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Adam Thielen: Mr. Minnesota Nice Guy


On an early Tuesday morning in Woodbury, dead-arm dance lessons are in full-force at the Thielen home.

Sunlight streams through the kitchen window onto hardwood floors, and 2-year-old Asher, wearing a baseball T and gray sweatpants, swivels his hips and quickly swings his arms back and forth.

Caitlin Thielen laughs from behind her cell phone video and pans over to Adam. Donned in matching sweats, he loosely dangles his arms and flops them from side to side.

"You gotta let them hang like this," Adam tells his son, giving a tutorial.

The scene isn't unlike many everyday moments for the receiver. Thielen is a family man, a reliable friend and teammate, a generally soft-spoken individual.

It's not uncommon to see Thielen stop and answer questions for reporters several times a week, in addition to his regular media session. For this writer in particular, the receiver felt bad about needing to reschedule an interview – "I need to get home to watch Asher" – and apologized before offering to do the discussion over the phone on his drive home.

Talk about Minnesota nice.

"He's a great teammate," said Vikings safety Anthony Harris of Thielen. "He's a very genuine guy. He's a really family oriented type of guy, so when he's off the field in his spare time, he's hanging out with his family, spending time with his son.

"But at the same time, he treats the team like his family, as well," Harris added. "When he's in the locker room, he's enjoying us. He's laughing, he's joking, he has that same spirit pretty much carried over to both."

And it's really always been that way.

Detroit Lakes High School Activities Director Rob Nielsen was the Lakers defensive coordinator when Thielen played on the varsity squad. The young athlete impressed coaches every day with his improbable catches and strong hands, but he stood out also because of his character.

"Just a first-class person and always doing things the right way," Nielsen said. "That's who he was here, too. He's just a good guy – that's all there is to it."

But on the field, Thielen transforms into a fierce competitor. It's no more Minnesota nice guy.

"He's always full-go," said Vikings safety George Iloka. "He's always ready. Every play, he's giving you everything. Everything in his route running, everything at the top, at the bottom of the route. Everything in his effort. He just makes some of the most amazing catches. I've never seen a time when he wasn't prepared and he wasn't ready."

In the two-plus months since becoming Thielen's teammate when he signed with Minnesota, Iloka is discovering what those close to Thielen have noticed for years.

For as long as he can remember, Thielen has wanted to win.

Thielen recently recalled growing up in Detroit Lakes and spending long days playing with the neighborhood kids.

"We were in the country, so we had a pretty big lawn. We'd play football out there, baseball, we had a basketball hoop," Thielen said. "We played all the 'night games,' and we made up games."

As a result of living in a small town, it wasn't until seventh grade that Thielen was able to play tackle football for the first time.

"Having to wait that long and having such a love for the game, having played backyard football, flag football and watching the Vikings, I think that when I was finally able to play, I was so ready, so excited that, yeah, that competitive nature definitely came out."

It took a while for Thielen to fine-tune that intensity and use it fully to his teams' advantage, being the first to admit that his drive to win was "sometimes to a fault."

He credits his youth coaches and parents for helping him harness that competitive spirit, even when it meant teaching him tough lessons. Thielen recounted "losing it emotionally" during a middle school basketball game or two and being benched after the outburst.

"I remember having conversations with Coach and him saying, 'Hey, you can't play at a high level when you do those things.' And from then on, I kind of had that in the back of my head," Thielen said. "I still had to work on it, you know? I was kind of late as far as maturing, so I had to work all the way through college to finally hone in and figure out how to use it for the positive and not let it hurt your performance and hurt your team."

Bryan Schmid, a former teammate and coach of Thielen's at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and current performance coach at one of Thielen's ETS gyms, has several memories of Thielen's competitiveness in all types of areas – from video games to the football field.

Schmid was a junior defensive lineman when Thielen came in as a redshirt freshman – "kind of long hair, scrappy-looking, skinny" – and was caught off-guard by his performance on the scout team.

"Numerous times, our scout team quarterback would just throw up a duck, just a bad ball, and [Adam] would somehow find a way to come down with the ball, and we'd be like, 'Who is this guy?' " Schmid said. "He was just kind of this underdeveloped kid going up versus our top corners, going to snag balls. That's kind of how he started to get some of us older guys turning our heads."

Schmid and Thielen became close, and before later becoming roommates, the two would get together with other friends at Thielen's apartment in between classes.

"We would play NBA2K and Madden … and even in that stuff, he's always laughing and having a good time, but he's super competitive," Schmid said. "He's locked in. When we were living in the same house – bean bags, golfing, anything. He was having a good time with the guys but never wanted to get beat in anything."

Added Schmid with a laugh: "He'd be the guy once in a while throwing his Playstation controller across the room."

Schmid has watched Thielen's journey from MSU, to the Vikings practice squad, to this season's current leader in receptions (74) and yards (925). And while he admits that "probably no one but himself" could have imagined how Thielen's story would play out, Schmid said it's his relentless approach to the game he loves that got him here.

Whether it's going up for a deep ball, setting up a run-block situation or acting as the decoy to set somebody else up, Thielen wants to win.

Thielen isn't just competing against the defenders, though. He's competing against himself.

"Even before coaches had a chance to talk to him about a mistake or something like that, he was already so hard on himself," Schmid said. "I think that's one of his best attributes – he just holds himself to such a high standard that he's never going to let himself drop below that."

Nielsen thought back to Thielen's high school days when, after a basketball camp, he posted a note with a list of things he could improve on.

"He was by far the best kid on the team," Nielsen said. "But it was, 'I'm not good at this, I could get better at this.' He has that ability to look and say, 'How can I improve?' He doesn't rest on the fact that 'I'm having a great season.' He's never satisfied.

"[Adam is] one of those guys who likes the grind," Nielsen added. "It's what drives him and fuels him, and I think he also understands that's what's made him the player that he is. He doesn't do that, he doesn't get the opportunities."

Ask Thielen's current teammates, and they'll tell you that he tackles practice with the same laser focus that he exhibits on game days.

Harris said that Thielen stays hungry and fights for every catch during the week.

"Sometimes guys talk to him like, 'Hey, we know you want to grab that catch, but if it's a little over-extended, we don't want you laying out and banging yourself up before the actual game,' " Harris quipped. "But sometimes it's good to have a player like that – that you have to kind of reel back in."

General Manager Rick Spielman said recently that Thielen has what it takes to be a great NFL receiver both mentally and physically.

"What makes the good great is the way they approach the game off the field – not only what they do in the community and their character, [which Adam has], but how serious they take it in their film study, how they practice," Spielman said. "I was out watching practice, and he's out there diving for balls, just like it's the game on Sunday. And all the greats I've been around take that approach."

Thielen said it's the hard work at practice that enhances his focus when he laces up his cleats and runs through the tunnel on game day.

"I think a lot of that competitive fire just comes from putting in the work," Thielen said. "When you put that much into it, when you put that much passion and energy and time and commitment into something, it all just comes out."

Thielen has garnered the reputation for being "Minnesota nice"; he's also quickly establishing himself around the NFL as one of the most intense competitors on the field.

Both are entirely authentic.

"Off the field, he's never concerned with himself," Schmid said. "He's always trying to make people laugh, make people smile. He's genuine. He's just fun to be around.

"He wants to compete, but then he'll be that guy who's helping the defender up after he catches a fade on him, or slapping him on the butt," Schmid added. "It's never about showboating."

Perhaps a little ironic is the word Iloka used last month to describe the crispness of Thielen's movements on the field.

"When it comes to running routes, that man is nice," Iloka said. "All of his routes start out the same, but at the top of the route, he has a lot of sauce. That's why he's always getting open. He's a great player. But an even better teammate."