mandatory minicamp. "I don't necessarily like being compared to anybody else so I'm sure he doesn't like being compared to me."
In January, Zylstra signed a reserve/future contract with the Vikings, a non-guaranteed, three-year deal, which put him on the team's 90-man offseason roster. He will be competing for a spot on the team's 53-man roster or 10-man practice squad.
Vikings training camp is scheduled to start Tuesday, July 24, when rookies can report. Veterans are slated to report Friday, July 27.
"When you are coming into the training camp, you are trying to be an active player," Zylstra said. "That is what we're all competing for. ... It would have been nice to make it to the NFL right away. The path that I have now, it maybe was the best thing for me."
Zylstra took part in Vikings team OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamps in the spring and earlier this summer. He's also trained at ETS Elite Next Level in Oakdale, Minn., to prepare for the start of training camp.
"I'm a harsh critic of myself so I always thought that I could do better," Zylstra said. "By the end of it, I felt way more comfortable. I could read defenses a little bit more."
The 25-year-old Zylstra said his time in the CFL helped him learn how to be a professional, both on and off the playing field.
"Aside of the football thing, I learned how to be a pro," Zylstra said. "How to take care of my body better, the proper diet, how to get enough rest."
The art of route running is something Zylstra said he improved on while playing in the CFL and is something he's still working on improving.
"It's almost like a game for me," Zylstra said. "I'm almost competing against myself."
Zylstra said he's tried to absorb whatever he can when he's had a chance to watch and interact with established Vikings wide receivers like Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen had more than 1,200 receiving yards last season, while Diggs had 64 receptions for 849 yards and eight touchdowns.
"I'm watching every rep I can from them," Zylstra said. "They are so competitive out there and so focused in on what they're doing out there."
From Spicer, Minn., Zylstra was a Vikings fan growing up and idolized wide receiver Randy Moss, who wore No. 84 with the Vikings. Zylstra started his college career with the Augustana Vikings before transferring to Concordia. Concordia has an alumni event in Minnetonka, Minn, on Tuesday, July, 17, that Zylstra is scheduled to attend.
"Nothing that he's done surprises me at all," Cobbers head football coach Terry Horan said. "He was bound and determined to catch someone's eye. His work ethic is unbelievable. ... I think he's got a great opportunity."
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Zylstra finished his Cobbers career with 120 receptions for 1,932 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also rushed for 394 yards and five touchdowns on 25 attempts.
That has led Zylstra to this chance to make an NFL roster.
"It's exhilarating, it's nervous, it's scary," said Marcia Zylstra, Brandon's mom. "When it comes down to it the kid has given every ounce of his being to be where he is today. The kid has just such a great attitude. He believes in himself and believes in what he's doing. ... He does not get discouraged at all. I'm just amazed at what he has done so far."
Brandon Zylstra is focused on the making the most of this opportunity with the Vikings.
"It's obviously exciting," he said. "I have much bigger plans for myself so I try no to get too excited."