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.
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.”
“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.”