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Long walk home for Vikings’ ‘Mr. Mankato,’ Adam Thielen

Vikings receiver Adam Thielen signs autographs for fans after the team's morning practice Tuesday in Mankato, Minn., the Vikings' last training camp day in Mankato after 52 years. St. Paul Pioneer Press photo

As the Vikings walked off the field at Blakeslee Stadium for the final time Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 8, the memories, good and bad, came flooding back.

“Definitely will miss the fans,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Definitely will not miss the dorms.”

Robison is the longest-tenured player on the Vikings roster and has been making the pilgrimage to Minnesota State Mankato every summer for the past decade.

“It does not feel like 11 years,” he said with a laugh. “It passes by so fast. It seems like yesterday I was coming into my first training camp here.”

Robison then crossed the street and retreated to the dorms he was happy to leave behind. Adam Thielen, meanwhile, was still on the field, soaking up as much of the scenery as possible.

A four-year star with Minnesota State who posted the second-most receptions in school history (198), Thielen, 26, was the last player off the field Tuesday morning, signing autographs for every fan in the parking lot connected to the practice fields.

It was the least Thielen could do after everything Mankato has done for him throughout an unlikely rise from feel-good local story to NFL starter.

“I always tell people, if I was rookie somewhere else, no one would have any idea who I was and I probably wouldn’t get too much support,” said Thielen, a native of Detroit Lakes, Minn. “Just being a rookie when I was here and having the support I did definitely helped motivate me and keep me going.”

So while the Vikings leaving Mankato for good after 52 years serves as an official end of an era, it also serves as the closing of perhaps the most-important chapter in Thielen’s life. He made a name for himself at Minnesota State from 2009-12, then made a name for himself again in Mankato as an undrafted free agent with the Vikings.

Thielen attended a rookie tryout at Winter Park shortly after going undrafted and and ultimately signed a free-agent deal. He was released by the Vikings upon the conclusion of his inaugural training camp in 2013 but showed enough to immediately get signed to the practice squad.

He returned to Mankato the following year and established himself as a fan favorite en route to making the team to start the 2014 campaign.

“I get a lot of people saying  that they were my fan since I was on the practice squad and things like that,” Thielen said. “It’s obviously great to hear that, and I felt it and that’s probably the push that I needed to make the team.”

After a couple of seasons as top special-teams player, Thielen got his shot in the starting lineup last season and led the team with 967 receiving yards. In March, he signed a four-year contract to stay in Minnesota.

Asked whether he could have predicted this rise up the ranks, Thielen remained humble.

“I’ve never been a person to look too far in the future,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I knew if I focused on one play, one day at a time, then good things would happen.”

Thielen said Tuesday that he wasn’t feeling too emotional about leaving. Not yet. He predicted those emotions likely will hit him at this time next year.

“It’s probably not going to feel too different right now because it’s normal,” he said. “We’re breaking camp and ready to get on to these preseason games. I think next year it’ll probably kick in more when we’re not coming to Mankato. It will be a little different.”

“He’s Mr. Mankato,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “He went to school here, made it to the NFL, and created a great career for himself. It’s cool to see.”

A few hours after the walkthrough, Thielen was back out on the practice fields. He caught a 15-yard corner route during practice that drew a loud ovation from fans. Then, after practice, he stopped for about 10 minutes to sign for dozens of screaming fans.

Thielen retreated to the dorms with fans shouting his name as he disappeared. That building is perhaps the only thing Thielen isn’t going to miss about Mankato.

“Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “It’ll be bittersweet getting out of that dorm room.”

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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