Perhaps you’ve heard a few thousand times that Vikings receiver Adam Thielen went to a Division II school?
Yes, it is quite the story. But look around the NFL and you’ll find that Mr. Mankato is but the lead chapter being written by Division II players on NFL teams with winning records.
In Detroit on Sunday, Seahawks receiver David Moore posted his fourth touchdown in three games with a juggling grab in a 28-14 upset win over the Lions. Quarterback Russell Wilson has targeted the second-year pro from East Central (Mo.) 14 times with 11 completions, a 20.1 average and a TD percentage of .364.
This Sunday, the NFL’s game of the week is the undefeated Rams (8-0) at New Orleans, 6-1 and winners of six in a row.
The Rams go in with four Division II players on their active roster: All-Pro kicker Greg Zuerlein (Missouri Western), special teams workhorse Marqui Christian (Midwestern State, Texas), backup defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks (West Texas A&M) and linebacker Matt Longacre (Northwest Missouri State), who started in Sunday’s win over the Packers.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs head to Cleveland with Tyreek Hill, the most electric player in the league and a D-II product from West Alabama. The Browns will counter with the usual Cleveland chaos less than a week after becoming the first NFL team to fire its head coach this season.
Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were let go on Monday. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has the Browns leading the league in takeaways with 22, was promoted to interim coach six days before he faces the highest-scoring team in the league, and six years after a yearlong NFL suspension for being the central figure in the Saints’ infamous Bountygate scandal.
Only two games this week feature two teams with winning records. Besides Rams-Saints, the Chargers (5-2) come off their bye with a game at Seattle (4-3).
Moore won’t be the only D-II headliner at receiver in that game. The Chargers have Western Oregon’s Tyrell Williams, who is averaging 21.4 yards with four touchdowns on 20 catches. Los Angeles also has running back Austin Ekeler of Western State (Colo.), who has 305 yards rushing, a 5.8-yard average and three receiving touchdowns in 19 catches.
According to the NCAA, the 2018 NFL season opened with 83 Division II players either on active rosters, practice squads or injured reserve. That was down from 90 at the start of the 2017 season.
“Each week, looking at scouting reports, I’ll look to see where guys went to school,” said Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, a D-II guy from Augustana. “It’s not often there’s one of us out there on a different team making plays.”
Thielen obviously has become the modern-day shining example of what can await a well-grounded, hardworking and athletically gifted D-II player. But there were others long before Thielen was even born.
“I know going to Augie, I think we had four NFL players that people knew about,” Ham said. “So I knew it wasn’t as far-fetched as people think. People automatically think you got to go D-I to make it to the NFL. That opened my eyes that if I did succeed at the D-II level there was a chance for me, too.”
In 1995, the Jaguars drafted Augustana linebacker Bryan Schwartz in the second round. He played five seasons. Offensive lineman Corbin Lacina played 11 years, including 1999 through 2002 with the Vikings. And safety Kevin Kaesviharn played nine NFL seasons with five teams.
“I knew I wanted to play in the NFL,” Ham said. “But, at the time, I also was just trying to get an education first.”
Vikings receiver Brandon Zylstra started out at Augustana and dropped down to Division III Concordia-Moorhead before rising to CFL stardom and following Thielen’s path as a Vikings special teamer.
“I didn’t tell a lot of people about my dream until I was a junior or senior in college,” Zylstra said. “But you see other guys do it, so I always knew that if you work hard and stay disciplined, good things will come from it.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org