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The NFL superstar next door: Detroit Lakes embraces Vikings' Thielen

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Adam Thielen warms up prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) of the Minnesota Vikings warms up prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on August 18, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.
Otto Greule Jr | Getty Images 2016

The Adam Thielen high school highlight reel is just a click away on Rob Nielsen's computer. It's in high demand these days.

"You look at him there, he looks pretty skinny. He was not too imposing," Nielsen chuckled as he played the video clips.

The Detroit Lakes High School activities director was a football coach when Thielen played here and remembers him as not the biggest or fastest kid on the squad, but as a player with skills that couldn't be taught.

"There wasn't a day that we practiced his junior and senior year that he didn't have a catch that you looked at the other guys and go, 'What? Did he really just catch that? That's unbelievable.' So, it was just he had a sense for those ball skills and that concentration like no one I've ever seen anywhere. You know, it was just incredible," recalled Nielsen.

Nielsen lobbied hard to get Thielen recruited by colleges, but most schools thought he was too small, too slow. He said he's having a lot of fun now razzing those coaches who passed on Thielen.

Thielen played college football at Minnesota State University Mankato after graduating from Detroit Lakes High in 2008. He wasn't picked in the NFL draft of college players and made the Vikings team after a tryout.

With Thielen now a star NFL receiver poised to play in Sunday's NFC Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles for a chance to move on to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, Nielsen still ponders what intangibles let Thielen prove most football experts wrong.

 Rob Nielsen, Thielen's former coach, and former teammate Josh Herzog.
Detroit Lakes activities director Rob Nielsen, Adam Thielen's former football coach, and former teammate and friend Josh Herzog.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"Eight of 10 boys that play football (in) Detroit Lakes probably say 'I wanna play in the NFL someday,'" said Nielsen. "The reality is one has actually made it. And what's made him different? I don't know really what it is. It's just some kids have that desire and make themselves into something bigger than maybe they are."

'The same person from Day One'

Thielen honed his football skills in countless hours of backyard football games.

Janaye Johnson grew up near Thielen outside of Detroit Lakes and she says he was serious about football even in elementary school, where Thielen made sure the makeshift field was always outlined in neon string and orange cones.

"He would always set that up every time," laughed Johnson. "We would just consider it 'something Adam did — OK let's play.'"

Adam Thielen was a skinny kid when playing for Detroit Lakes High School.
Adam Thielen was a skinny kid when playing for Detroit Lakes High School in 2007. Thielen's coach lobbied hard to get Thielen recruited by colleges, but they thought he was too small, too slow.
Detroit Lakes High School 2007

Johnson, who's now a freelance photographer in Minneapolis, remembers a lot of two- or three-person games. Thielen practiced the latest highlight catch he'd seen on television, while Johnson was the quarterback.

She isn't surprised by Thielen's success on the football field.

"When I see him on TV or see him playing, it's surreal every time. It's nostalgic every time. But it's not surprising, if that makes sense," said Johnson. "You see how much work he put in as a kid and you see how much work he puts in now."

Through elementary and into middle school years, Johnson played hundreds of pickup games at Thielen's house.

Now, she's sometimes on the sidelines with her camera watching Thielen play at the highest level of football skill.

Success hasn't changed Thielen, she said. They've stayed in touch and he's called her to photograph some important family events.

"He's been the same person from Day One," said Johnson. "He treats everybody with kindness, he doesn't think he's Adam Thielen the superstar."

Josh Herzog has been friends with Thielen as long as he can remember. They played football, basketball and golf together. During college, they worked summers for the Herzog family roofing business and trained after work.

Herzog was best man at Thielen's wedding. He wondered how NFL success would change Thielen.

"I guess that was kind of a concern — Is he going to kind of lose touch with with some of us back home when he's hanging out with celebrities and all these other people? — and he hasn't," said Herzog.

Adam Thielen playing basketbal at Detroit Lakes High School in 2005.
Adam Thielen playing basketbal at Detroit Lakes High School in 2005.
Detroit Lakes High School 2005

When Herzog and his wife went to a Vikings game recently, Thielen made them lunch the day before the game.

"The following day, you're watching him out on the field in front of tens of thousands of people. And it's like you get almost starstruck. But then you're like, it's just Adam, we were just hanging out yesterday. Yeah, that's been incredible for me," said Herzog who is in awe of the way Thielen has improved his speed and strength.

Herzog remembers consistently beating Thielen in sprints during college. Now, Herzog says he wouldn't stand a chance in a foot race.

 

Call him a Pro Bowler

In Detroit Lakes, there's a lot of pride in Thielen's accomplishments, but the kid from nowhere making it big story is wearing a bit thin, said retired high school coach Flint Motschenbacher.

Adam Thielen attempts a catch against the Panthers Kevon Seymour.
Adam Thielen (19) of the Minnesota Vikings attempts a catch against Kevon Seymour (27) of the Carolina Panthers in the second quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Grant Halverson | Getty Images 2017

"Yeah, he was a story, you know, and his story is neat. But now, hey, the guy's a dude. He's one of the best in the NFL."

Motschenbacher wants to hear Thielen referred to as a Pro Bowl wide receiver, not an undrafted, unknown, Minnesota kid making it in the NFL.

Thielen signed a three-year contract last year worth at least $11 million and Motschenbacher sensed a new confidence when he talked to Thielen at training camp.

"The other years it was it was 'oh man, I hope I can make it. I'm gonna work hard, I hope I can do it.' But this year it was, 'I've made it and I'm going to have a good year.' He was just beaming in confidence," said Motschenbacher.

Johnson, Thielen's childhood quarterback, wants the world to know that NFL stardom couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

"During the last game, I had to hold back tears and it's just because I just wanna see him play in the Super Bowl," she said. "That's like his dream since he was a little boy. Just to see someone start to get a hold on some of their dreams that they've had since childhood, you can't help but be a little emotional about that."