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Breakout Pro Bowler Adam Thielen's living a dream with Vikings

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Adam Thielen barely had settled into his seat at the Target Center in Minneapolis when the fans surged toward him. He and his wife, Caitlin, were hoping to enjoy a New Year's Day date -- an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers -- before the NFL postseason ensued. What they discovered was that Thielen, the Minnesota Vikings' Pro Bowl wide receiver, was just as big an attraction as anything on the court that night. At least 20 different people sidled up to him, tapping him on his shoulder, sheepishly asking for a photo and giddily strolling away after nabbing their keepsake.

About the only request Thielen didn't honor that night came from a Target Center staffer who wanted to show Thielen's image on the arena's video board. For an affable man who struggles to say no, even that felt a little too over the top for Thielen in the moment. It also was an indication that even someone living his dream has to learn the importance of setting boundaries sometimes. Caitlin already has reached the point where she can sense the adulation surrounding her husband before he does, like when several customers stared and whispered as she and Adam enjoyed dinner at a local restaurant a few weeks ago.

"It's definitely been different," Caitlin said. "Last year, we could go out and do anything. Adam is a pretty normal-looking guy, so he kind of fits in easily. But now, if we want to just go out and have a little dinner date, it's harder. You realize things are a lot crazier."

Thielen would be the first person to acknowledge that this is a good problem to have. That's not to say he's the type to crave notoriety or downplay the increasing loss of his privacy. It's simply that Thielen has devoted himself to a dream that he's gleefully living every day, one that involves him being a standout for the NFL team he grew up worshiping. With the success he's enjoying -- particularly as a Minnesota native who vividly remembers the heartbreaking playoff losses of the 1998 and 2009 Vikings -- there are going to be plenty of nights when the locals will want to show their love for him.

In many ways, Thielen embodies everything the Vikings have become in a campaign where they finished the regular season at 13-3, won the NFC North and earned a first-round bye before this week's divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. He's scrappy, undaunted and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.

"I know the fans are extremely excited right now, just for where we're at and what could be on the horizon," Thielen said. "Being from here, seeing those other teams that had a lot of success and didn't quite get to where they wanted to be, I feel the fans' passion [and] how bad they want it. It kind of adds a little chip to your shoulder, where you're thinking [you're] playing for these guys that have endured these long seasons and tough losses."

"Adam is like a lot of guys we have," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's a great competitor and he's got a great heart. I was joking with somebody the other day about him because sometimes during games, when he comes over and talks to me, he reminds me of (former Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame wide receiver) Michael Irvin. He's never covered. He truly thinks he can get the ball and beat anybody."

It's hard to blame Thielen for his confidence. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, the 27-year-old possesses a nice blend of size, deceptive speed and hands so reliable that Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said, "Everybody is surprised if Adam ever drops a ball." Thielen's consistency is exemplified by the fact that he opened this season by catching at least five passes in his first 11 games. He's produced some of his best performances against teams that made the playoffs, like when he had 123 receiving yards and a touchdown in a 24-7 win over the Rams, or his nine-catch, 157-yard effort in a 29-19 win over New Orleans.

Thielen's competitive nature also comes through in his career arc. The fifth-year veteran has gone from being an undrafted small-school prospect to being a go-to target who set career highs this season in receptions (91) and yards (1,276). It wasn't that long ago that Thielen was sitting at his locker during his first training camp and telling fellow wide receiver Jarius Wright, "I'm not going to make this team." Now he's the guy who pops into special teams meetings to offer words of encouragement to younger players, largely because he knows exactly what it's like to be seeking any opportunity to make an impression.

It's that combination of production and personality that has made Thielen so popular inside and outside the Vikings organization. Wright described Thielen as "a good dude who does all the right things," while fellow wide receiver Michael Floyd added that "Adam is the kind of guy who comes to work every single day and is prepared to beat you." In fact, the most common compliment you'll hear the Vikings offer about Thielen involves his influence. When it comes to setting a tone, he's one of the first teammates they look to for the proper mix of energy and attitude.

"He's a great player every day, and it's not just on Sundays," Vikings quarterback Case Keenum said. "It's in the film room, in the meeting room, on the practice field. He's not only working on his own craft -- he's helping other guys in the receiver room by talking through leverage, routes, different stems or nuances that wide receivers build into their craft. It's been cool to see him be the veteran in the room."

The Vikings are quick to point out that Thielen's success hasn't changed him one bit. After he enjoyed a breakout season in 2016 -- a year that saw him amass 69 receptions for 967 yards and five touchdowns -- Thielen took all of three days off before he started training again. Thielen also can still be surprised by the hysteria building around Minneapolis, especially because the Vikings have a chance to be the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. When he attended a fan event in December, after the Vikings had improved their record to 10-2, he was startled by the sheer exhilaration brimming in every guest he met, especially since the Vikings still had so much work to do during the regular season.

Thielen explained that he was so locked into the moment -- his mind was still pondering what he could've done better at the practice he attended before driving to the event -- that he was merely thinking about the next game instead of the possibility of the Vikings producing a historic season. That single-mindedness is a major factor in why he's reached such great heights.

"It goes back to having a competitive nature," Thielen said. "[Right now,] I'm still thinking about practice and a few passes that I missed because that's how I'm wired. I love to compete and I hate failing. ... If I get a target, I want the ball in my hands. I just want to make sure that I'm competing every day and giving my best effort, because everything else just falls into place."

The basis for that sense of urgency in Thielen isn't difficult to understand. It comes from a real place of being ignored and overlooked, asked to constantly prove himself and then still having to face more skeptics after that.

"The most impressive thing I've seen him do is handle all the doubters," Rhodes said. "He was a guy that you didn't think was actually going to start when he first got here. You thought he'd end up being the guy who'd be asked to go in and block for a running play. For him to accept his role and work his way up, he changed the game. He changed himself, the mentality of the team and everybody in the league, just with his work ethic."

Thielen adored the Vikings when he grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, a town of fewer than 10,000 people nestled in the northwest side of the state. He fell in love with football while watching the 1998 squad -- an explosive team that went 15-1 before losing to the Atlanta Falcons in that season's NFC title game -- and he fantasized about someday being as dangerous a receiver as Randy Moss and Cris Carter. The only problem was that few people had grand visions for Thielen after watching him play. The only offer he received to play college football came in the form of a $500 scholarship to Minnesota State-Mankato (he later received a full ride from the Division II school), and no NFL team had any interest in him after his college career ended.

It wasn't that Thielen wasn't productive. He finished second in Minnesota State history in receptions (198), third in yards (2,802) and receiving touchdowns (20), and his coach, Todd Hoffner, described him as "a try-hard, die-hard guy who was going to put it all out there for you." It's just that Thielen was merely a decent prospect, one so far off the radar that he didn't receive an invitation to the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. It actually reached a point that Thielen interviewed for a job selling dental equipment a few weeks after playing his final college game.

Even when Thielen told Caitlin, then his girlfriend, that he wanted to pursue a career in pro football, her response was one that they still joke about to this day.

"I remember him telling me that in my apartment," Caitlin said. "At that point, I'd only seen him play a couple times, so I didn't even know if he was that good. I was like, 'Maybe you should get a real job.' But I also said I would support him."

Thielen started his pursuit of an NFL career by paying his way into a regional combine in Chicago. He ran well enough there -- posting a 4.45-second 40-yard dash -- that he received an invitation to a super regional combine in Dallas. The 2013 NFL Draft came and went without anybody calling his name, but Thielen had shown enough promise that the Vikings brought him into their rookie minicamp. He started off as just another body to help with practices, but he ended up with some encouraging news: The Vikings were keeping him around for training camp and letting another receiver go.

That first training camp wasn't easy -- "You could see some of the defensive backs laughing at him when he lined up across from them," Hoffner said -- but Thielen impressed enough that he made the practice squad after being cut. That opportunity presented its own challenges.

"Being a part of the practice squad was a tough year for me," Thielen said. "You go from playing every sport in high school [and being a] three-year starter and then to playing for four years in college and never really being on the bench. And then, all of a sudden, you're not even going to be able to dress for a game, for a whole year. I obviously took it one day at a time, and I knew I had to get the most out of every day. But at the same time, I'd go home and think, Man, I miss being out on the field."

Thielen found positive ways to channel that frustration. He made the 53-man roster in 2014 largely because of his talents as a special teams player, one who treated every repetition in practice as if it determined the winner of the Super Bowl. Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo spent plenty of days trying to block Thielen on punts during practice. Every time, Sendejo came away wondering how his teammate never lost his capacity to go all-out in every drill.

Thielen did have private moments when his frustration would show -- Caitlin recalled once saying that another receiver had made a nice play in a preseason game, to which he tersely responded, "Yeah, but I'm better than that guy" -- but he never let that unhappiness filter into his play. Even though he only caught 20 passes combined in his first two seasons on the roster, he was actually still living his dream. Sooner or later, he'd find a way to contribute more on offense.

That chance finally came during the 2016 campaign. Thielen helped the offense by filling in for an injured receiver and making a couple difficult receptions in Minnesota's 25-16 season-opening win at Tennessee. After one diving grab, Zimmer thought to himself that there might be more to this special teams standout than many first thought.

"I thought that every time this guy gets into the game and gets an opportunity, he makes plays," Zimmer said. "That's pretty much how he's been ever since."

"He can do everything you want," Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur added. "He can beat bump-and-run. He can separate during the route. And he catches the ball. But when you're around him more, you get a feel for his intangibles -- his character, his intelligence, his attitude, all the things that make a guy a really good player. We ask him to block, to move around, and he's a good matchup for us. He's got it all, and he was able to put it out there for us."

That season proved to be critical for Thielen's career, as he became a dependable target for a team that already had a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in Kyle Rudolph and another speedy receiver in Stefon Diggs. However, the Vikings also floundered after a 5-0 start because of numerous injuries. Thielen believes the entire team learned some valuable lessons following a year that saw Minnesota finish 8-8. The most important involved embracing the moment.

That attitude explains how this team has prospered with a journeyman backup like Keenum enjoying the best year of his career, even after promising rookie running back Dalvin Cook sustained a season-ending knee injury in just his fourth NFL game.

"I think the thing we've done the best out of everything this year is just take it one game at a time," said Thielen, who was named to his first Pro Bowl in December. "I think, a lot of times, guys in our locker room forget what our record is, and forget how many games we've won in a row. We're so focused on who we have next and we know that we have to continue to win. Because, in this league, it's tough to win."

This season is even more exciting for Thielen because he has the opportunity to contribute more in a playoff game. The last time the Vikings reached the postseason, after the 2015 season, he was an afterthought in the offense, a player who caught all of 12 passes on the season. Minnesota wound up losing to Seattle on Wild Card Weekend, after then-kicker Blair Walsh missed a potential game-winning field-goal try from just 27 yards out. Thielen didn't catch a single pass in that contest.

This year's playoff experience will be drastically different, which probably explains why Thielen was so willing to take advantage of a massage Caitlin had arranged for him after the Vikings finished their regular season with a win over Chicago. It was a Christmas present, but it also likely was a subtle message from a loving wife: It would be wise for Thielen to relax whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Caitlin admits that "it would be nice if Adam looked around sometimes and realized that he has done a lot." However, she acknowledges that her husband simply isn't made that way.

"I don't know if Adam really knows that he's arrived," Hoffner said. "Some guys can think they've arrived, but they'll show up without showing out. Adam always shows out. He's no longer a secret, but his secret is his tenacity and his hunger. If he ever lost that, he'd be an ordinary player. And I don't see him losing that."

Just a couple weeks ago, Thielen actually was competing with the defensive backs in one-on-one drills and talking smack as much as possible. Rhodes and a couple other cornerbacks chuckled at his audacity -- Thielen was recalling how he worked them over in training camp -- yet they also admired his approach. They knew Thielen was doing what he always does, enjoying every single moment as much as possible. They also believed he's only scratching the surface of a career that looks to get even brighter.

"Case and I have talked about this the last few weeks -- like it's just so fun to go out there and compete on Sundays," Thielen said. "That's what we love to do. That's why we grind so hard. I think that's why we have that chip on our shoulder, because we know what it's like to not be able to be out there with your teammates. ... You really forget that you're even in the NFL because it's the same game that we've been playing since we were little kids. And I think that's the coolest part. It's not the NFL to me. It's really just football."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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