MANKATO – The best nights of training camp, for Adam Thielen, were always the Saturday practices: The ones where fans packed the hill in the southeast end zone of Blakeslee Stadium as the sun descended behind the west bleachers.
These were the nights when the air crackled with possibility, when Thielen could again race down the field that made him — indeed, the one that’s been there for him long after college.
“Every time we play out here, it reminds me of the homecoming games we played in that stadium,” Thielen said. “How many memories we had and how many games we won in that stadium.”
Would this have happened anywhere else? Would a rookie camp tryout in, say, Houston have put Thielen on a path to first make a team’s practice squad, then its 53-man roster and eventually become its highest-paid receiver? Sure, it’s possible — and Thielen, as much of a self-made man as there is in the NFL, might have been the one to pull it off somewhere else. But even he isn’t so sure.
“If I was with a different team, no one would have had any idea who I was when I was a rookie,” he said. “Here, I had people who watched me in college. I had reporters that wanted the feel-good story.
“When you’re coming into training camp, there’s not a whole lot that is familiar. When you can grab something from it, it keeps you calm and helps you just play football.”
As the Vikings depart Minnesota State Mankato this week, ending their 52nd and final training camp in Mankato, there’s likely no player who will have as heartfelt a goodbye as Thielen. He posted the second-most receptions in Minnesota State history, tying a school record with 74 catches as a senior while the Mavericks made a stirring NCAA Division II playoff run under interim head coach Aaron Keen in the wake of coach Todd Hoffner’s suspension.
Then, after turning a rookie camp tryout into a training camp roster spot, Thielen returned to his alma mater, beginning his NFL career on a stroke of good fortune that cast the fringe prospect as a camp protagonist.
“I can’t remember [anyone else in other training camps] that was a hometown hero kind of guy,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
Supportive fans cheered each one of the acrobatic catches that helped Thielen build momentum in the summer of 2013. Each day, Mankato-based reporters asked then-coach Leslie Frazier about Thielen’s progress, eliciting a string of plaudits for the receiver.
“At first, you kind of think it might be a bias,” said Claire Dau, the sports director for Mankato-based KEYC-TV. “You wonder if you’re blinded when you watch him on the field. You think that maybe you’re hyping it up in your head, and then each year, he progresses more and more.”
And by 2014, when Thielen was putting together another strong camp in an effort to make the roster after a year on the Vikings’ practice squad, he’d been given a catchy moniker: Mr. Mankato.
The name came from the first iteration of 1500 ESPN’s radio bit, looking for the player who would shine in training camp (and ostensibly burn out once the regular season arrived). But Thielen’s success, and his baked-in support at training camp, made him an enduring symbol for camp long shots.
“When I was early in my career, I really followed Twitter, seeing what people were saying about me,” Thielen said. “I definitely saw them talking about Mr. Mankato and all that. It was fun for me to have a little bit of extra support from outside people. I definitely helped me build confidence, that’s for sure.”
He was the Vikings’ leading receiver a year ago, and after signing a four-year, $22 million deal this spring, he is now their highest-paid wideout. Thielen often returns to campus, and an adoring public, for the Mavericks’ spring game, or when the Vikings have a bye week. His wife, Caitlin, played soccer at Minnesota State; “They’re kind of Mankato’s power couple,” Dau said. And at Blakeslee Stadium in the fall, there are Thielen jerseys in two shades of purple and gold: his No. 9 from Minnesota State, and his No. 19 with the Vikings.
The days of Thielen himself on the Mankato fields, however, are about to end. He turned a four-year career into five summers of extra homecomings that became the backdrop for an unlikely rise to NFL renown.
Even if there would have been another path to this point for Thielen, it wouldn’t have been the same.
“I’m just fortunate that, looking back on it, those things kind of went my way early in camp,” he said, “because I think it could’ve easily gone the other way.”