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Minnesota Natives Zylstra, Wieneke Hope to Follow Thielen's Success Story

EAGAN, Minn. — Brandon Zylstra and Jake Wieneke stepped onto the picturesque green grass for practice Friday afternoon, each wearing a gleaming Vikings helmets and hoping to take the next step in their football careers.

Both wide receivers are Minnesota natives who went to small colleges and were undrafted, but now find themselves trying to stick with their childhood teams.

Hmmm, sounds familiar.

Zylstra and Wieneke each chatted with Friday and referenced having a role model to look up to in Adam Thielen. Signed as a free agent out of the CFL, Zylstra has been able to join the offense for workouts.

"I definitely have learned a lot from him so far," said Zylstra, who signed with the Vikings in January. "I feel like I have a similar game style to him, so I definitely try to pick his brain because he's had so much success and is somebody who has kind of been in my shoes before."

Wieneke, who signed earlier this week as an undrafted college free agent, offered a similar take about how he looks up to the Detroit Lakes native.

"Oh definitely, and for many reasons," said Wieneke, who said he trained with Thielen a summer ago and received a text from the All-Pro after he signed with the Vikings. "Just everything that he's done on and off the field, his work ethic … his story is amazing how he worked his way up and now he's one of the best receivers in the league.

"I definitely look up to him and have learned a lot from him and look forward to continuing to learn a lot from him," Wieneke added.

Even if they appear to have comparable stories, Zylstra and Wieneke took different routes to arrive at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

Zylstra hails from Spicer, which is roughly 125 miles from the Vikings practice facility. He played at Concordia-Moorhead College before eventually joining the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.

The 25-year-old was a breakout star up north in 2017, leading the league with 1,687 receiving yards last season on 100 catches with five touchdowns to earn All-Star honors.

"I learned how to be a pro, how to be in the pro atmosphere," Zylstra said. "How to take care of your body, how to study, how to eat right. I think that was definitely good for me."

Zylstra has since been taking part in the Vikings voluntary offseason program, where he has drawn the attention of Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. 

"So far, he has done an unbelievable job out here in our Phase II stuff," Zimmer said Friday. "Running routes, catching the ball. He looks quick. Smart guy, tough. He is out here today.

"I asked him, 'Are you going to play special teams, or are you just going to try to be a receiver?' He said 'No, he is going to play.' I said 'Ok, we'll see,' Zimmer added. "That will be a big thing for him, too, is to learn how to play special teams. He has been impressive so far."

Zylstra said he's tried to soak up as much as possible being around pros such as Thielen and Stefon Diggs.

"It's been good, just learning how to study and kind of adapt to this pace and learn everybody's name," Zylstra said. "Really just build relationships right now and get a first look at the playbook."

"[I'm trying to] just learn from the older guys," Zylstra added. "These guys have obviously been around the league for a while, so I'm constantly asking questions and studying what they do. They obviously know because they are pros."

Wieneke, meanwhile, is fresh out of college and off a stellar career at South Dakota State.

The Maple Grove is the school and Missouri Valley Football Conference career record holder in receptions (288), receiving yards (5,157) and receiving touchdowns (59). He was named to at least one All-American team all four years of college, and was a First-Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference player each season for the Jackrabbits.

While the past few days have been a whirlwind as Wieneke adjusts to the pro game, he said he is glad to be along for the ride.

"It's been pretty special coming to the facility, meeting all the coaches and the players here for this minicamp this weekend," Wieneke said. "It's a beautiful day on a beautiful new field at a beautiful facility and we get to come out here and compete."

"And the speed at which everything happens … coming out of the huddle, you have to know exactly what you're doing, where you're lining up in a new offense that we just saw for the first time yesterday," Wieneke added. "It's definitely a lot, and you have to process things really fast and be ready to play."

Wieneke made a good impression on the Vikings brass by choosing to stay home, despite having multiple offers from other NFL teams.

"He's a great kid, he did a nice job in college. He has great size, catches well," Zimmer said. "He'll be good. He had other opportunities and he really wanted to come here. We always like those guys."

Of course, it helped that Wieneke's trek to Eagan earlier this week was a simple, 35-mile car ride down Interstate 494.

"It's a great feeling to know I'm right around the corner," Wieneke said. "I had to come down the street yesterday to get here while other people are flying in, so it's great to be at home and be with the Vikings.

"A lot of people were traveling all day, I kind of just hung out at the house all day with family and then came over an hour before," Wieneke added.

While both players are trying to carve out a role on their favorite teams as kids, they both also aren't shy about recalling favorite players and memories along the way.

"I was a huge Vikings fan, have been since I was in kindergarten," Zylstra said. "Everybody has heard it from Thielen before, but I grew up watching Randy Moss and Cris Carter, too. Randy Moss was my idol, and he's the one who inspired me to be a receiver."

Wieneke recalled Moss' lateral to Moe Williams in 2003 against the Broncos as a standout play. Now Wieneke sees tributes to the Hall of Fame wide receivers around the facility where he comes to work.

"Those are the guys that I grew up loving, and I had them up in my room and had their jerseys," Wieneke said. "To see them now here and be a part of their team, it's pretty special."

And both will continue to draw inspiration from Thielen, whom they now share a locker room with while hoping they can write their own special story.

"To have a chance to be in the NFL, and with the Vikings and my childhood favorite team … it's an awesome feeling, and I'm having a lot of fun," Wieneke said.

Added Zylstra: "It's been a dream come true for me so far. I just have to do what I can to make sure I'm around for longer than just a couple of months."

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