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Thielen Relishes Memories, Final Mankato Night Practice

MANKATO, Minn. — Adam Thielen will put on a Purple jersey and pads tonight and make the familiar walk into Blakeslee Stadium.

He'll glance around and soak in the memories, whether it was a clutch touchdown catch or a thrilling double overtime playoff win in his senior season.

Yet as Thielen, a 2013 graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, recalls how his life evolved in this stadium, the memories will also be a tad bittersweet.

Saturday is scheduled to be the final night practice in Mankato by the Vikings. The organization is nearing the end of its 52nd season in the community and plans to move training camp to their new headquarters in Eagan starting next summer.

"I don't know if it will be emotional, I'm just going to take advantage of it," Thielen said. "It is going to be my last opportunity to have a game-like situation in Blakeslee Stadium. I've got a lot of great memories in that stadium, so hopefully this will add to it."

Thielen isn't wrong about racking up the memories.

He played for the Mavericks from 2009-2012 (after redshirting in 2008) and ranks second all-time in program history in receptions (192) and third overall in receiving yards (2,674).

Mankato went 38-11 in his four seasons and reached the Division-II national title game when Thielen was a senior in 2012.

The Minnesota native joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and spent that season on the practice squad. He made the 53-man roster in 2014 and contributed on special teams before becoming a standout in that phase in 2015.

But his breakout season came in 2016 when he led the Vikings in receiving yards with 967 while adding 69 catches and five touchdowns.

Thielen said earlier this week that going from Mankato to the Vikings and then back to Mankato for training camp in 2013 essentially allowed him to be himself.

He knew the facilities and the atmosphere, and was able to make a name for himself on the team he grew up rooting for as a kid in Detroit Lakes.

"I tell people all the time that if I were with a different team, nobody would have had any idea who I was when I was a rookie," Thielen said. "Here I had people that had watched me in college. There were reporters that wanted that feel-good story and things like that, so it was obviously great to have that support. I had family come down and watch practice, so that support was obviously felt and definitely helped me get through camp and ultimately make the team.

"When you're coming into training camp, there's not a whole lot that is familiar. When you can kind of grab something from it that is familiar, it kind of keeps you calm and helps you just play football," Thielen added. "It was nice for me to come out here and be familiar with the practice fields, the game field … at least have something to kind of relax me and let me just go out there and have fun."

And with such a fine line between making the team and being a free agent, Thielen said it was a few catches early in his first camp then sent his confidence soaring.

Without them, Thielen noted, he might not be in the position he is now.

"Looking back early on, the plays I was able to make (were important)," Thielen said. "I remember making diving catches to start off training camp and that just kind of gave me confidence and kind of jolted me into having the ability to make the team.

"It's a tough league, and when things go right for you, you can build on that and gain confidence from that, and ultimately it can help you in the long run. It can (also) go the other way," Thielen added. "I'm just fortunate that those things kind of went my way early in camp because I think it could have easily gone the other way." 

Thielen's rise from practice squad player to someone who was one of the league's most consistent receivers in 2016 hasn't gone unnoticed by many, including Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. 

"He's worked really hard. He just makes plays when he gets opportunities. That's why he continued to get more opportunities (in 2016)," Zimmer said. "He's a good route runner, uses his hands well and he's tough. He can do a lot of dirty jobs.

"He's a really good athlete, but his competitiveness allows him to overcome some of his other things he doesn't have," Zimmer added.

But there's something special about Blakeslee Stadium that Thielen cherishes.

Especially when the whole stadium is full and more fans are crammed around the outskirts, trying to get a glimpse of the Vikings lone night practice of training camp.

"There's nothing better than that crowd, all those people just supporting us. It feels like a game, honestly, and it actually feels more intense than some of the games because people are right on top of you (and) they're excited about the season," Thielen said. "It gets amplified a little bit. Practice is a little more intense, people are faster, and it just prepares you for those preseason games and ultimately games in the season.

 "I remember homecoming games are the same way. People are up on the hill, it's a completely packed stadium. Just the atmosphere, you felt like you have that adrenaline that you get when you're in those big games and big-time situations," Thielen said. "It just brings back so many memories when you get the field packed like that. When the field is packed and the lights are coming on and the sun is going down, you feel like you're going to play a game."

Thielen's life has certainly changed since he wore No. 9 for the Mavericks.

Besides blossoming into a bona fide NFL receiver, No. 19 for the Vikings and his wife Caitlin (whom he met while going to school in Mankato) have a son, Asher, who was born in October. Thielen also signed a multi-year contract extension with the Vikings this offseason that ensures him stability.

But for one more night at least, Thielen will be surrounded by the familiar sights and sounds of Blakeslee Stadium, a place the Mavericks went a whopping 22-4 during Thielen's tenure in Mankato.

It's also where he started his growth as a player and person. 

"It's going to be cool. It's going to be one last chance for me to play and practice where really got me here," Thielen said. "Every time we play out there it reminds me of homecoming games we played in that stadium and how many memories we had and how many games we won.

"There's not too many games we lost in that stadium," Thielen added. "It'll be fun to get back out there one last time."

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