Before making the Vikings roster this week, receiver Brandon Zylstra declared to his mother, Marcia, that his peewee football career was just a first step toward playing on Sundays.
“One day he told me, ‘I’m going to be a professional football player someday,’ ” Marcia Zylstra recalled. “I said, ‘Yep, and that’s fine, but you probably should pick something else to do.’ He said, ‘Mom, you shouldn’t say that to me.’ Well look [at] it now.”
Long before his promotion to Vikings scout in June, Jake Essler was in the crowd of kids at training camp in Mankato seeking autographs when his father, Dan, made his own prediction.
“I remember telling Cris Carter one day, ‘Hopefully he’ll be out here,’ ” Dan Essler said. “Cris Carter did the roll your eyes thing, you know, but he’s just there in a different capacity.”
Now Brandon, 25, and Jake, 26, the former New London-Spicer High School schoolmates, are 100 miles east from their small hometown living dreams as up-and-coming members of the Vikings.
The Zylstra and Essler families have long been intertwined through their children and sports. Now support of Brandon and Jake’s achievements has brought a community of roughly 2,600 — not big enough to fill the bleachers at the Vikings’ new Eagan facility — even closer.
Also catalyzed is the bond of Brandon and Jake’s friendship, which began as football, basketball and track teammates and persevered through each’s winding path to the Vikings, including football at Division III Minnesota colleges and, for Zylstra, a stop in the Canadian Football League where he led the league in receiving yards before latching on with his first NFL club.
When they get a chance to breathe during 12-hour workdays in Eagan, they take in a surreal moment that also includes NL-S graduate and close friend Alexa Score, a part-time Vikings social media correspondent.
“I’ve mentioned that to him before, along with Alexa Score who is in the facility,” Brandon Zylstra said. “Three people who are from a small school, small town of Spicer. It’s pretty cool to see.”
First football title
Nearly a decade before Brandon and Jake brought Spicer, Minn., to the Vikings, they helped bring state championships in football and basketball to NL-S High School during the 2009-10 season.
Brandon, then a junior receiver, and Jake, a senior running back, were key players in a major upset that prevented reigning powerhouse Glencoe-Silver Lake from its fourth consecutive Class 3A state title. A fourth-quarter comeback vaulted their Wildcats to a 28-21 win for NL-S’s first and only football championship to date.
“It was a pretty big deal,” Jake Essler recalled. “About eight to 10 years before that, they were pretty bad teams coming through. We kept on getting better year after year, had made it to state the year before and we won it that year.”
It was Zylstra’s breakout game, said Dan Essler, the Wildcats head football coach, as the upset of Glencoe-Silver Lake foreshadowed what would come for his son.
“I think everybody expected them to win like they had the three years previously,” Dan Essler said.
After the Wildcats’ run-first philosophy stalled in the game, quarterback Jayme Moten willed coaches to spread out the offense and throw. Then Zylstra saw something.
“They’re not covering me on the hitch route,” Zylstra said on the sideline. “I was subbing in every other play, running plays in. I ran a hitch route, it worked. Came back to it two plays later, ran it again. Came back to it two plays later, we ran it again. So, it was three for three.”
So began the Wildcats’ comeback win after trailing 21-12 in the fourth quarter.
A ‘co-mingling’ of families
The hard way was the only way for Zylstra and Essler.
Coming from a small lakes community, neither player attracted Division I programs that populate the NFL radars. Both played college football for Division III programs: Zylstra at Concordia College in Moorhead and Essler at St. John’s just west of St. Cloud. Concussion concerns pushed Essler toward coaching, while Zylstra persisted toward his goal of playing in the NFL.
Hardships came after college. Zylstra played in the CFL and racked up airline miles from taking part in the NFL regional combine in Arizona to flying from tryout to tryout. Essler grinded through entry-level coaching jobs at St. John’s and University of Minnesota-Duluth. Then a Vikings internship turned into a full-time scouting job this summer.
Through the most uncertain years, the Spicer group — including Score, who was a professional wakeboarder in Orlando, Fla., at the time — kept in touch by texting and FaceTime.
Whenever Essler didn’t work late nights at UMD, he’d watch Zylstra’s Edmonton Eskimos games on his phone. Score also watched from afar as both of her childhood friends ascended in football.
Score recalled a note Essler left in Zylstra’s high school locker one day that read “100 catches a day keeps the drops away.”
“Brandon kept the note through all these years,” Score said.
While a UMD coach, Essler still texted Zylstra advice after his CFL games.
“I’m sure his coaching up there was a lot better than anything I could say anyways,” Essler said.
Critique is comfortable coming from someone who is more like family. Six Zylstra and Essler boys — four Zylstra brothers and two Essler brothers — are connected through high school sports. Brandon’s older brother, Justin, was friends with Essler and in the same graduating class that produced both football and basketball state titles as seniors.
Their younger brothers, Shane Zylstra and Adam Essler, also played on the same football and basketball teams.
“It’s just a co-mingling of families in a small community where everybody helps each other out and everybody sticks together,” Marcia Zylstra said.
One Sunday in August, Marcia and Vonn Zylstra were at a local Spicer church when an older woman approached them, having seen photos of the Zylstra family in No. 15 shirts. She wanted to know where she could buy one.
“She’s like, where do you get them? I want one,” Marcia Zylstra said. “I bet we could sell 500 of them around here.”
There’s a good chance they have already.
Somebody later told Marcia they tried to buy a custom No. 15 shirt, but they were sold out. So people “are making their own custom shirts and buying Zylstra jerseys,” said Score, who returned to Spicer last weekend.
Even in a town where everybody knows everybody, there’s always someone surprising the Zylstra’s with support for their son.
“I can’t even remember who it was,” Marcia Zylstra said. “It’s people you don’t even expect.”
All three — Brandon, Jake and Alexa — get plenty of attention when they go back to Spicer. Zylstra returns for summer workouts with kids at New London-Spicer High School, where his youngest brother, Jayden, is a 15-year-old sophomore.
Even when Zylstra, Essler and Score go back to work for the Vikings, their hometown follows by sending their parents every update they can find.
“People are texting them about me, giving them updates and sending them interviews and all that stuff,” Zylstra said. “I was like how do you think I feel now? Because I have twice as much of that coming my way. It’s all good, everybody is excited.”
And everybody is watching to see what they do next.