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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Adam Thielen and the long journey for undrafted free agents

By Matthew Coller

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The moment he took a jab step forward, it became clear that Jonathan Joseph hadn’t anticipated the possibility of Adam Thielen running a double-move route. He saw Sam Bradford cock his arm back and thought solely about a pick-six opportunity. The Houston Texans’ corner dug his foot into the turf and shot forward. Thielen turned up field and blew by him. Bradford’s masterful pass landed on target and the Minnesota Vikings’ wide receiver walked into the end zone to the soundtrack of the crowd’s crescendo.

Thielen has been in the NFL for three years, but, to paraphrase Notorious B.I.G., you’re nobody until somebody… picks you up in their fantasy league. When he made seven catches for 127 yards and that 36-yard touchdown in Week 5 against Houston, half of America went digging through their fantasy league’s free agent crop for his name. Another thing happened that day: With No. 1 receiver Stefon Diggs out of the lineup and the top corners on Thielen, he solidified himself within the organization as one of the team’s key playmakers.

When Thielen agreed to attend Minnesota State University, Mankato, he would have given the prospects of catching a touchdown from a former No. 1 overall pick inside a $1.2 billion stadium in front of 70,000 fans about the same odds as him running against Hillary or Donald in 2016.

His path from a town of less than 10,000 in Minnesota to Division-II standout to starting in the NFL is as much a model for success as a lesson about failure. It’s about dreams and dreams deferred.

Inside head coach Todd Hoffner’s dorm-sized office in Myers Fieldhouse, there’s a palm-sized photo of Adam Thielen on a cardboard slab with graphics of all the Mankato players who have spent time in the NFL. Recruits sit across from Hoffner in a leather chair, with the poster in view. From their seat, they can spot a plaque with all the team’s postseason appearances – most of them recent – and his championship trophies. There’s 12 canoe paddles under the poster, 11 of which represent the players and one purple one is for the 12th man.

Hoffner and Thielen both arrived at Mankato in 2008. The Mankato position came open after the once-prominent North Central Conference dissolved and four universities joined the North Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Think of it as the Big East going away and being forced to join the MAC. That moved the Augustana, St. Cloud and Mankato coaches to quit and opened the door for Hoffner, who had gone 42-28 as a head coach at Wisconsin-Eau Claire and acted as offensive coordinator at South Dakota. He took over at Mankato with about two weeks to sign players.

“The brevity of the situation was tough, and then there was actually getting somebody to sign, that was tough too,” Hoffner said. “We signed about four or five guys. Adam wasn’t one of them.”

Adam Thielen almost became a Division-III basketball player.

“I was playing four sports in high school and I didn’t really know what sport I wanted to play,” Thielen said. “I thought football was my best, but I liked basketball a little more at the time. There were a few D-III schools that wanted me to come play both.”

Two weeks before Mankato football camp opened, assistant coach Eric Davis, now the coach at Mankato East High School, met Thielen at an All-Star game called the Shrine Game and convinced him to join. They offered him a Cam Newton-esque scholarship.

“Because of the conference change and budget cuts, we couldn’t offer players a whole lot of money,” Hoffner said. “We gave him the M-500 or Maverick Scholarship. It’s more about giving somebody a scholarship for the sense of being a scholarship football player.”

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The NFL is like America. It’s full of problems – domestic violence, drug abuse, concussions, lack of worker’s rights and so on – but one of the things that makes it great is the sheer number of opportunities available. On the Vikings roster alone, there are 17 players who were undrafted. Of that group, there are five who will start on either offense or defense. They all have a story. Teams were concerned about guard Alex Boone’s off-field problems so they passed on him at the draft. Fullback Zac Line had to change positions from star running back at Southern Methodist to fullback in the NFL. Tom Johnson was believed to be too small to play defensive tackle.

Because of the number of roster spots and injuries, no other league comes close to the chances given to long-shots. In hockey, there’s one player per generation – Marty St. Louis in the 2000s – that is undrafted and becomes a superstar. Baseball has 40 rounds in its draft, so players in North America are rarely missed. In the NBA, forget about it. In the NFL, you routinely have players like Minnesota’s John Randle, who rise from undrafted out of Texas A&M Kingsville to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Football teams get criticized for missing Russell Wilson in the third round or having Ryan Leaf become a bust. Nobody ever looks at how they’ve done finding undrafted free agents, which can make all the difference in roster depth. The process of finding them has a touch of the Wild West to it.

“You have the draft, then you have ‘the free agent draft,’ is what we call it, and it’s controlled chaos,” Vikings assistant general manager George Paton said, occasionally pausing to watch to react to plays in the Cincinnati-Washington game. “You’re competing for these guys and you just hope you’re competing for the right guys. Not a lot of them make it, but every year or every other year you get a guy that sticks and can help you win football games.”

Undrafted players seem to fit into two categories: Good players from the local universities that are being given a chance and guys who are lottery tickets. Scouts scour the country looking for shot-in-the-dark players that have a particular element to their game that might translate – many times players who didn’t perform all that well in college.

“A lot of times these guys aren’t recommended by their college staffs,” Paton said. “Whether they don’t like them or character or they just don’t think they can play. Maybe someone takes a chance on them, they get better coaching or whatever. That’s why our college scouting staff does their due diligence and really grinds.

“A guy might not play well on tape but he runs well or you see a redeeming trait that’s worth bringing him in, even though he may not be a great player.”

Every team holds a rookie minicamp after the draft. Drafted players and between 30 and 40 undrafted free agents who were not signed as part of the “controlled chaos” period. Paton said the Vikings like to invite mostly local players to rookie camp. That’s how they found Thielen.

“A lot of players, their dream is to make it big time, in fact I don’t think there’s many that don’t have it,” Hoffner said. “At the Division-II level, the scouts all have a list and can you check every box. Is the character there? Adam’s character is impeccable…athleticism, check it, speed, check it, competitiveness, check it, prototype, check it. You can go right down the list.”

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Adam Thielen decided the greatest risk would be not taking one.

The 6-foot-3 wide receiver finished his career at Mankato as the team’s second all-time leading receiver with 197 catches, third in yards, third in touchdowns and third in punt return yards. Hoffner pointed to a board to the left of the leather chair. It lists postseason appearances. Thielen’s first year was the first NCAA postseason playoff game at home in Maverick football history. When Thielen first stepped on one of Mankato’s three practice fields – ones that Hoffner said he’s blessed to have – the coaching staff didn’t view him as the guy who would play a major role in turning around the program.

“We don’t time 40 [yard dashes] but we time 20s, which is an acceleration test, and on the day that he arrived, he was not the fastest player,” Hoffner said, running his hand through his silver hair. “But on the day he left…he was one of the fastest if not the fastest.”

Now he has solid NFL speed for a receiver, running a 4.45 40-yard dash. The reason we know that is because Thielen believed in his ability enough to chase an NFL career.

“Adam’s a self-made man,” Hoffner said. “He’s the one that put himself in the combines, he’s the one that paid his way, he’s the one that trained exceptionally hard to improve his 40 time to where it was that turned a lot of heads.”

You’ve probably heard this one before: Most people’s No. 1 fear in the world is public speaking. Well, going to the combine, workouts, rookie camps is like giving 50 speeches naked in front of your boss and all your co-workers and if it doesn’t work out you’ll feel like you’ve failed everyone who supported you. Nothing to be afraid of there, right?

Minneapolis-based Sports Psychologist Dr. Justin Anderson of Premier Sports Psychology said fear is one of the biggest factors that hold back athletes from reaching their goals.

“Fear has a lot of sub-conscious components to it,” Anderson said. “If you have a fear of a spider, just a quick glimpse of something like that causes you to react and jump away from it. We’re not rationally looking at that spider and saying, ‘oh, that thing isn’t going to hurt me, it’s in the corner and not that big of a deal.’ Fear has a strong hold over our minds. A lot of folks are unaware of what their fear is. With a fear of failing…we get [athletes] to look at it rationally, like if this doesn’t work out I’m in no worse position than I am now.”

That’s exactly how the Vikings’ receiver looked at pursing the NFL.

“I always wanted to give it a shot,” Thielen said. “I said to my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and I said, ‘I’m going to give it a shot so that I won’t have any regrets. I don’t think I ever thought, ‘I’ll make it in the league,’ I just thought, ‘hey, I’m a good football player, I think I can do things really well and if I just get an opportunity, you never know what will happen.’”

He also wasn’t afraid to play on special teams. The coaching staff believed he was tough enough to play what they call the L-5 position on kickoffs, generally a spot taken by a linebacker.

“That showed everyone a lot of courage, cause that’s a tough job, man” Paton said.

You can have the courage to try and overcome the fear of failure, but that’s not the same as believing you can achieve. Anderson said he works with athletes in growing that self-belief.

“Seeing athletes who have a similar physique, a similar style, they start to say, ‘They did it, I can do it,’” Anderson said. “I think of a very well-known story, the four-minute mile. Bannister achieved the four-minute mile, and then as soon as he did it, many, many others achieved that milestone as well.”

“I remember watching him here the first summer that he was with the Vikings,” Hoffner said. “He didn’t take any grief. A lot of those D-backs didn’t give him the time of day. You can see whether a guy is going to take it or give it right back and he gave it right back.”

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Thielen earned playing time on the Vikings’ roster because he was basically a walking motivational T-shirt.

As a warm late-October breeze blew through the Minnesota Vikings’ practice facility in Eden Prairie, a purple herd of players spilled off the practice field toward the locker room. Thielen stayed behind. He helped catch long snaps, then took a few of his own and had special teams coach Matt Priefer critique his style. When the snappers, kickers and punters wrapped up, he trotted across the mostly-empty field, helmet on, to the few remaining practice squad players who were playfully working on over-the-shoulder catches. By the time Thielen finally headed inside, only the guy who drives around in a cart picking up equipment was left.

Sometimes we hear clichés so much they lose their meaning. So when you tell people that Thielen is the first guy there and the last guy to leave, it’s eye roll worthy thanks to Rudy and Hoosiers. But every person interviewed for this story cited Thielen’s work ethic as a reason for his success. Anderson explains that it cuts deeper than just staying late.

“When I ask athletes: ‘Are you a hard worker?’ They say, ‘Oh yeah I’m a real hard worker,’ then I ask them how often they are doing the extra workout…and it’s not to the level of some of the other guys who are getting that pro spot or starting job.

Anderson said that the athletes who make it tend to find every area in which they can gain some type of advantage. Staying late is one of those areas. So is out-working the next guy on special teams.

Undrafted quarterback Shaun Hill said one under-appreciated factor for those who make it is reliability. While Paton said the team treats every player the same once they are on the roster, there are politics involved in everything and first-round picks are going to get more leeway for ups and downs than undrafted players.

“The one thing I always tried to tell myself was that because I was undrafted I didn’t have some of the accolades that some of the other guys had, if I gave them my good every day and they knew what they could get from me every day and I never deviated from that then I knew I had a chance,” Hill said.

Mike Zimmer has posters of his own. In US Bank Stadium, inside the locker room, inside the training facility, there are words about being a smart football player. He’s so obsessed with his players understanding the system that he’s been known to sit more talented young players in favor of veterans. Landing with a coach who appreciates that may have pushed Thielen up on the depth chart over someone like first-rounder Laquon Treadwell. Not every coach would have played an undrafted guy over a player who his GM spent a huge asset on.

NFL: Houston Texans at Minnesota Vikings - Sun, 09 Oct 2016 12:08:27 EDT

If not for a spider bite, Super Bowl champion quarterback Kurt Warner might have never made it. The story goes that Warner convinced the Chicago Bears to give him a tryout, but had to cancel because he was bit by a spider on his honeymoon. At the time, he probably figured he was the unluckiest guy in the world. Two years later, a lucky break came its way in the form of a Trent Green injury and now Warner is a Hall of Fame finalist.

People who succeed in sports, business, teaching, music etc. write books about their model for making it from humble beginnings to the top of their profession. Every story is its own snowflake, but all of them have one thing in common: The breaks.

If Thielen hadn’t waited during the recruiting process, maybe he would have played D-III basketball. If Hoffner hadn’t been named head coach, maybe Thielen wouldn’t have become the top player or maybe they wouldn’t have gotten him exposure by winning 10 games in 2009 or the Mineral Water Bowl in 2011. If he had fallen the wrong way or been the victim of a dirty hit or even made one bad play as a practice squad player, it all could have gone down the tubes.

“You have to have a little luck on your side because if you make a mistake at the wrong time, your career could be over,” Thielen said.

The reality is: There are many players with Adam Thielen’s drive, skill and smarts who don’t make it. Anderson said he tells his clients that an example like Thielen’s is good for athletes who have failed. He points to all those things that had to align just for him to make the Vikings’ team.

“We don’t talk with athletes in terms of luck so much as what you can control and what you can’t control,” Anderson said. “We help them see that it’s like a job interview. You may be an excellent candidate, but for whatever reason, if that interviewer is looking for some other quality or strength that you may not possess, that’s really not in your control.”

Famous magician Teller once said that the real magic was the fact that nobody in their right mind would put as much time and effort into a trick as he would.

Having talked to a half dozen people about Adam Thielen’s journey from D-II standout to NFL starter, it’s still hard to believe someone who played here ended up starring at U.S. Bank Stadium. The grandstands are propped up like iPads and the press box is the size of one of the Vikings’ equipment sheds. The lingering question is where the motivation came from to be that guy.

Vikings top wide receiver Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round pick. He is motivated by the death of his father. Some players are driven by some disrespect that happened along the way. Some are driven by money. Some are driven by that fear of failing or pressure from their family. In order to overcome such ridiculous odds, there has to be something inside Thielen, but nobody seems to have a distinct answer, not even him.

As I stand on the practice field waiting to interview him, the answer is right in front of me, even though it’s simple. I think he enjoys finding out how far he can push himself. A baseball scout told me that Derek Jeter would compete every day with teammates in batting practice on who could hit X number of line drives or home runs. Jeter loved it. Thielen seemed to enjoy trying to perfect a long snap. When you love what you do, you never work a day in your life, right?

There’s a new challenge that Thielen is about to face. People dream of being in the spotlight, but when they’re finally in it, they find out how hard it is to be famous. Thielen probably won’t reach Justin Timberlake status where he’s surrounded by paparazzi every time he leaves the team hotel, but with success comes expectations.

“A lot of guys wilt under the bright lights,” Paton said. “First-rounders wilt sometimes. Adam doesn’t.”

Whether he continues to become a fantasy football phenom or ends up back on special teams, Hoffner gets to smile every time someone asks about Thielen. Soon he’ll have to get a larger poster of his biggest success story.

The post Adam Thielen and the long journey for undrafted free agents appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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