On the final weekend before the NFL enters the most dormant phase of its calendar, the Vikings’ Eagan headquarters is a hotbed for local youth football players.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer hosted the first of two days of youth camps in the team’s field house on Saturday, welcoming 350 kids from first through eighth grade for his foundation’s third annual event. Zimmer will have a different group of 350 kids at the facility on Sunday for another day of the free camp.
And on Saturday afternoon, receiver Adam Thielen brought around 80 high school skill position players from across Minnesota to TCO Stadium in Eagan, hosting an elite camp as part of his charitable foundation.
Thielen will have a group of 250 youth players at the facility on Sunday afternoon, hours after Zimmer’s camp concludes.
The coach’s camp, which was one of the first events Zimmer’s foundation held after it launched in 2016, has grown in popularity each year. Last year, all the spots in the camp were claimed within the first several hours they were available to the public; this year, the camp took just 26 minutes to sell out, Zimmer said.
“One of the kids came up to me and said this is his third camp; he’s been here every year,” Zimmer said. “The fact we can promote football, sports in general and healthy living in the Twin Cities, and the state of Minnesota, it’s good.”
Zimmer launched his foundation with his children to honor his late wife Vikki, who died unexpectedly in 2009. The camp, the coach has said, would have been one of his wife’s favorite events of the year; it will end Sunday on what would have been her 60th birthday.
“It’s really special,” said Zimmer’s daughter Corri, who directs her father’s foundation. “She always gave back, especially with kids, too, and I think this would really mean a lot to her.”
After launching his camp last year with players from ages 6 to 16, Thielen split the event into two different stages, allowing him to work with high schoolers in a more detailed setting before opening things up to younger kids on Sunday.
His foundation invited a number of top-end skill players from around the state, before opening the camp up to high schoolers from across Minnesota to work with the All-Pro receiver and coaches from ETS Performance, the training company in which Thielen and his wife Caitlin are partners. Vikings pro scout Reed Burckhardt, who first scouted Thielen while he was at Minnesota State-Mankato, was on the field Saturday helping with the receiver’s camp.
It was modeled somewhat after a camp former Vikings quarterback Brooks Bollinger hosted for quarterbacks and receivers, which Thielen attended while playing for Detroit Lakes.
“I want these guys to get a lot better, to what their specific position is,” Thielen said. “Tomorrow’s going to be more about having fun and enjoying being with them. There’ll be a ton of kids, so it’ll be chaos, but it’ll be a lot of fun.”
The receiver’s path to NFL stardom — from Detroit Lakes to Minnesota State-Mankato and then to a rookie camp tryout — is well-known by this point, and makes Thielen something of a standard for Minnesota high schoolers who hope they can follow in his footsteps.
It’s also stirred up Thielen’s desire to invest in young players, either through the gyms he’s opened in Lakeville and Woodbury or the elite camp he hopes will grow in coming years.
“I get that quite a bit [from high schoolers in the area],” he said. “That’s why I’m kind of excited about this camp today. It’s so fun for me to share my knowledge; I enjoy doing it on the professional level with other receivers that are on our team. It’s something that comes natural for me. I love to teach the game, I love to teach things that have helped me, and I love learning. It’s been great for me this offseason, because I’ve learned a lot from Coach [Gary] Kubiak, because he’s been around the league so long. I try to be on both sides of that.”
Does Thielen have aspirations of coaching once he’s retired?
“I think at some level, for sure,” he said. “I don’t know if that will be five-year-old kids or college and pro guys. The time commitment could be tough when I’m retired, and want to spend time with family, but I definitely want to be around the game and around kids in general.”