MANKATO, Minn. —From the northwestern city of Detroit Lakes to Caledonia in the southeast corner, the respective hometowns of Adam Thielen and Isaac Fruechte bookend 360 miles of corn fields, landscapes and cityscapes with football fields.
Thielen and Fruechte are two of seven Minnesota natives on the Vikings roster as camp opens, nearly double the four last year and a sign that Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Head Coach Mike Zimmer have been pleased by the homegrown talent rooted in Minnesota.
"Most of those kids that you get out of [Minnesota] are tough, hard-nosed, passionate football players that love to play the game," Spielman said.
The longest-tenured of the homegrown players is Marcus Sherels. A native of Rochester, Sherels' journey is a Cinderella story that's lasted several quarters past midnight. The cornerback worked his way from a walk-on to a full-time starter as a junior and senior at the University of Minnesota and received a chance from the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2010. After 15 weeks on the practice squad, Sherels made his NFL debut on Jan. 2, 2011.
Sherels has found a home on the Vikings roster as a special teams standout. In 2013, he set a team record with a season punt return average of 15.2 yards, snapping David Palmer's 1995 record by 2.0 yards per return. In 2015, Sherels ranked seventh in the league for punt return average.
Besides his role as a punt returner, Sherels also has proven himself to be effective in the opposite scenario. Sherels is a talented gunner, quickly running down the sidelines to tackle an opponent's returner.
Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said Sherels' success on the field is a testament to his work ethic and preparation.
"He knows how to prepare for the game and for the opponent," Priefer said when the Vikings re-signed Sherels. "He's extremely coachable, and he's gotten better every year that we've been together.
"He's just one of those young men that you enjoy coaching because you can see the results of all his hard work and what he's accomplished in his career," Priefer added.
Sherels' stat sheet certainly reflects that hard work. After the 2015 season, his resume included a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown at Chicago. The play gave Sherels a franchise-record third punt return for a touchdown, and it played a key role in the Vikings 23-20 victory over the Bears, their first win at Soldier Field since 2007.
Sherels wasn't the only hometown hero to make a splash on special teams in 2015.
Thielen helped the Vikings close the regular season with a win against Border Battle rival Green Bay in a series he loved to watch during his youth. This time, others saw him take a fake punt and rush 41 yards to set up Minnesota's first score.
"Growing up, that was always the biggest game to watch," Thielen said. "Now being on [this] side of it, it's still a huge game.
"Coaches put me in a good position, we got the perfect look we wanted, and the guys up front did a great job blocking," Thielen said. "I didn't have to do a whole lot – just run."
Thielen is equally determined when it comes to blocking for teammates, as exemplified during Cordarrelle Patterson's 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Oakland last season.
"Adam is a tough guy," Zimmer said. "He's a guy that's not going to miss, he's going to keep fighting, going to keep playing. He's dependable.
"Adam does an awful lot of stuff," Zimmer added. "And most all of the stuff that he does, he does it well."
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has also taken note of Thielen's skill set and work ethic, and he said that Thielen has played a bigger role each training camp and made progress each season.
"Adam's a guy who plays with a chip on his shoulder," Bridgewater told media following Sunday's walk-through. "I asked him a question coming out of the locker room the other day, 'How many stars did he have coming out of high school,' and he said he had 'NR' next to his name. He comes from here, Minnesota State University, Mankato, he's a Minnesota resident, so it means a lot to him to wear the purple and gold."
Thielen, like Sherels, joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent and jump-started an NFL career on special teams, but their performances have also led to additional opportunities on the field and in their home state.
Sherels has tallied 76 tackles (62 solo) on defense during his five-season career, and Thielen has garnered more snaps at wide receiver each season. In 2015, he made 12 catches for 144 yards.
Zimmer seeks out hard-working, blue-collar players to fill the locker room. He's found those qualities in Sherels and Thielen, who have five other Minnesotan teammates: Carter Bykowski (Eden Prairie), Fruechte (Caledonia), C.J. Ham (Duluth), Brian Leonhardt (Spring Lake Park) and Terrell Sinkfield (Minnetonka).
Bykowski was signed off the 49ers practice squad in December 2014. Fruechte joined the Vikings prior to the 2015 season. Bykowski was placed on injured reserve, and Fruechte held a spot on the practice squad a year ago.
Vikings fan Paul Vold hails from Byron, Minnesota, a 45-minute drive from Caledonia, and has followed Fruechte's football journey since high school. Vold attended the 2015 Vikings training camp in a custom-ordered Fruechte jersey and said he most enjoys supporting the Minnesota players.
"It's great to have more Minnesota guys on the team," Vold said. "It's nice to be able to root for some hometown kids."
This time around, Vold also will be able to root for Sinkfield, Ham and Leonhardt in Mankato.
Sinkfield joined the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in April 2013 and spent time with two other teams – Green Bay and Buffalo – before being waived by the Giants on Aug. 25, 2013. He then played in the Canadian Football League.
Leonhardt signed as a free agent in March, and Ham signed with the Vikings in May as an undrafted free agent. They are excited for the opportunity to take the field for Minnesota.
"It's nice to have hometown guys [on the roster]," Leonhardt said. "Believe me – being from Minnesota, it's awesome to play [here], being home with my family and with the team that I've grown up with and loved since I was little."
Although he grew up cheering for the Vikings with his father, who was "religious about watching Vikings games," this year's training camp is Leonhardt's first time in Mankato. The tight end said he has an established fan base of family and friends who will join the thousands of other Vikings fans in their purple pilgrimage to the small town.
"It's nice to be able to play for the home team," Leonhardt said. "It's an exciting time for Vikings fans, Vikings players and the State of Minnesota itself."