Made in Minnesota


Like most 23-year-olds fresh out of college, I had a job interview.

It was May 2013, and my senior year of football at Minnesota State–Mankato had ended a few months earlier. I still wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do after college, but I knew a guy who knew a guy at a place called Patterson Dental, and he put in a good word for me.

The job was … well, basically, I’d be selling dental equipment. It was actually more of an internship, but it was a pretty decent opportunity at a really good company. So I put on a suit and tie and went in for an interview. It was a good interview. But I remember that at one point, the interviewer asked me one of those cliché interview questions.

“If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

He’d obviously know I was lying if I said, “To be in dental equipment sales!” So I told him the truth.

“To play in the NFL.”

The guy’s head kind of popped up, and he gave me this … look. I don’t know how to really describe it, but I knew that look because it was one I had seen before — only a few months earlier, actually. It was a few days after my last college game and I came home to my girlfriend Caitlin — who’s now my wife — and said, “You know what? I want to play in the NFL, so I’m gonna give it a shot and see what happens.”

And she gave me that same look.

Like, Really?

Then she said, “You sure you don’t want to just get a normal job?”

She didn’t say it in an unsupportive way, but more like … let’s be realistic. And she was right. She’s always been there to balance me out — never lets me get too high or too low — and this was a perfect example of that. Making it to the NFL was pretty unlikely. I was an unknown wide receiver from a small Division II school. I wasn’t on any NFL teams’ radars. If I was going to go for it, I needed a backup plan. So I decided that I would start training, but at the same time, I’d also look around for other jobs in case it didn’t work out.

Patterson Dental was a backup plan.

And later that week, when I went to Vikings rookie camp, I would find out whether or not I needed it.

Growing up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, I was a huge Vikings fan. When I would play football in my backyard, I would pretend I was Cris Carter or Randy Moss. It was watching those guys and that ’98 Vikings team that really made me fall in love with football and want to be a wide receiver.

But looking back now, I realize that when I watched them play, I never really thought about what it probably took for those guys to make it to that level — or what it would take for me to get there.

What I’ve learned is that everybody’s journey is different.

Pat Christman/Mankato Free Press

I wasn’t recruited out of high school. I actually thought basketball would be my sport in college. So after I graduated, I was planning on going to a Division III school to play basketball. And wherever I went, I was also going to try to play football.

But then, about two weeks before summer football camp started, I got a call from the head coach at Minnesota State–Mankato.

It wasn’t a long conversation. Basically he said, “We got 500 bucks for you. Come to Mankato.”

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a $500 scholarship. And that wasn’t even going to be enough to cover my books. But it was better than what I was being offered by anybody else, which was … nothing. So I didn’t even hesitate.

“Yep,” I said. “I’m in. Let’s do it.”

I didn’t go to Mankato thinking it was a stepping-stone to the NFL. I just wanted to keep playing football. Which was kind of my thought process when — after a pretty good career at Mankato — I decided to give the NFL a shot. In the back of my mind, I had always dreamed of playing in the NFL. But when I decided to really go for it, it was mostly because I really just wanted to keep playing. I didn’t want it to end.

And I figured, What’s the worst that could happen? So what if I don’t make it. As long as I could look back and know that I gave it my best shot, I’d be able to live with that.

So I started training with this guy Tommy, one of my college teammates, and started researching every way possible to get myself in front of NFL scouts. Mankato didn’t have a pro day, and I wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. But what I found out was that there’s a circuit of smaller combines all over the country for the guys who don’t get invited to the big combine in Indianapolis — guys from smaller schools who might be undersized, or just flat-out unknown.

You know, guys like me.

Adam Thielen

It was kind of a mixed bunch, though. You’d have a guy from a Division I school doing drills next to a middle-aged fat guy who looked like he never played football in his life. It was kind of crazy.

Also, there are no scouts at these combines. I thought there would be, but it turned out to be just the few guys who were running the event. So basically you work out and then your results get sent to all 32 NFL teams. If they like what they see, you might get invited to the Super Regional combine, where scouts from every team show up to evaluate you in person.

Oh, and you have to pay your own way, too.

That year, it cost $275 to participate in the Regional combine. Throw in money for gas, food and a hotel room, and it’s a lot for an unemployed 23-year-old who’s fresh out of college.

But I told myself that I was going to do everything in my power to make it to the NFL, so I jumped in a car with Tommy and one of our buddies and drove to Chicago.

At the combine, I ran the 40, did some drills, lifted some weights and got measured. When it was over I was given a login to a website where my results would be posted — I wasn’t told when they would be up, just that it would be within the next couple of days. So my buddies and I left the combine, went and got a Chicago deep-dish pizza — my first cheat meal since I had started training seriously for the NFL — and went back to our hotel room. I basically just sat at the desk all night with my laptop out, clicking the refresh button every few minutes and hoping my results would show up.

My thought process was: It all comes down to my 40 time. I knew I had great hands. I knew I could run good routes. I thought I had a lot of the tools it would take to catch teams’ attention if they saw me in person.

But I also knew that for NFL scouts, the 40 time is what matters more than anything. Because you can’t teach speed. And if I could run in the 4.4–4.5 range, that might stand out enough on paper to get me to the next stage, and maybe even into a rookie camp.

I will say that it’s a pretty nerve-racking feeling to have the fate of your childhood dream come down to one click of the refresh button — and I don’t think I took my finger off it the whole night. My buddies were just hanging out, watching TV or whatever, but I was glued to my computer screen. Every few minutes, click.

And each time, nothing.


Out of nowhere, the whole screen populated. I sat up in my chair and my buddies stood up and leaned over behind me, scanning the page for my 40 time … and there it was:


I jumped out of that desk chair for the first time all night. We started screaming and high-fiving, and then I immediately called Caitlin and told her the news.

She was so proud.

And that 4.45 was enough to get me invited to the Super Regional combine (I had to pay for those flights, too), where I performed pretty well, and even got pulled aside by a few scouts who asked me to send them some game film.

The draft came and went, and I wasn’t picked. But I was kind of expecting that.

What I didn’t expect was not getting signed as an undrafted free agent. I thought I had done enough to have a team at least bring me in to see what I could do.

But then I got invited to two rookie camps. One was the Carolina Panthers.

The other was the Minnesota Vikings.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The little kid inside me went crazy. The Vikings!

But the unknown wide receiver from Mankato inside me knew that it was just an invite. Nothing was guaranteed. I still needed to work hard, and I still needed a backup plan.

Which is what brought me to Patterson Dental.

It’s funny … at the end of the interview, the guy sort of implied that they might offer me the position, and I said to him, “Hey, I’d really like to work for you, but I kind of have this tryout this weekend. With the Vikings. And if everything goes well and an opportunity pops up, I kind of have to take it.”

He was definitely surprised. Dream job, right?

But he was also very supportive.

I told him I would be in touch to let him know how it went.

The weird thing about rookie camp is that, it’s not necessarily a “tryout” in the traditional sense. You’ve basically got all the guys the team drafted and all the undrafted free agents they signed, but that’s not enough players to run a full practice. So they invite 30 or 40 other guys to round it out.

I was one of those other guys.

But it is a tryout in the sense that you’re on the same field with the guys who got drafted. You’re competing against guys who are fighting to make the team — some who will definitely make the team — and the coaches are watching. So if you do enough to stand out, you might catch somebody’s eye and create an opportunity for yourself.

I learned the whole playbook  — the same one the vets take all off-season to learn — in a couple of days because I knew that to give myself the best chance to stand out, I had to go out there and play fast. I didn’t have time to be thinking.

The camp consisted of five practices over the course of three days. On the first day, I was playing with the third group, which was basically the lowest group. The guys who got drafted ran with the ones, the undrafted free agents with the twos, and the threes were basically the guys who didn’t have a real shot at making the 90-man roster.

By the end of the camp, I was running with the twos and taking some reps with the ones. I was getting opportunities to go up against guys who would become legit NFL players, and I was doing pretty well.

Jerry Holt/TNS/ZUMA Wire

But I didn’t expect much to come of it because the Vikings basically already had their 90-man roster set. So even though I thought I had done enough to stand out, I didn’t think there was room for me. So after the third day of camp, I packed my stuff up and got ready to go home.

Then one of the coaches asked me to come up to the office. The coaches said they liked what they had seen, but that, as I expected, their roster was already set.

But then they said they were going to sign me anyway.

They had cut another wide receiver — somebody they had already paid a signing bonus to — just to make room for me.

That was probably the coolest moment for me because it just felt so … I don’t know. Just knowing that all the hard work I had put in — all the training, the trip to Chicago, the playbook cram — it all paid off. It all amounted to something. It amounted to me being able to execute and make plays to the point where they actually had to cut somebody they had already made a financial commitment to, just to make sure they locked me in.

That felt pretty good.

I called Caitlin and told her the news and went home and celebrated with my family.

Then I called the guy at Patterson Dental and told him how much I appreciated his time and consideration.

But I wouldn’t be needing that internship.

When I was in high school, at the beginning of every football season, we would have a picture put in our locker. It was a photo of the Metrodome. That’s where the state championship game was played every year, so that was the goal.

Get to the Metrodome.

I loved the Metrodome growing up. I got to go to a couple of games there when I was young, and it was just the coolest experience. It was so loud. The atmosphere was awesome. The crowd was always crazy. It was just a special place.

I never got the opportunity to play in a state title game there. But in 2013, as a member of the Vikings’ practice squad, I got the chance to play on that turf, in a Vikings uniform, during the preseason.

It wasn’t quite the way I had imagined it because it was just a preseason game, so the atmosphere wasn’t as intense as a regular-season game. But for me, it was a dream come true. Running out onto that turf was one of those moments where I thought, I’m here. I made it.

Every day I feel like I’m writing another chapter in my story and living another piece of my childhood dream.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a few of those moments since deciding to make a run at the NFL. Playing in the Metrodome was one. Making the roster after that rookie camp was another. And even though I got cut after my first training camp in 2013, I still felt like I had made it because the Vikings signed me to the practice squad. So I was part of the team. I got to wear a Vikings uniform to work every day, which — I don’t know about you, but for me, it sure beats a suit and tie.

But I think the moment when I really knew I had made it — when I felt like I wasn’t trying to prove myself anymore, but I had proved myself — was last season, in Week 5, at home against the Texans.

Anybody who knows me or has followed my career knows the game I’m talking about. It was a big opportunity for me because Stefon Diggs was out with an injury, and I knew my team needed me to step up.

It turned out to be a breakout game for me. It was my first 100-yard receiving game, and I scored my second career touchdown.

I remember my phone blowing up after that game, and just feeling all the love from my family and all the people who had supported me throughout my journey, especially the people from college and the community where I grew up. Minnesota is a blue-collar state. We don’t care about the spotlight. We just like to work hard.

And play hard, too.

I like to think that that Minnesota mentality has served me pretty well. The odds have pretty much always been stacked against me, but I kept my head down, worked hard and trusted that the rest would take care of itself.

David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Gett

That’s why that Texans game was so special for me. It was the culmination of all those years of hard work and believing in myself. I had proven to myself and to the world that I was capable of competing at the highest level against a top-notch NFL defense. I had a beautiful wife and a loving family and a community of people supporting me. I just remember after that game feeling so grateful for all the blessings in my life.

Then, two days later, I got one more blessing.

My son, Asher.

When Caitlin gave birth, I was still getting caught up on answering calls and texts from after the Texans game. It all happened that quickly. Luckily the following week was our bye week, so I got to be there for her and spend plenty of time with our new son.

It was just such a special time for me, between what was happening on the field and at home. I was carving out a role in the Vikings offense, and my family was growing. My life was happening, and it was just an amazing feeling, like everything was coming full circle.

I feel like it still is, honestly. It’s been a year since that Texans game and since Asher’s birth, and every day I feel like I’m writing another chapter in my story and living another piece of my childhood dream.

And it still hits me every time I go to my locker on game day and I see the Vikings jersey hanging up in my locker with my name on the back. I mean, I grew up watching this team, but never got to see the Vikings win a Super Bowl. I’ve witnessed the same heartbreak over the years that all Vikings fans have. The kick in ’98. The 2000 NFC championship. The Favre interception against the Saints. There have been so many great players and great teams for as long as I’ve been watching the Vikings, but we’ve never gotten over that hump and won a championship.

Now, I get to put on the purple and gold and help my team work towards that goal.

For the college kid who was overlooked and still wants to prove every day that he can make it in this league, that’s just a part of my journey. It’s the next step. The next goal to achieve.

But for the little kid inside who grew up watching this team?

It really is the coolest thing in the world.