Welcome to the Adam Thielen Experience

His 24/7 is contagious, from iPads in the Vikings' hot tub to running around at home—and running circles around your fantasy team. Can you believe this guy almost sold dental equipment instead of playing in the NFL? Can you say Super Bowl?

By Tyler Dunne

November 30, 2017

Two Minnesota Vikings wide receivers are all that’s left on the field after a midweek practice. Adam Thielen catches slow-motion floaters over his shoulder from a coach standing, oh, seven yards away. The exercise is dull enough to put you to sleep.

That other guy, though? Laquon Treadwell is putting on a show. Along the sideline, the former first-round receiver plucks fastball after fastball…with one hand. Seriously, each pass looks like it’ll drill you between the eyes and knock you into next week. Yet Treadwell practically leaps off a trampoline to snare each one. After one acrobatic grab, he spins the ball and yells to no one in particular, “Put that on SportsCenter!”

There’s the overlooked and the underdog, the forgotten hero and the comeback kid...and then there is Adam Thielen, the most unlikely breakout star in the NFL.

He’s a player who was told repeatedly he should not pursue a football career, who was passed over by all Division I schools and all but one Division II school, who paid his own way to work out at a regional combine and then saw 26 wide receivers drafted in 2013 while he went undrafted.

A player who accepted a job to sell dental equipment before the Minnesota Vikings offered him a tryout. A player who is suddenly a near-certain Pro Bowler, a fantasy stud and maybe even a Super Bowl hero before too long.

How is this even possible?

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The key, Thielen will tell you, is taking life “day to day.” That’s it, he says. Nothing more, nothing less. But we knew there had to be more than another cliche to his near-impossible come-up. So B/R Mag spent a week with Thielen to uncover the mystery.

What we found was this: One minute, he’s making a hard cut and leaving your defense in the dust, the next he’s chasing his son around the house. When he’s not glued to his iPad, Thielen is playing duck, duck, goose in your end zone.

Right here is a 27-year-old from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, playing for his hometown team, living in the right now and showing the rest of the sports world how to beat the odds and become a star.

Who knew the answer to all that has cursed the Vikings for years...was a player nobody wanted?


WEDNESDAY, NOV. 15, 3:07 P.M.

Striding past the rumble of a heater and signs that read Outwork and Outrun, Thielen turns a corner into what’s affectionately known as the “Piss Test” room. It’s a compact space barely large enough for a table, a few plush leather chairs, a Bod Pod and, yes, a bathroom where players must undergo urine tests when called upon.

Thielen is a few minutes late. A Vikings official jokes that he had to “pry” him away from the JUGS machine.

There’s a scar on his wrist, a rubber wedding band around his ring finger and a backward “Glory to God” hat on his head. Because, indeed, he has a lot to be thankful for these days.  

During the official work week, Thielen is regimented, robotic, rolling. He’s just as pissed off about a bad practice as he is any game. One day a time, he repeats. That’s what fuels his play above all.

“I tell people that,” Thielen says, “and people may think, ‘Oh, he’s just saying that.’ But, no, I’m a big believer in that. I don’t care what people think about me. I don’t care if people think I’m one of the best receivers or one of the worst receivers. I don’t really care.”

So his routine is simple. He leaves his place around 5:50 a.m., gets to the facility by 6:30 and watches game film, on an iPad, in the hot tub. Thielen’s always been a morning person. In college at Minnesota State, he’d wake up at 5:30 a.m. and head to the classroom early to study, so it’s no different here. Coffee helps. The brand doesn’t matter, as long as it’s black.

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After watching some film, Thielen chats with Case Keenum—or whoever the Vikings’ QB is at the time—and the two study. Then, he lifts weights. Goes to meetings until 10 a.m. Heads to practice where, today, the Vikes install a first- and second-down game plan. Thielen eats lunch. Heads to practice. Lifts weights again. Goes to meetings at 3:45 p.m. And by 5 or so, he heads home. One day at the office.

Except this week, the 7-2 Rams come to town.

This week, the Vikings discover if they’re for real.

“We know,” Thielen says, “we have our work cut out for us.”

Thielen leans back in his chair. Even he struggles figuring out how teams failed to recognize his potential. Maybe, he wonders aloud, it’s because he wasn’t the best athlete in high school. No, that’s not true. Thielen starred in four sports. For whatever reason, college football coaches did not care. They hardly noticed him.

“They saw a skinny…guy.”  

A skinny, uh, white guy?

“Right. A skinny white guy.”

“They saw a skinny...guy—a skinny white guy.”

But during this 45-minute pause from his routine, Thielen thinks back to those four sports. Each one molded him into the ubiquitous threat he is today. He sees that now. He purely loved each of the four, and now it’s paying off.

Basketball? “There’s no way I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for basketball.”

At the mano-a-mano level, he lists the reasons: Basketball instilled body control, lateral quickness, physicality and ball skills. This is why Thielen wins so many one-on-one balls. He contorts his 6’2” frame, in traffic, at impossible angles. There’s also a reason he’s open so often: Playing receiver, to him, is eerily similar to facing man and zone defenses in basketball. Whether it’s a 2-3, 3-2, 1-3-1, a box and one, whatever, you must think—fast—and react. So there he was last Sunday, zig-zag-zigging on Washington’s Josh Norman for a touchdown.

And above all, hooping unearthed the cutthroat competitor inside.

Growing up, Thielen could not get enough of Kevin Garnett. That passion, that fire. He loved it. He was there in the stands during the Timberwolves’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2004.

Baseball? Easy. Thielen was a center fielder, just like his idol, the Twins star Torii Hunter. Tracking deep passes today with such grace, such ease, feels like fielding pop-ups in high school.

But golf? How the hell can golf help playing wide receiver? More than you’d think. As a kid, Thielen was downright hostile on the course. He’d smash his club into the greens after one bad shot, then hurl it into the water the next. Yet through countless rounds on the links, Thielen learned how to harness those raw emotions. Lose your cool over one slice, he learned, and your whole round is shot.

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So during those early, high-stakes days with the Vikings, he never panicked. When the Vikings and Bengals held joint practices in August 2016 and Pacman Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick refused to line up against Thielen in one-on-ones, he simply stored the slight in his memory. They wanted to face “dawgs,” not this chump.

“They wanted,” says Thielen, making quote marks in the air, “a ‘challenge.’ That’s the kind of stuff that still motivates me. Pushes me. I’m sure there’s guys out there thinking, ‘This guy’s not that good.’ So I use that to keep getting better and keep pushing myself.”

Part of the weekly routine—day in, day out—is never forgetting such disrespect.

Never forgetting that D-II Minnesota State was his only “scholarship” offer, and he only received that offer two weeks before camp began. A coach told him they had $500 left to spend, so he took the loose change. It was either that, or play hoops and football at a D-III school like Concordia-Moorhead.

“I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done,” Thielen says. “I didn’t really have a backup plan.”

Coaches never bumped up that scholarship, either. Thielen was forced to take out loans each year and then pay his own way to a regional combine in Chicago just to get noticed by NFL scouts. In the second 40-yard dash attempt he ever attempted, Thielen ran the 4.45 that got him a shot with Minnesota. All the money earned on the practice squad that year went toward paying off his mountain of loans.

At that point, Thielen had no money in his bank account and was engaged to his college sweetheart, with no clue if he’d last in the NFL.

Not quite the life of Dez Bryant and Julio Jones and Odell Beckham in Year 1.

“I think it just helps me focus on the right things,” Thielen says. “I played college football for free.”

He pauses.  

“I had to pay to play, really.

“I just love this game, and that’s what you have to do to be successful in this league. Because it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of stuff off the field that people don’t see. So you really have to love it. Otherwise, you’ll get washed up pretty quick.”

THURSDAY, NOV. 16, 11:30 A.M. 

The Adam Thielen Experience is must-see TV. Wizardry. He moves so fluidly, turning cornerback ankles with a combination of bursts and cuts. He’s physically strong, punking defenders at the ball’s highest point. He’s armed with an Olympian’s stride, vise-grip hands and…showmanship in the end zone.

His touchdown celebrations have included duck, duck, goose (or as the locals call it “duck, duck, gray duck”), a Premier League-esque futbol slide and—oh yeah—leapfrogging:

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But here’s the sad part: Thielen doesn’t relive any of it. Ever. Texts and calls and tweets are blowing up his phone after a 166-yard masterpiece in Washington, but Thielen refuses to watch himself. Doing so could plant a seed of complacency.

“I don’t want my mindset to change,” he says. “I don’t like when people are trying to pump me up. I like to stick to what’s gotten me here.”

So as Thielen walks back into the Piss Test room, perches his iPad horizontally onto a stand and punches in his passcode, he doesn’t dial up any of his own plays. It’s all Rams, all week.

Thielen has already watched three games in full and is about to view a fourth. Right here is where he outwits defenses. Thielen doesn’t skim through the “cut-ups” available to players—third downs, red zone, etc. He chooses instead to watch full games, to obsess over every cornerback through the course of normal game flow. Are they pressing? Playing off? How does a receiver run a route against certain coverages?

“And then,” Thielen says, “I’ll visually put myself in that position: How am I going to run that route if I get that certain coverage?”

It’s all absorbed, all cataloged. Today, he’s glued to Rams-Cowboys.

Thielen points to the screen where one Rams corner is in press and the other is off.

“If he’s playing off, what is he looking at?” he says. “Is he looking at the quarterback? Is he looking at the receiver? Because that can really determine what you do as a receiver. When a guy is looking directly at you, he’s actually keying on what you’re doing. If he’s looking at the quarterback, well, he’s not keying on how you’re running your route.”

Trumaine Johnson is the Rams’ prized possession at corner, the one “taking one guy out pretty much each week.” A ripped 6’2”, 213 pounds, Johnson loves to press. Two steps into your route, Thielen points out, and Johnson has his hands on a receiver.

As he speaks, Thielen never stops toggling through plays. This season, he vowed to play off total reaction. The game’s too fast to overthink. By watching full games, an encyclopedia of information builds, and he can speed up his reaction time. Between his own film prep, watching one full game with the entire receiving corps and then applying everything he sees to the practice field on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, he’s been prepared for, well, anything all season.  

The cherry on top is a Friday meeting in which position coach Darrell Hazell shows a highlight reel of nothing but other teams’ big plays against the Vikings’ opponent that week. “It puts in your mind, ‘Hey, we can make those same plays.’”

Thielen knows this: Sunday is a chance for the Vikings to assert themselves as Super Bowl contenders.

He closes up his iPad and heads off to a meeting.

It’s all business in Eden Prairie because, back home, he turns that switch completely off.

SATURDAY, NOV. 18, 11:30 A.M.

The Thielens’ one-year-old son is awake from a nap, so you know what that means.

It’s time to pinball from room…to room…to room.

Asher Thielen is a rosy-cheeked ball of energy and joy and laughter and—“Oh no! Oh no!,” Caitlin Thielen yells—look out for that ping-pong table! Asher bashes his head on the corner of the table but doesn’t pause, let alone cry. He looks to his dad. “You’re fine!” Adam says with a smile. And Asher keeps moving.

Toughness is in the genes.

“He’ll just look at you like, What just happened?” Adam jokes.

Life is good. Life is balanced.

This is where Thielen remains authentically Thielen—that hungry, humbled, unwanted, undrafted player who’ll always maintain perspective. Tucked away in a suburb, this is his escape. He doesn’t open an iPad here inside his family’s magnificent, rustic home. Doesn’t worry about football, period. Instead, Thielen typically gets home by 6 p.m. during the week and plays with his son for an hour-and-a-half. On Saturdays, like today, he’ll run around all day with Asher and Caitlin, his wife of two-plus years.

The birth of their first child coincided perfectly with Adam’s rise to football prominence.

“I wouldn’t take back having a kid for the world,” he says.

So here’s what that perspective looks like.

Asher started walking about five weeks ago and, now, runs. Everywhere. Today, he starts by giving his parents a hug, one after another. When Adam and Caitlin ask, “Where’s your basketball?” Asher darts around the living room, through the kitchen, back into his play room to grab a Kevin Durant-branded mini basketball, then dunks into a hoop. He can already distinguish a basketball from a football from a soccer ball. And whenever he sees or hears football on the TV, he races to the screen to look for his dad.

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Asher bolts toward the stairs—he loves climbing stairs, hence the locked gate—and, up in his bedroom, Adam reads him Goodnight Football. Diapers? Yeah, Caitlin handles most of those, but Adam assures he does his share whenever he’s home.

“Especially when it’s a poopy diaper,” he says. “Right, Asher?”

One sight grabs Asher’s attention. Caitlin is holding a picture of the Vikings’ mascot, Viktor, and the littlest Thielen is obsessed with Viktor.

His eyes light up.

“Maybe we’ll see him tomorrow, Asher!” Caitlin says.

Now walking around with a stuffed penguin in his mouth, Asher falls on top of the family dog, Lily, who yelps. Asher keeps moving, always, and every bound, every giggle, every smile keeps Adam in the moment.

Adam and Caitlin first met through a friend she knew at Minnesota State. Caitlin eventually transferred from Iowa State to Mankato for soccer, and, well: “Adam was trying for a few years,” Caitlin says.

“Yeah, she wouldn’t give me a chance!” Adam says with a laugh.

Down in the basement, one of Adam’s framed Vikings jerseys hangs on the wall above the ping-pong table where Asher crashed. There’s a fireplace, a bar, even a family basketball court. Yes, Thielen says while flicking a shot at the rim, it’s true that multiple college coaches told him he’d be better off just playing D-III hoops. Hell, the offensive coordinator at Minnesota State flat-out told him, “You should not play football.” That staff was fired, a new staff was hired, and the rest is history.

“Everybody loves you one week, and the next week they hate you. That's why you just have to stay in your own zone.”

Real or perceived, he still plays today as if he’s doubted.

As if there are people out there who are still unimpressed

“I just put that in my head,” he says, “to give me more motivation.”

Because, no, neither Adam nor Caitlin ever expected any of this. As she fries scrambled eggs in the kitchen—with Asher, of course, turning that stove knob to full blast, because he just loves seeing the light come on—Caitlin admits she never expected her husband to blossom into a starting wide receiver...let alone this.

It’s surreal, but also strange.

Neither relish the attention.

“None of it’s any different to us,” Adam says. “It’s just football.”

There were speed bumps early on, of course. Thielen admits he used to agonize over one bad practice at home by tapping open his iPad and reliving his mistake in painstaking detail. But when Caitlin hounded him to leave work at work, he eventually did. He learned that sticking around the facility for just 15 extra minutes improved his quality of life.

So now, outside of getting stopped for photos on their date nights, Thielen assures “nothing” has changed in his life. He won’t allow it. Sure, he grew up living all of that Vikings heartbreak, from Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in the 1998 NFC Championship to Brett Favre’s overtime interception in the 2009 NFC Championship. Sure, he’s well aware that this is a franchise forever embroiled in controversy, from the “Love Boat” scandal to the stadium’s roof literally caving in.

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And, sure, he’s the one who could possibly rewrite history—as soon as this February, right in his backyard, for Super Bowl LII.

But Thielen refuses to talk about the big picture like that. He’ll stay day to day. Because as his celebrity grows, Thielen also knows the exposure can backfire.

Caitlin turns away from the eggs.

“We get death threats,” she says.

When he opened up Twitter after his late fumble in a 17-15 loss to Dallas last year, it wasn’t pretty.

“After the game,” Adam says, “I got death threats.”

Asher got death threats,” Caitlin adds.

Anger sweeps over her face, and Adam shakes his head. Their son, not even two months old at the time, was the target of Twitter trolls. Neither parent pays much attention to the noise now.

“That’s the thing about this league,” Adam says. “Everybody loves you one week, and the next week they hate you. That’s why you just have to stay in your own zone.”

So this is his zone. He’s a loving husband and father who makes a point to kiss Caitlin and Asher on the sideline every pregame. He’ll change a diaper (when he can), and teach a little toughness (when Asher stumbles). More kids are likely on the way.

But, yeah, Adam is approaching fatherhood like he approaches playing wide receiver.  

“One at a time.”

SUNDAY, NOV. 19, 3:30 P.M. 

He refuses to broadcast what the celebration would’ve been. Surrounded by a swarm of cameras inside the Vikings locker room, Thielen does not budge.

Moments earlier, his 65-yard catch and sprint to the end zone had sealed a 24-7 Vikings win over the Rams.

But when Thielen was all set to lead a celebration, his teammates…did nothing. They stared blankly at Thielen, who was visibly upset.

“I need to keep that under wraps,” he says, “because I might use it next week.”

Consider this the one split-second those in Thielen’s orbit were not following his lead. They have—for four years now—and that’s the No. 1 reason these Vikes are soaring. After this statement win, in which Thielen was once again the stud, teammates make it clear that Thielen’s energy has become their energy. Thielen’s story is their story.

In taking life “day to day,” from a rookie tryout to the practice squad to cracking the 53-man roster to becoming a one-man wrecking crew, Thielen also became the heart and soul of the Vikings.

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Everyone noticed. Everyone’s been in awe. Everyone’s been affected in their own way. At one locker is defensive end Danielle Hunter saying Thielen’s hustle stood out to him back when Thielen was a scout-team receiver. He couldn’t fathom how a human being went this hard every snap of every practice.

“If there’s one dude you’d look up to,” Hunter says, “it’d be him.”

Across the room is 39-year-old Terence Newman, who cannot fathom how defenses still don’t give Thielen the respect he deserves. On that touchdown, the Rams were in Cover 0. That is, they played with no safety help over the top. The Rams also decided to stick Johnson on wide receiver Stefon Diggs, leaving undrafted rookie Dominique Hatfield to chase Thielen.


“It’s almost like guys don’t really believe it,” Newman says, “until they get to play against him.”

And why is that, one reporter asks.

“I know what you’re looking for, and I’m not going to give it to you.”

Then there’s Xavier Rhodes, the shutdown corner who admits he used to call Thielen “the booty sniffer” because he was always asking questions, always the teacher’s pet. Now, Rhodes sees there was a method to Thielen’s madness, calling him a “top-five” wideout with an insane catch radius. Rhodes thinks back to an OTA practice when Thielen fully extended for one ball he never would’ve laid out for himself.

Laughed Rhodes, “I’m like, ‘Pshh. It’s practice. I’m not hurting myself.’ That’s the mindset he has. No matter what it is, he’s still going to give it all he has.”

Now, everyone in this room takes that dive and everyone in this room asks an extra question. They’ve witnessed firsthand what such hustle has done for Thielen.

And, really, this win against the Rams was much like Thielen’s football career. He turned his ankle on the first snap and shook it off. He dropped two potential touchdowns and shook those off, too. Instead of flipping out in anger as he would’ve back on the golf course as a teen, he made a Torii Hunter-esque catch over his shoulder for 25 yards, and then detonated for a touchdown at the perfect moment.

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Afterward, his responses were more of the same. Even as his fame skyrockets to new levels, Thielen promises he’ll stay locked in, day by day, just like he’s done, just like that.

The fact that he’s one of the NFL’s leading receivers? “Not even thinking about it. I don’t care about my stats.”

This being a statement game? “I think every game is a statement game for us.”

The future? “We don’t have a lot of time to celebrate this win.”

He’s the most popular football player in Minnesota. He’s punching a ticket to the Pro Bowl. But The Adam Thielen Experience remains simple. He’ll study. He’ll be a dad. He’ll politely toast your defense. He’ll keep changing NFL culture here, and there, and a little bit of everywhere.

“I think I say it every week,” Thielen says. “We have to keep getting better and keep getting better.”

His 24/7 has become contagious. The end result now could be a game in this same stadium on February 4, 2018.

And if he scores a touchdown on the sports world’s biggest stage, you better believe he’ll have some fun in the end zone.  ■

Additional photography of the Thielen family shot by Ackerman Gruber for B/R Mag.

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Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @tydunne

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